One of the most exciting things about doing family history research is moving beyond names and dates to begin exploring the stories of our ancestors’ lives. There are many ways to do this. Records like pension applications, wills and obituaries can provide details that allow us a special glimpse into the important events and personal relationships of our forebears.
But there is one type of genealogy resource that often stands above the rest when it comes to providing unique insights. And this same resource also happens to be a wonderful place to locate names and dates, land ownership information, occupations and much more.
We’re talking about old books. You might think that your ancestor couldn’t have possibly made it into a published book, but you might be surprised by how many did. If you are researching ancestors that lived in the US before 1880, with East Coast roots, you have a solid chance of locating them in a compiled pedigree or related text – and there are numerous other possibilities as well.
There are many types of books that may contain information about your ancestors — these include (but are not limited to) published pedigrees, books on the history of a surname in a certain location, those focused on the descendancy of a specific individual, specialized pedigrees relating to a certain subject (such as those concerning service in the American Revolution or lineal descent from a Mayflower passenger) as well as town or county histories.
These books may discuss your ancestors’ lineage, military service, land or home ownership, role in a town or county’s formation, public service, occupation, personal relationships, family stories, unusual tidbits and much more. They can be a huge help for researching a time period when other commonly used records are less common.
There are thousands of such publications available and many of them are now online and fully searchable. We’ve compiled a list of 5 places to locate these books for free below.
But before you begin searching for your ancestors in old books consider these tips and warnings.
Books are not always accurate. Some have been extensively and meticulously researched and sourced and others may have been compiled hastily, may have relied on inaccurate information from individuals, questionable documents or newspapers, or may contain additions for the purpose of vanity. And no matter how careful, any author can make mistakes — so make sure you know what you are looking at before deciding how much stock to place in the information.
Take the time to learn about the book, the purpose of its publication, the author and whether sources are documented. Use the book as a guide only to aid you in your research and always look for additional sources to back up the data before adding it to your tree. Be especially careful when using the information from these books to add new names or lines to your tree. Always look for further sources.
Sourcing is important. Despite the above warning, these old books can sometimes be the only place certain information, stories and facts were published. Because of this, you might be tempted to add the information to your tree even if you cannot further verify it. When choosing to do this make sure you correctly list the book’s title, author, volume, date of publication and page number(s) along with a link or location where it can be found next to every detail you pull in to your tree. This will let those you share your tree with know where the information came from so they can verify the data, do further research and choose whether or not to add the information to their own files.
You should always save copies to your files. Always download or clip the section(s) of book you use for later reference, attaching the above information so you know where to find the original publication again in the future. In some cases you may be able to download entire books and you should do this when possible, especially if you have used a significant amount of information from the publication. You never know when the resource may no longer be available.
Name spellings, dates and city names may be incorrect or outdated. The spelling of an ancestor’s first or last name may change throughout history, from record to record, or from book to book. Many names were spelled how people assumed they should be spelled based on what was common at the time. Satchel, for instance, may be Sachel, Satchell or Satchwell. Be sure to try many spelling when searching and be cautious when adding these spellings to your tree. City and county names and boundaries also changed frequently throughout history so be aware of this when attempting to locate books by location.
It is important to note that some surname focused family history books may only contain the surname on a few pages, since the entire book focuses on that last name specifically. So when searching for an ancestor in such a book you may need to search by first name only or by a date to locate a person of interest. Many books also have helpful indexes of names and this will come in handy when you cannot search inside a book’s contents.
Note that many books have multiple volumes so be sure to look for each one that may relate to your ancestor.
5 Places to Locate Old Family History Books for Free
1. Google Books: Google has a massive selection of free books available. Head to the book search, type in a search term or terms and then look for ‘Search Tools’ at top. Select the ‘Any Books’ dropdown and filter by ‘Free Google eBooks’ to get only free, online results. Google will search all of the text of the book for results. If you want to tell it to search only a title check out our Google Search Tricks article. You can easily search inside a book for a person once you locate a publication of interest.
2. Internet Archive: Internet Archive offers millions of free online books and other resources. They have a huge variety of genealogy books and their search is easy to use. Once you find and access a book of interest they offer a very clean experience. Definitely check this free site for what you are looking for – we have a guide to using this site here.
3. HathiTrust: HathiTrust is another free online research library with many books and other resources that may be of interest in your family history research. You can learn more about it in our article here.
4. FamilySearch: FamilySearch has a books section that consists of more than 200,000 titles right on their website. Most of these books are accessible online, but some may be restricted to access only from an institution — such a Family History Research Center. Simply search for a book and then click on the preview to load it. This search acts a bit like a library catalog, where you can only look for publications by title, keyword, description and author. Unlike the other options we’ve listed, FamilySearch does not search inside the book’s content and therefore you will need to do quite a bit of digging to locate one that may contain your ancestor. Because you cannot search the text of a book in most cases, you will need to use the book’s index to find your ancestors.
5. GenealogyGophers: This helpful free site allows you to search 80,000+ books from the FamilySearch collection and, unlike on FamilySearch itself, it searches the text of the book itself making your efforts more effective.
Inexpensive or Partially Free
Amazon: Amazon offers a huge variety of genealogy research and family history ebooks online so we felt we should include it. Some of these are free to download, others are free with Prime or Kindle Unlimited and many others are very inexpensive (often under a $1). Because Amazon has so many books on so many topics you may need to do a bit of digging.
Start by visiting the Kindle Store and searching by topic. Use terms like genealogy, pedigree, family tree and history along with family names or locations of interest to help locate what you need. As with FamilySearch, Amazon will not search the text of a book, only its title, author and description. If you find a book that will cost you money, make sure that you cannot get it free at another of the resources above before paying. If you locate a book of interest it can be read, and sometimes searched, on nearly any device or computer with the Kindle reading app.
Also read our article: This Google Trick Reveals Thousands of Free Genealogy Books on Amazon
By: Melanie Mayo | Editor, Family History Daily
Image: Mr. Slade is photographed at his desk in the [Shakespearean] Library, which is located near the Capitol and Library of Congress at Washington. Library of Congress
Originally published March 2016, updated Feb 2018