The present interest in Steampunk makes research into things Victorian quite popular. There are quite a few websites about both Victorian and Steampunk topics. But nearly every one I have found is quite generalized, pulling a few facts from various places, but not going into depth on the topics I'm the most interested in. Since I want to know about the daily nitty-gritty of Victorian life, I started looking up the books these websites use as references, and was overjoyed to find that many of them are available, free, digitized on the internet.
I'll begin by discussing good places to download copies of books that were actually published in the 1800s--absolutely free. There are several sites I use constantly for finding real Victorian work on the internet.
Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/)
This site makes public domain works of all sorts available either to read online or download in various formats (epub, mobi, etc.). The books are digitized and the scans proofread by volunteers and then put up on the site, free for anyone who would like to download them. As epubs are much smaller files than pdf files of scanned books, I'll occasionally download these to read on my tablet or smart phone.
But even the best proofread scan often has errors. For research, I prefer to download pdfs of scans of the actual books. There are two places to get many of these.
Internet Archive (https://archive.org/)
This amazing archive has huge amounts of material, not all of it (of course) Victorian. For example, I filled up far too much hard drive space downloading old issues of early science fiction magazines from the Internet Archive. But what I've found extremely useful are the books available in various formats. I generally download the pdf, but they are usually available in epub and other formats as well. The caveat I have for these is that often the other formats seem to be raw OCR of the scans, with errors introduced. However, with a pdf copy of an actual scan of the book, unless something is wrong with it (missing pages, torn places, tight binding, etc.), you can read it just as it was printed, over 100 years ago. I never click on the link for the pdf, for then it takes a long time to load megabytes of data as a pdf into my browser, and I'll just need to save it off from there once it downloads. Instead, I right click on the link and click "save link as" on the menu that comes up. When I save the pdf to my hard drive, I change the file's name to include the author, title, and usually the date it was published, as all that information is useful in my research.
Google Books (books.google.com)
The other place I can often find ebooks of old books is Google Books. When you find a book that has been scanned by Google, hover over (don't click on) the orange box that says "EBOOK - FREE" on the upper left side of that book's web page. When the menu comes up, under "Read the book for FREE" is the link for "Download PDF." Click on this, enter the captcha, and you can download the pdf of the book to your hard drive. I've found that the scanning quality of these is sometimes iffy. One of my favorites is when the page is pulled away before it's completely scanned, so all you get is a blur. Also, occasionally you'll find a place where a person has scanned their hand along with the pages.
Something to be aware of when checking a search engine for a book title. Sometimes the book is available on more than one page for Google Books. The first one you click on may say "No ebook available," while another one lower in the list may have the ebook. So keep looking!
HathiTrust Digital Library (http://www.hathitrust.org/)
Another place that occasionally has books that can't be found in one of the other places is the HathiTrust Digital Library. When you click on Full View for a book, it loads the pdf and you can read it. To download it, unfortunately, you must have a "partner login."
How do I discover books I want to download? Often I'll read modern books or web pages discussing what I'm interested in. If, in the text, a title and author is mentioned, I jump on that immediately. For example, I was reading a modern book about Victorian housing, and found a mention of "The Plumber and Sanitary Houses" by Samuel Stevens Hellyer. I instantly put that into my search engine, and found, to my delight, that Google Books had the entire volume scanned and ready for me to download. (http://books.google.com/books?id=7KIJAAAAIAAJ&pg=PP9&lpg=PP9&dq=#v=onepage&q&f=false). It is also available on the Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/plumbersanitaryh00hell). If books are available in both Google Books and the Internet Archive, I sometimes download the book I'm interested from both places, to see which scan is best, or if they are different editions of the book. (In this case, the Internet Archive scan is rather light, and the Google Books scan has someone's hands scanned on most of the pages, but between the two I could get the information I needed.)
In later articles I'll discuss (and include links for) other delightful books I have found, and how they are useful in research. Reading books written in the period, steeping yourself in the way people thought and wrote, is great fun. Getting little details (like I wanted when researching Victorian plumbing) can add a lot of verisimilitude to either Steampunk cosplay or writing.
Julia H. West's latest book is Mind Bridges, a collection of short fiction available as an ebook or in paperback from Amazon.com.