Finding Family Stories in Online Digitized Books

For the couple of you that missed my presentation last night on Second Life (complete with slides and handouts), here is what we talked about…

It’s always exciting to find a birth, marriage or death date on one of your ancestors. So many online resources are becoming available now that make filling in those blanks easier. But what really turns ‘genealogy’ into ‘family history’ is when you start finding stories written by or about your ancestors – about their lives, their families, the times they lived in and the challenges they faced.

If you aren’t fortunate enough to have discovered a cache of family letters in the attic, or if your great-great-grand-whatever didn’t leave a detailed, hand-written journal, there is still hope that you can find some stories, or at least pieces of stories to put together to begin making some kind of picture of their lives come into view – putting meat on the bones, so to speak.

There are many really great web sites for finding stories, including online digitized books, journals, newspapers and special collections at libraries, historical and genealogical societies. For now, I’m just going to focus on digitized books online, and mainly those available for free. This probably isn’t a comprehensive list, but more the sites that I find the most helpful myself.

First and foremost is Google Books ( which is one of my favorite book sites, partly because of all that it offers. Along with full text, fully searchable results, I love the ability to download the PDF version, browse highlighted passages, and if the book isn’t fully viewable, click over to WorldCat and find it in the library nearest to me. As with any website you use regularly, be sure to spend some time seeing just what all is offered.


Recently thanks to Google Books, a friend came across a major breakthrough in her research. Her early Texas ancestor just seemed to appear out of nowhere, and she just couldn’t figure out who his parents were. But by searching in Google Books on his name, one book from the results, which happened to be about Wild Bill Hickok oddly enough, explained everything. The book described how her fellow had killed a man in Georgia, fled to Texas and changed his name by taking his mother’s maiden name! What a score! Not only did it give his original name, but also she now knew his mother’s maiden name as well, which of course helped her find the parents and take the line back even further. The book included some other great stories, including the colorful lives this man and his sons led.

HeritageQuest is another great source for online books. You can search by name, location, title or author. Books appear in full PDF form, and are downloadable, 50 pages at a time (but you can download an entire books). Unfortunately you can’t search within a page.

HeritageQuest is a really good resource for state and county histories, that usually contained paid biographies of the “representative citizens”, i.e., those who would fork over a few bucks to be included. So the mayor’s bio might be on the same page as Farmer Joe’s – you never know.

It was through HeritageQuest that I discovered the wonderful story about my 5th great grandmother, Rachel Negus, who walked from Connecticut to Ohio before it was Ohio, with her family. Before leaving CT, she gathered apple seeds from the cider mill to take with her. Once settled, she began planting the seeds, and cultivating the apples in her orchard, and named the best variety after her husband, Jonathan.

You can access HQ for free through most public library websites with your library card. If you have any problems doing that, get in touch with me and I’ll give you an alternative way to get on.

Another site that focuses mainly on family histories is the Family History Archives at BYU And also found by going to and choosing ‘Historical Books’ from the ‘Search Records’ tab.

Literally thousands of items are added monthly. These books and journals come from the very top genealogy libraries in the US. In addition to the BYU libraries, the books are being digitized from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Allen Co. Library in Indiana, the Clayton Library in Houston, and the Mid-Continent Library in Missouri.

Many of the books in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City link directly to this site through the Library Catalog, eliminating the need to request and rent the microfilm for them – yay! Save $5.50!

If you have Mormon ancestors, an incredible site to search is (Same as A free sign-in is required, but you can search, read, and contribute to the collection of personal journals and diaries. If you are LDS, and have signed into the NewFamilySearch program, the site will automatically search your online pedigree from nFS for matches.

A fairly new digitized book site is Open Library (, sponsored by the InternetArchives website, whose stated goal is to have one page for every book in print. The InternetArchive site also has a huge collection of other records – video, audio, and more, but I’ll be discussing that website at another time.

There are several sites that include more specialized collections. The Making of America collection focuses on American history from about 1840-1977, events leading to, including and post Civil War basically. The combined collections, housed at Cornell and Michigan Universities, contain over 1.5 million images from over 5,000 volumes.

The Cornell collection, , focuses on major journal literature, from general interest topics to more specific things like agriculture. The Michigan collection focuses on American History, sociology, science, technology and religion.


The Access Genealogy Online Library, has a fairly small collection (457 volumes) of books that are sorted by country and/or state. Many of these books do not have full previews available at Google, so its worth checking out.

GenealogySearch also offers a small, but unique collection of books, organized by country at .There are some very odd little titles, and include several county histories and church record books.

One excellent collection of Canadian books, over 5500 digital texts is from Canada’s Local Histories Online, at There are books both in French and English (open your google translator if you need to).

And if you have Quaker ancestors, you are in luck! One really good site is the Earlham School of Religion’s Digital Quaker Collection You can search by keyword, surname, etc, and see the results in either a transcribed form, or the original in many cases. The collection contains over 500 Quaker works from the 17th & 18th centuries.


One way of searching for online biographies, too, is using Live Roots Search . You can easily surname search several of the major sites all at once, currently including Ancestry, Footnote, GenealogyBank, World Vital Records, Google Books, ABE books, eBay and several more.

Another way to find biographies of your ancestors is to search biographical index databases. Folks included didn’t have to be famous to be included, just listed in a published genealogy book.

One genealogy specific database is the Biography & Genealogy Master Index (BGMI), which includes over 10 million names, mostly from the 19th & 20th centuries. The results of a search in this database will include names, dates and locations, as well as the complete citation for the book that it is found in. Many books may not be online, but you can locate them thru WorldCat.

The BGMI index is sometimes offered through libraries, often university libraries, but if you have access to (often free at public libraries) you can search the BGMI at

The American Genealogical-Biographical Index (AGBI) is another genealogical biography index, with millions of names from the genealogical and biographical history book collection at the Godfrey Memorial Library. The index is currently only at (

If you find a name in the index, you can contact the folks at the Godfrey and they will make copies of what you need for a minimal price (they are incredibly friendly & helpful there!) Their email and telephone # are under Contacts at the website –


Just two more thoughts on books – If you find a reference to a book your ancestor might be in, and you aren’t having any luck finding the text online, you can locate that book in a library near you by searching WorldCat –– (which also provides a source citation for the book).

And if you decide that you want to purchase a book for your own reference shelf, BookFinder4U searches 130 online bookstores by best price.

Finally, just a couple of tips to help locate your folks. First, when searching, try to include ~genealogy in your search. The tilde symbol will include synonyms of the word genealogy, like ancestry, pedigree, family history, etc.

Also be sure to search variations of surnames, to allow for misspellings. And don’t just search for names, but places as well. Knowing the history of where your ancestors lived can provide you valuable insights into their lives as well.

I’ll be presenting part two, covering online newspapers and special collections, in SecondLife, at the Just Genealogy fire pit on Dec. 17th at 6pm SL time (Pacific Time).

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