Genealogy 101: Using Digitized Books in Your Family History Research

Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega gives tips for finding and using digitized books in your family history research. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

One of the benefits of the Internet for family historians is the plethora of digitized books available. Digitized books can be found on all kinds of websites, from those that solely focus on books like Google Books, to genealogy websites like FamilySearch and GenealogyBank, to libraries. Knowing what types of books exist where can help you find what you are looking for.

As you research, start incorporating searches on digitized books websites to enhance your family history search.

Photo: cover of “Los Brazos de Dios: A Plantation Society in the Texas Borderlands, 1821-1865” by Sean M. Kelley
Photo: cover of “Los Brazos de Dios: A Plantation Society in the Texas Borderlands, 1821-1865” by Sean M. Kelley. Credit: Google Books.

Google Books

Google Books is a great place to find public domain works as well as newer books. While the focus isn’t specifically genealogy like FamilySearch, many of the books in their collection are relevant to family history research. Think in terms of city directories, Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine, and local histories.

Remember that books are digitized using OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software, so any small mention of your ancestor can be found easily. Use Google’s Advanced Search or Tools features (found on the results page under the search box) to focus your search.

My favorite story about Google Books comes from my own experience. A great example of “you don’t know what you don’t know,” I found a surprising book one day when I entered my 5th great-grandmother’s name and location (“Sophia Lewis” and Texas) and clicked on the blue search button in Google Books.

Related:  Finding Bion Whitehouse: How Initials Can Help Your Ancestry Search

The first result was a book titled Los Brazos de Dios: A Plantation Society in the Texas Borderlands, 1821-1865 by Sean M. Kelley. In a chapter on “Husbands and Wives” I found information about Sophia’s divorce from her husband William W. Lewis!

Thanks to this book, I learned more about Sophia’s divorce that I had previously researched – but wanted more information. This search on Google Books was a good complement to the incomplete court records I had found years previously.


FamilySearch’s goal is to digitize their content – their entire collection, including, when possible, published works. Lucky for researchers they have also partnered with other repositories to make their books available to FamilySearch users.

Currently FamilySearch has more than 350,000 books from these partners:

  • Allen County Public Library
  • American Fork Library
  • Arizona State Library; Archives and Public Records
  • Birmingham Public Library
  • Brigham Young University; Harold B. Lee Library
  • Brigham Young University, Hawaii; Joseph F. Smith Library
  • Brigham Young University, Idaho; David O. McKay Library
  • Church History Library
  • Family History Library
  • Historical Society of Pennsylvania
  • Houston Public Library; Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research
  • Mid-Continent Public Library; Midwest Genealogy Center
  • Maine State Library
  • Onondaga County Public Library
  • University of Florida; George A. Smathers Libraries

With such a diverse collaboration, the content of these books includes all kinds of works important to family historians. FamilySearch states that the collection includes:

“family histories, county and local histories, genealogy magazines and how-to books, gazetteers, and medieval histories and pedigrees.”

Visitors to the FamilySearch website can search the FamilySearch Catalog or the Family History Books page. An Advanced Search on the Books page allows you to narrow your search to a material type (periodical/serial, gazetteer, or book), so it’s important to not just search on a surname but to also conduct a search on a location (city, county, state and country).

Related:  Ohio Archives: 480 Newspapers for Genealogy Research


GenealogyBank is known primarily for its Historical Newspaper Archives – an online collection of more than 8,000 digitized newspapers. In addition, GenealogyBank features the Social Security Death Index, government records – and thousands of digitized books, available here: Historical Books Archive.

Our Historical Books Archive contains much more than just old books. Uncover hard-to-find facts about your ancestry in these remarkably diverse genealogy records which include:

  • Old Maps & Atlases
  • Vintage Ads & Prints
  • Theater Programs & Playbills
  • Funeral Sermons, Eulogies & Elegy Poems
  • Old Academic Rewards of Merit
  • Vintage Invitations
  • Tax Bills
  • Town Meeting Reports
  • Almanacs
  • Rare Old Books:
  • Autobiographies & Memoirs
  • Biographies
  • Genealogies

Start Now!

Digitized books can provide answers. Take some time this month to search for the books that will answer your questions about your family history.

2 thoughts on “Genealogy 101: Using Digitized Books in Your Family History Research

  1. Not impressed with the Family History Books. They appear to have a large collection, but every time I click on one of them I get “You do not have sufficient rights to view the requested object. This book cannot be viewed online due to copyright restrictions.”
    So what’s the point?

    1. Sharon,

      There are some books on FamilySearch that can not be accessed from home. In cases where you get that message, you might want to see if the book is on another website like Google Books, Internet Archive or Hathi Trust.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.