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Kimberly Powell

Building a Personal Digital Genealogy Library

By January 29, 2013

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I love books. There are crowded bookshelves and stacks of books all over my house. There are books in boxes. Books under my bed. Books in filing cabinets... The book dilemma at my house has finally gotten to the point where I'm beginning to concede to the digital age and purchase/download books, when possible, in digital form. While I still much prefer holding a physical book, there is something to be said for having unlimited space to store as many books as I want! Keyword search capabilities are always nice and, even better, a digital library can easily travel with you.

Another plus of building a personal digital genealogy library is that so many books can be acquired inexpensively or even for free. Out-of-copyright local history books, out-of-print genealogy magazines, back-issues of genealogical journals -- all of these fill the shelves of my digital genealogy library at no cost but the time it takes to find and download them, plus perhaps a few genealogical society subscriptions. Within my digital genealogy collection, I have books of state statutes (The Revised Statutes of the State of Pennsylvania, and Additional Laws to 1844) and historical laws (The Negro Law of South Carolina by J. G. Bowman, 1848); books with abstracts or transcriptions of genealogical records, such as "Minutes of the Vestry of St. Helena's Parish, South Carolina, 1726-1812," in the public domain because it was published by the Historical Commission of South Carolina in 1912; and books of local history (History of Edgecombe County, North Carolina by Joseph Kelly Turner and John Luther Bridgers, 1920). Back issues of Ancestry Magazine are available online for free in Google Books, as are many out-of-copyright issues of genealogical society publications. Speaking of genealogical society publications, I also use my digital genealogy library to store favorite issues of publications such as The National Genealogical Society Quarterly (current and back issues are available in digital format on the website for NGS members). NGS, by the way, also offers their "Research in the States" series for purchase in PDF format.

To find free books to add to your digital genealogy library check out the sites listed in 10 Fabulous Sources for Online Historical Books, such as FamilySearch Books, Google Books, Hathi Trust Digital Library, and Internet Archive. Many of these sites allow you to create an organized collection of books online, either private or public, which you can access from any computer, laptop, or mobile device, as long as you have an Internet connection. Alternatively, most (but not all) allow you to download a physical (often) PDF copy of purchased or public domain books to your computer or mobile device. Hathi Trust, for example, only allows full volume downloads when you are logged in through a participating library -- otherwise you are limited to downloading a single page at a time. Selecting the "Ebook - Free" button in Google Books automatically makes a copy available to you through your Google Play account, however you can also download a PDF copy to your computer if you prefer by first hovering over that button and then selecting the "download PDF" option. Many books can also be purchased from Google, Amazon and other major book publishers in digital format, for download to a reader on your computer or mobile device. Electronic publications are sometimes made available by individual authors as well--an electronic version of Elizabeth Shown Mills' Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, along with several of her QuickSheets, can be purchased as electronic publications from the author's website. Publications by genealogical authors such as Lisa Louise Cooke and Michael Hait, as well as many independently published family histories, can be found for purchase in digital format on Lulu.com--just be careful to purchase the digital (PDF) version instead of the print version if that is your intent.

What are the favorite books in your digital genealogy library? Do you store them online in the cloud via a service such as Hathi Digital Trust or Google Play, or do you prefer to have them downloaded to your computer (or both)? How do you keep track of and access digital books stored in multiple locations or only usable by certain readers? Share your thoughts or suggestions in the comments below!

Now, if I can only figure out where to find the time to read them all...


January 29, 2013 at 4:58 pm
(1) Karen says:

I agree totally! I use Calibre Library for all my digital books. It is a free program and does a wonderful job of cataloging the books so you can find what you want. I started buying entire State collections on Ebay and Amazon – got 150 historical books on Virginia for about $8!

January 29, 2013 at 11:19 pm
(2) MikeF says:

Researchers probably underestimate how useful older out-of-copyright books can be to their research. Those books on statute law of states of interest are gold, and can help to understand how the law applied to property rights in particular at various times, including women’s property rights and the laws of slavery in the South. Also many old county and state histories are valuable despite the information contained therein often being poorly sourced.

As to the question of whether to use the cloud or download to one’s desktop, I am a big believer in storing on the desktop (or backed up DVDs) since storage is cheap and one never knows when something currently freely available will disappear from a site. Only with something that is archived by the Internet Archive would I not have that concern to as great a degree. My rule of thumb is: “get all you can get while you can get it.”

January 30, 2013 at 9:46 am
(3) KellyH says:

I have been amazed at how many books are available for free through GoogleBooks or Internet Archive. Just googling an ancestor name or a place name such as “[town] [state] history” will often return digital book results. Town and county histories are helpful in understanding the place where ancestors lived, especially when you can access them from home, for free. I’ve also found digitized volumes of historic state court records.

My challenge has been in figuring out the best way to store and organize these to create a true digital library, and not just a file full of PDFs. Is anyone using Evernote for this?

January 31, 2013 at 2:13 pm
(4) Karen says:

Calibre will catalog and organize PDF files, along with any other digital print format such as epub. The only difference is in the ease of reading – epub is a little easier to manipulate the size of the print and such. I love the flexibility because you can create your own “tags” so I can sort by family tree/surname, state, etc.

February 3, 2013 at 10:45 pm
(5) Imogene McClendon Covin says:

The historical books you find on Google are enormous and can help you find lots of information for genealogy. Plus you have the added bonus of your everyday reading and are able to provide book reviews as well. I wonder if Gutenberg is going to be as helpful

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