FREE BOOKS ON THE INTERNET
The proliferation of tablet computers, smartphones and ebook readers means that more and more of us are on the hunt for digitised books, writes
There are now dizzying numbers of digital titles available for the family historian. However, the sheer quantity means the trick is sorting the wheat from the chaff. You will find some are in formats specifically optimised for use on reader, tablet or smartphone, while others are simple PDF or text editions.
Our focus here is what can be found for free. Many of these websites offer free ebooks, scanned out-of-copyright titles and new books you will have to pay for. The account of the Earl Grey, the ship on which Anne Reid’s ancestor sailed to Tasmania, was sourced via Amazon, sadly not for free.
Major projects, useful websites and sources that have not made our top five include victoriacountyhistory.ac.uk, openlibrary.org, gutenberg.org, europeana.eu, pepysdiary.com, visionofbritain.org.uk, apple.com/uk/ibooks, amazon.co.uk/ kindlebooks and play.google.com.
1 British History Online
Many sites featured this month have a heavy American bias that you will need to work around. Not so this wonderful “digital library of key printed primary and secondary sources”, which focuses on the period between 1300 and 1800. While the numbers are quite modest (it currently boasts about 1,200 volumes), version 5.0 of the site, launched in December last year, has a new search and catalogue interface, plus a useful subject guide to local history ( british-history. ac.uk/using-bho/local-guide). Key titles include the Victoria History of the Counties, and, from the homepage, you can click ‘Primary sources’ or ‘Secondary texts’ for a taste of the sheer wealth of material available.
2 Family History Books
Family History Books is a collection of more than 150,000 digitised genealogy publications on FamilySearch. It includes family histories, county and local histories, genealogy ‘how-to’ books and a lot more besides. You can view titles online, but this can be a rather clunky experience, so saving the PDF format copies to your machine is the best way to go. The website doesn’t encourage browsing by subject, so you will probably want to search by name or keyword. If you encounter difficulties loading a title, it’s worth trying an alternative web browser.
3 Google Books
Google’s digital titles can be broadly split up into three categories: out of copyright/public domain books, scanned but still copyright protected titles, and books submitted to Google by publishers. Generally, you can either download full texts or see excerpts. If, from the address above, you click ‘Browse’ and make your way to the History section, you’ll soon discover there is no obvious sub-section for genealogy. With some digging you can find all kinds of interesting content, but unless you have a specific subject or title to search for, you will need to be patient.
4 Historical Directories
specialcollections.le.ac.uk/ cdm/ map/ collection/p16445coll4
There are several websites offering access to digitised historical directories, gazetteers and post office directories, but this is the pick of the bunch for researchers interested in England and Wales. The link above takes you to a simple map, plus a list of counties (although Welsh counties are all grouped into one category), which you can then click to see what’s available.
Titles stretch from the 1760s to the 1910s, and include familiar publishers such as Kelly’s and Slater’s, alongside the likes of Worrall, Wilson and Hunt. You can view the volumes online or alternatively download the PDFs, all free of charge.
5 Hathi Trust
Another massive project, the Hathi Trust is a partnership of academic and research institutions that offers a collection of millions of titles digitised from libraries around the world. As with many of the websites this month, the sheer scale of the content can feel overwhelming, so you could start by clicking ‘Collections’ to explore commonly grouped titles. Remember, too, that some ‘free’ titles will only be freely available to users in the United States.