1. Parenting
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Discuss in my forum

Finding Family History in Google Books


County histories and biographies published in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as well as family histories, books, pamphlets and other ephemera that you might encounter in the free digitized content available from Google Books is amazing. It's a great way to explore history as well - from the WWI battles in which your ancestor participated, to an unusual tool listed in his estate inventory.

What is Available in Google Books?

The Google Books database contains over 20 million scanned books in the following three categories:1
  • Books considered to be out of copyright, or in the "public domain"
  • Books scanned in libraries but still protected by copyright.
  • Books submitted by publishers to Google Books.
The texts of all books can be searched, but how much of the book you can actually view online depends on the copyright status of the book. Out-of-copyright books can generally be viewed in their entirety. Books submitted by publishers generally allow you to view a page or two on either side of your search results. For other scanned books, usually you can only see a "snippet" of information - typically only a sentence or two.

Copyright Restrictions in Google Books

Since copyright laws differ from country to country, it is important to note that Google applies copyright criteria based on the country from which the content is being searched. Thus, books that are available in full view in some countries may not be offered in full view in others. For visitors to Google Books from the United States, all books published prior to 1923 should theoretically be available for viewing in their entirety. In other countries, however, where copyright is determined by the length of time since the death of the author, Google is applying much more stringent criteria to be sure it doesn't violate copyright laws. Visitors from the U.K., for example, are generally only able to view full books published up through about 1869. Conversely, books published outside of the United States are generally only accessible by U.S. visitors if they are over 100 years old. New book deals that include digitization of both free out-of-copyright works, plus the option for publishing ebooks for newer works are continually in the works, such as the deal that Google struck with French publishers in June 2012.2

Tips for Finding Genealogical Content

Begin by thinking of Google Books as a library and construct your search accordingly. Names, surnames, location names, etc. are a great way to turn up family genealogies, local histories and much more. The text for most of the digitized older books was derived through OCR (optical character recognition) software, so expect inaccuracies.

Advanced Book Search offers additional ways to search for books, including by title, author, publisher, subject, publication date, or even ISBN (for more recent works).

  • Find & Download Full Books - Limit your search results to Full view books from the Advanced Book Search to return only books that you can read entirely online.

  • Search by Name - Search by surname if your ancestor has an unusual one. Alternatively, search by a combination of "firstname, lastname" and "lastname, firstname." You can also search for a book or other title by its name. Did you know that back issues of the now out-of-publication Ancestry Magazine are available in free, full view in Google Books?

  • Search by Location - Search by state, county, town or other locality plus either a surname or a keyword such as "history" or "cemetery"

  • Search by Keyword - You can find plenty of neat treasures in Google Books by searching for very specific keywords. A search for maul rings (a tool commonly found in estate inventories), for example, turns up the fascinating West Australian Settler's Guide and Farmer's Handbook, published by the Western Australia Bureau of Agriculture in 1897. What great insight into the life of our ancestors!


The external, non-Google affiliated, GooBooGenI Web site indexes thousands of links to books of historical and genealogical interest - primarily from the United States and Canada. This includes surname histories, county and local histories, etc. Once you select a country of interest, select either a state or province (as appropriate) to drill your way down to books of local genealogical interest. The links bring up the Google Books interface embedded within the GooBooGenI Web site, which unfortunately doesn't allow you to view them in your full browser window. The site does not, however, index all books of genealogical interest, and also does not appear to have been updated since 2011.

Download, Save & Print in Google Books

Google Book Search allows you to download PDF files of entire books if they are out of copyriht, or if the publisher has opted to allow this option. Once you open the book of interest, click on the Download button on the right side of the screen to save it to your computer as a PDF. You can also view books online in PDF format. Or you can use the Google Play Books app-- available in the iTunes and for Android devices--to download and store free Google ebooks, or purchase and download those that are not free.

What if the Book is Not Available in Full View?

If you find a book of interest that is not available in full view online, look for a Get this book box - usually on the right-hand side of the page, but sometimes on the left. This offers the option for purchasing the book from available booksellers, and also includes a Find in a library link which takes you to the WorldCat catalog where you can enter your location (or zip code/postal code) to find libraries near you which hold a copy of the book. In some cases, you can also purchase the book directly as an eBook from Google.

Many of the genealogical and historical journals available in Google Books are not available in full view. The trick here is to locate the correct journal volume and issue number necessary for locating a physical copy of the journal or journal article. Be forewarned that the publication date on the Summary page from Google is often the publication year that the journal began or ended, not the year of the particular journal found through your Google Books search. With only a "snippet" view of text available, however, it is hard to find a view that lists the needed year or volume number. Start by searching the particular journal for the journal's title as the snippet of text displayed (from either the title page or the header/footer of a page) may contain the year or volume number. If that doesn't work, search for words such as volume, issue, number or subscriptions as they may also appear in the journal text in the vicinity of the volume and issue number.

Once you've exhausted the millions of volumes available through Google Books, see 10 Fabulous Sources for Family History Books Online for even more free options for online digitized local and family histories.


1. Jennifer Howard, "Google Begins to Scale Back its Scanning of Books from University Libraries," The Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/article/Google-Begins-to-Scale-Back/131109/ : accessed 12 June 2012).
2. Eric Pfanner, "French Publisher Group Strikes Deal With Google Over E-Books," The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/12/technology/french-publisher-group-strikes-deal-with-google-over-e-books.html : accessed 12 June 2012).

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.