Published family and local histories offer a potential rich source of information about your personal family history. Even if a family genealogy has not been published for your ancestors, local and family histories can offer insight into the places your ancestors lived and the people they may have encountered during their lifetime. Before you head to the local library or bookstore, however, take time to explore the hundreds of thousands of genealogies, local histories and other items of genealogical interest available online for free! A few major fee-based collections (clearly marked) are also highlighted.
The former BYU Family History Archive has been moved to FamilySearch, encompassing a free collection of over 52,000 family histories, local histories, city directories and other genealogy books online, and growing weekly. Digitized books have "every word" search capability, with search results linked to digital images of the original publication. When complete, this massive digitization effort promises to be the most comprehensive collection of city and county histories one the Web. Best of all, access will remain free!
The Hathi Trust Digital Library hosts a large online (and free) Ancestry and Genealogy collection with searchable text and digitized versions of thousands of genealogy and local history books. The majority of the content is from Google Books (so expect a lot of overlap between the two), but there is a small, increasing percentage of books that have been locally digitized.
3. Google Books
Select "all books" to include books which allow viewing of over a million books, many out of copyright, but also others for which publishers have given Google permission to display limited book previews (which often includes the Table of Contents and Index pages, so you can easily check to see if a particular book includes information about your ancestor). The list of useful books, pamphlets, newspaper articles and ephemera that you might encounter includes many county histories and biographies published in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as well as family histories. See Find Family History in Google Books for tips and search suggestions.
The nonprofit Archive.org, which many of you may know for its Wayback Machine, also hosts a rich text archive of books, articles and other texts. The biggest collection of interest to family historians, is the American Libraries collection, which includes over 300 city directories and 1000 family histories free for searching, viewing, downloading and printing. The U.S. Library of Congress collection and Canadian Libraries collection also include genealogies and local histories.
Journals, memoirs and historical narratives, plus published genealogies and record collections make up the bulk of the 20,000+ books in the Family and Local Histories collection at fee-based Ancestry.com. Among the offerings are the Daughters of the American Revolution Series, slave narratives, biographies, genealogies and more gathered from genealogical society collections from around the U.S., as well as the Newberry Library in Chicago, the Widener Library at Harvard University, the New York Public Library, and the University of Illinois at Urbana. See the Family and Local Histories Learning Center for instructions and tips on how to best use the collection.