How to use Amazon as a Research Tool

By Jonymamilou, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A while back, someone on Twitter recommended a book to me that traces the evolution of Arthur, Guinevere and Mordred as characters. Naturally, I thought this would compliment my research nicely. The only down side was that it was selling on Amazon for $268. I don’t have that kind of money to spend on a single book, much less one I don’t know if I will like. Luckily, I remembered the interlibrary loan system from the public library and was able to get the needed information right from the book’s page on Amazon, and a few weeks later, the book is mine (at least for three weeks, then I have to return it.) That was when it hit me that Amazon is a great research tool, one I’d been using for years without realizing it.

We all know Amazon is a great place to buy books (I’ve gotten some great rare titles from their seemingly endless list), but it can also help you to:

  1. Know what else is out there – In many ways, Amazon’s catalogue is like a giant research database. A simple search can tell you what’s been written in your area of interest, and since they sell used books as well, you may come across some that are out of print or otherwise hard to find. And sometimes, finding a helpful book by an author can open you up to other things they’ve written (For example, Joan Alcock’s Food in Roman Britain led me to her Daily Life of the Pagan Celts). And because Amazon serves up books similar to the one you’re looking at, you don’t even have to try to find related items. Its search engine can also help if you’re thinking about writing a book. Who else has written on that subject? Is your book title/pen name taken? Has someone already written a book very similar to your idea? All questions that can be answered with a quick search.
  2. Make interlibrary loans easier – I love libraries. You can save a ton of money by using them instead of buying all your research, but sometimes the library just doesn’t have what you need or you exhaust their offerings quickly. This is especially the case in niche areas like mine. Enter the interlibrary loan system. I’ve only ever lived in one state, but I think all U.S. public libraries (and many college libraries) have this service. At my library, all you have to do to request a book you can’t find is go to their web site, click on the interlibrary loan form, fill it out, and they do the searching and shipping for you. But you have to have certain key information, like the ISBN number and place and date of publication. I’m sure there are other ways to find it online, but if the book is on Amazon, all that information is in one place. You just have to copy/paste into the form. If you haven’t tried an interlibrary loan, do it. You’ll be amazed what they can find and where it comes from. All you have to do is pick up the book, take good care of it and return it on time.
  3. Judge what to buy – Of course, no discussion of Amazon would be complete without talking about purchasing books. Their “look inside” feature is great if you’re questioning the usefulness of a book. User reviews are also helpful, although sometimes I question how much some of the people actually read before reviewing.

Some people may say this isn’t a fair use of the site because you’re not purchasing anything from them. It’s a valid point. But I can tell you from my own experience that having used Amazon for other things has made it a “go-to” site for me and I’m a more frequent purchaser because I’m familiar with the site and its offerings.

Note: I was not paid, or even asked, to write this blog post. This is purely my opinion and experience. I have no association to Amazon or any of its affiliates other than being a customer.

How have you used Amazon to help in your writing or in searching for books? Are there other non-traditional ways you’ve found to do research? I’d love to hear what’s worked for you.

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