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During a vacation to Thailand last year, American traveller Neil Chamberlain indulged in a time-honoured tradition – reading books while lounging on the beach.

But rather than borrow paperbacks from his hotel, Chamberlain turned on his iPhone, fired up a mobile app and downloaded a few free books, such as Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent,

Lugging books to the beach is so 2007. It's time to gear up with the right tech and turn your smartphone, e-reader or tablet computer into the universal library it was destined to be. Using a few websites or apps, you can quickly load up on books that are completely free because they are in the "public domain", meaning they slipped out of copyright (usually many decades after the work has been published).

Digital e-readers first won travellers over as a way to tote around great reads without having to carry a stack of guidebooks, travelogues and novels. But increasingly travellers are appreciating a secondary benefit of the mini machines with massive memories – best known by the standard bearers of Amazon's Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook and Apple's iPad 2. These devices have brought eclipsed authors and classic texts back into circulation, millions of which have been digitised and are available as free or cheap downloads.

For travellers, one of the most relevant uses of public domain books is to find historical perspectives on the destination they're visiting. For example, the peripatetic blogger couple Claire van den Heever and Iain Manley used their Kindle to collect free travelogues, one of which led them to the grave of 19th-century French explorer Henri Mouhot outside Luang Prabang in Laos.

"Mouhot travelled through Laos entirely by elephant.” van den Heever said. “He slept in the jungle during the monsoon and was assaulted by 'myriads of mosquitoes', 'legions of ox-flies', 'fleas so minute as to be almost invisible', as well as leeches, which sucked his blood with 'wonderful avidity'. He died of malaria during the journey, and was buried beside the Nam Khan River by his servants, who arranged for his journals to be sent back to France. The last entry reads, 'Have pity on me, oh my God!'"

"Mahout's journals are just one example of how reading the descriptions of travellers past can remind you of how much a place has changed and how much travel has changed,” she added. "In these out-of-print works, we've found a way to better understand where we are and why.”

There are several online sources for free, public domain books of all kinds. Just log on, download in a relevant format, such as .mobi for a Kindle or EPUB for a smart phone, and start reading instantly.

Project Gutenberg and Archive.org are the two main online repositories of downloadable texts. The files can be read on any device.

Google Books lists nearly three million free e-books, which can be browsed by clicking on its Free Classics shelf and can be read on most devices, except for Kindles that aren't the KindleFire. As of December, Google eBooks also supports offline reading in the Google Chrome browser. So before you go on a trip, you can download a book to your laptop or your Chromebook and then read it offline. First you need to install the free Google Books app and the Chrome Internet browser.

Intriguingly, eBookFling is a service that lets you swap e-books made for Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook for free. You can trade books with another user for up to 14 days, with a cap on the number of books shared at any time. When you lend one of your books, you earn credits toward borrowing someone else's book for free. You can also pay for access to enhanced book-swapping privileges.

Wattpad is the most downloaded e-book app (Android and iPhone/iPad, free) and has more than 100,000 free e-books available for downloading, mostly light fiction.

The British Library has digitised more than 1,000 of its 19th-century novels and nonfiction works and made them available on Apple devices via a free app. The "high culture" listings include 200-year-old travelogues, such as Intimate China by Alicia E Neva Bewicke.

Van den Heever and Manley have collected several other examples of public domain travelogues, with extracts, on their blog Old World Wandering, which also covers their recent journeys across the globe. The authors link to the original source files, which can usually be read on any device.

Sean O'Neill is the tech travel columnist for BBC Travel

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