Saturday, 14 September 2019

Free family history books

Semicircular library, bookshelves, reading desks
Imagine an immense library that’s accessible from the comfort of your home (or anywhere you like), at no cost, whose books you can search using names, places, occupations, and any keyword you like, to help you with your family research.  Well, here it is, in just three excellent online sources of full-text books, which include many genealogy, biography and general history titles.   

FamilySearch Digital Library is a collaboration between the family history provider and a number of public and academic libraries in North America, but with a worldwide reach – for instance, search for “Clan Macrae” and the first result is the “History of the Clan Macrae, with genealogies”.  Note the Access Level information – in this case, it is “Public”; if it says “Protected” the book is not available to view online, usually due to copyright restrictions. 

To read the text, click on “Full Text Results” and you’re shown a list of copies of this book – in some cases, these are sections or chapters only.  Once you’ve identified the version you want to read, you’ll be able to flick through the digital pages, or search the text.  If I look for the word “Lochalsh” in the Macrae history there are 77 matches, and I can click on each match to read the page in question. This makes finding information relevant to your research much easier.

Internet Archive handily gives you a visual preview of the digital book you’re looking for: here, my search for “Clan Macrae” shows the title page of the same volume as was featured on FamilySearch.  Clicking on this shows me a delightful photograph of the author which appears at the beginning of the book.  Again, I can leaf through the book, zoom in to enlarge text, and search the contents by keyword.  
Photo of author, title page of Clan Macrae history book
Some books on Internet Archive appear in plain text format – that is, not a digital copy but a machine-generated transcript of the book’s contents.  This leads to some interesting typos but it is still searchable (you'll sometimes see its contents included in general search engine results).  When viewing a page like this - or any internet page - press the Ctrl and F keys simultaneously.  In the empty box that will appear at the top of your screen, type the words you’re searching the text for, then use the arrows to navigate to each occurrence of your keyword. 

Google Books
 bills itself as “the world’s most comprehensive index of full-text books”.  The important word to note is “index”; not every book here is available in its entirety, some being only partial previews of a few pages or chapters, and some purely a listing of the book’s title. 

While many full texts are included in Google Books, “History of the Clan Macrae” is not one of them.  When I search for it, I can see several editions are listed, but none of them in full – these are either marked “No preview”, “Limited preview”, or “Snippet view”.  The Snippet view can be searched and it returns 72 matches for “Lochalsh”, which is only slightly less than I was able to view via the FamilySearch Library.  Unfortunately, Google will only let me see the pages for three of these matches, so it’s significantly less useful in this case.  "Limited preview", contrary to what its name suggests, often provides quite extensive access to books.  Get an idea of what you can see by viewing "Tracing Your British and Irish Ancestors", which is a limited preview text.  And, as you can see, it's easy to share links to these books.

Not every out-of-copyright book will be available in full via Google Books, but one example is “The Scottish Gaël”.  A useful feature on Google Books is the “Add to my library” button which lets you save your finds for future reference.  This will work best if you are signed in to your Google account while searching.  

Painting of two Scottish Highland chiefs in full tartan dress, title page of “The Scottish Gaël”

Just as an additional hint, Amazon often have a useful book preview called “Look Inside” which can run to a few chapters and may allow you to find the information you need without buying the book.  This is especially handy when searching for more up-to-date titles.  And no postage necessary!

Wishing you happy reading...

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