Sooner or later, you're going to need a user's manual you can't find. Maybe you bought the product used, without one. Maybe you never bothered printing it out from the CD. Maybe you lost it in a basement flood. Maybe it's in a Good Safe Place that you've forgotten. Maybe you even threw it out with the unit's packaging ("What really hurts," said the guy who signed the check for the last instruction manual I wrote, "is that most of the guys who get this gizmo won't read the manual -- won't even open it." ). Whatever. All you know for sure is that you need the manual, and you need it now.
Finding manuals fast
Luckily, the odds of finding a replacement -- even for free -- are fairly good. And since most manual sources are online, the odds are even better that if you find it, you can have it right away.
It helps that the manufacturers of modern products usually prepare manuals as PDF (portable document format) files that you can display on your computer screen or print out. If your gizmo came with an installation CD (and you can still find it), there's an excellent chance you'll find a PDF manual there.
If not, check the manufacturer's web site. It may be under the Support or Downloads menu. If not, try entering your product's model number in the site's search window; should that bring up too many entries, try the model number plus a keyword such as "manual," "guide," or "instructions." If there are separate quick-start guides and full manuals, get both -- detailed manuals sometimes skip some of the stuff covered in the quick-start guide.
If that doesn't work, turn your gaze to the Internet at large, searching for the model number plus those keywords. Try more than one search engine, too (I get slightly different results from Google and Bing).
You'll find hundreds of sites offering manuals for free. Some are specialized, such as www.hifi-manuals.com , www.classic-motorbikes.net, and www.ManageMyLife.com (appliances and garden tractors). Others cover a wide variety of products: www.usersmanualguide.com (European-oriented, manuals in many languages), www.nodevice.com, www.manualsonline.com, and www.safemanuals.com.
Some sites also have user forums where you can get tips and additional info, even on products they don't have manuals for. Check user groups and forums devoted to the product, too. Many old product manuals are uploaded by owners and collectors -- I found manuals for my first tape recorder (a 1953 Magnecord) and my first car (1968 Fiat 850 sport coupe).
If all else fails
If you can't find the manual you need for free, you may be able to buy a manual that will serve your needs. One paid source, www.manualsink.com can print and bind manuals for a fee. Original printed manuals can often be found on collectors' sites, eBay.com, and Amazon.com. So can books covering many cameras, cars, computers and programs, and other devices. A good source for camera and other photo books is www.camerabooks.com.
Repair manuals are harder to find, and rarely free. One major exception is www.ifixit.com (which also sells parts and gives troubleshooting aid), but the nodevice site, free for user guides, charges for at least some repair manuals. For old electronics, try Sams Technical Publishing (www.samswebsite.com). If worst comes to worst there are generic books on servicing computers, appliances, cars, and car subsystems such as transmissions.
Once you've found the manual you need -- better yet, before you've lost it in the first place -- store it someplace safe, and someplace you'll actually remember the next time you'll need it.