There’s not really a right way or a wrong way to look for open-access digital facsimiles of early printed books. But here’s my way of proceeding (a quick note: this is only about looking for images of texts, not transcriptions or editions of them):
- Make sure you know what you’re looking for. Find a catalog record from a good special collections library and make sure you know the full imprint with printers, publishers, and date, whether it’s the first or second or whatevereth edition, and if there are any bibliographic citations given.
- My first stop is always at a union catalog, since many of those link to digitizations and to libraries that hold the book. For English books, you’re likely going to go to the ESTC (although their links to OA copies are still pretty sparse). For European books, especially from the 15th and 16th centuries, you might go to USTC first. Other union catalogs like EDIT16 and VD16 etc are also worth checking in addition, since USTC doesn’t always list as many digital copies as they do. (Here, I have a list of relevant catalogs for you.)
- Does the catalog have links to open-access facsimiles? CONGRATS! (Don’t be fooled by the plethora of links to EEBO and ECCO; unless you have a subscription, those aren’t of help.) If you’re still looking, or if you’re greedy and you want more copies, the search continues…
- Does the catalog list holdings institutions? These are other libraries that have at least one copy of the text you’re looking for. Scan the list and see if there are any likely candidates on it for having imaged it. Go to that library, find their digital collection or their catalog record, and see if a digital copy is there. (Again, beware of the fad of including paid databases as entries as if you could access them.) You might want to try just a few or you might want to try all of them, depending on how likely you think it is that they have a digitization. (How do you find these libraries? Well, searching and navigating websites. Sorry. They’re not always so easy to work out.)
- Still looking? Next up, try one of the big aggregators, like the Biodiversity Heritage Library, or HathiTrust, or Internet Archive, or DPLA. You might also want to try Google Books (beware of metadata issues) and Europeana (beware of its search interface). (Here, I have a list of early modern digital collections for you, with links to and info on all of these.)
- STILL looking? Sometimes I have luck just googling or binging the darn thing, but it’s usually a last resort, since you get so much static.
- No luck? Sorry! But it’s not too surprising. There’s a lot of stuff that hasn’t been imaged. Maybe if it’s held at a library where you know the staff, you can ask them to image it. Some places are pretty responsive to user requests, others less so. But you’ll never know if you don’t ask (nicely!). Finally, you can submit it to the digitization wishlist and maybe someone will respond there.
Sometimes I go to aggregators before catalogs, sometimes I mix things up in other ways. But this is my basic toolbox. Do you have other tricks? Additional methods for searching for digital facsimiles of early printed texts are welcome in the comments!