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Beautifully illustrated family history books with a difference by a frequent contributor to the UK family history press. I write for Family Tree Magazine UK; Discover Your Ancestors Online Periodical and Bookazine; Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine. The publishers of my family history books are Pen and Sword Books and The History Press. I tweet (and retweet) thought-provoking content designed to help you tweak your approach to (your family) history at @RuthaSymes . Do follow me.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Want to hear your ancestor's voice....?

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If only they could shout a little louder! Accessing how an ancestor might have spoken can be a difficult but rewarding task. 
Credit: Wood engraving. Wikimedia Commons

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could hear the voices of our ancestors? Not just second-hand through the anecdotes told about them by subsequent generations, but first-hand, just as they spoke? Sadly, despite a longish history of sound recording stretching back to the 1860s, recorded evidence of the voices of our ordinary ancestors is most unlikely to exist before the last decades of the twentieth century.

The First Recordings of the Human Voice

The first sound recordings of any kind were made in the very late 1850s. An organisation First Sounds (www.firstsounds.org) aims to have digitally preserved every ‘airborne sound recording’ known to exist from before 1861, as well as many subsequent early sound recordings. You can listen to some of these for free on its website. The earliest known recording of a human voice (made audible by this project in 2008) was created on April 9th 1860 and features Parisian bookseller and printer Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville singing ‘Au Clair de la Lune.’ Listen to it here.  https://www.youtube.com watch?v=uBL7V3zGMUA

The first machine capable of both recording and reproducing sound was the phonograph invented by Thomas Edison in 1877 (this image is probably from April 1878). The machine worked by producing a physical trace of the variations in audio-frequency created by the human voice on a wax cylinder.
Credit: Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress) via Wikimedia Commons  

t was extremely rare, however, for a human voice to be captured with any degree of clarity before the last decade of the Victorian period. At around this time, many well-known or significant people made recordings of their voices which can now be accessed through the video site You Tube (www.youtube.com/). These included the poets Robert Browning (1889) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYot5-WuAjE), the actress Sarah Bernhardt (1903) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjyB18FVGNc), and the German statesman Kaiser Wilhelm II  (1914) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBKzCt-0DyY). It’s worth just tapping in a famous name from history on the You Tube site and seeing what comes up.

It’s possible, of course, that you might have fragments of recordings of the voices of ordinary people who lived in the twentieth century captured on telephone answering machines or office dictaphones. Another early method of voice recording  - the Voice-o-graph machine - was popular between the 1930s and the 1960s in fairgrounds, on piers and in amusement arcades. Users paid to enter a booth where they were encouraged to record themselves speaking or singing for up to two minutes. The subsequent recording was made into a disc of laminated cardboard six inches in diameter. This could then be mailed to friends or family as a sort of talking telegram or ‘audio postcard’ which could be played on the receiver's home record player. The discs were rather   flimsy and could only withstand a few playbacks. They were eventually superseded by the tape recorder  in the 1970s. For more detail see www.obsoletemedia.org/Voice-o-graph.

If (as is most probably the case) none of these kinds of records are available in respect of your family, there are, nevertheless, a surprising number of other ways in which you might get close to the sound of your ancestor’s voice.

Voices in Online Archives

You can get an approximation of how your ancestor might have sounded by listening to audio recordings of people who come (or came) from the same part of the country. The easiest way to access these is probably through the video site You Tube (www.youtube.com/). Just type in the kind of accent or dialect that you would like to hear and sit back and watch. 

It’s also worth checking if the local archives and County Record Offices in the places in which your ancestors lived hold any sound recordings made by them or (more likely) by people like them who lived in the same area, worked in the same industries or shared similar experiences (e.g. the closing of a factory, or the dropping of a bomb in WW2). You can search the holdings of archives across the country in the Discovery section of the website of the National Archives. http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ 

Henry Wallace, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, using a dictaphone on 20th September 1937. Dictaphones (trademarked by the Columbia Graphaphone Company in 1907) were used in offices and courtrooms throughout the early part of the twentieth century until they were replaced by digital recording in the 1980s.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
One rich example of a locally-held sound resource is The Greater Manchester Sound Archive (http://www.archivesplus.org/news/greater-manchester-sound-archive/). You can listen to over 5,600 sound recordings on cassette, CD and via mp3 download at Central Library, Manchester at any time, and (by appointment) at other libraries around the Greater Manchester area. The ‘Oral Histories Collection’ includes stories of places, dialects, communities, immigration, war, pastimes and industries around Greater Manchester. Of particular interest are the Paul Graney Memory Tapes (collected by an amateur sound collector from the 1950s to the 1970s) which include interviews with prostitutes, the homeless, poachers, canal men and mill girls. 

The British Sound Archive (http://sounds.bl.uk)/ online includes over 50,000 (recordings selected from the entire collection of over 3.5 million sound records held in the British Library, London). In the Accents and Dialects section, you can listen to excerpts from the Survey of English Dialects (SED) which was conducted by researchers at the University of Leeds under Harold Orton between 1950 and 1961. People in 313 areas of Britain were interviewed; these were mainly men over the age of 65 in low-level occupations living in rural areas. A second area of interest might be the Oral History section which includes historical interviews on all sorts of subjects from food, to architecture to the steel industry with an important subsection that includes interviews with Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.

Another useful online resource is Soundcloud (https://soundcloud.com/). Various museums and historical institutions have uploaded material to this site. Simply type in the region or the subject in which you are interested in the search box and see if anything relevant comes up. A stunning example is a military man’s reminiscences of his time at Gallipoli https://soundcloud.com/archivesplus/fusilier-2  which has been uploaded by the Greater Manchester Sound Archive.  

Meanwhile, the Speech Accent Archive (http://accent.gmu.edu/ ) collects together thousands of accents in spoken English from around the world. This is a fascinating resource set up by Professor Steven Weinberger at George Mason University. Speakers have been recorded reading the extract below, which contains all the main sounds in English.

Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station.

If you know exactly where abroad your ancestor came from to the UK, you can tap in the place name,( and even refine your search by the gender and age of the speaker) in order to hear a person with similar characteristics speaking this paragraph. Alternatively, if you have a voice recording of an ancestor (or even just a memory of an ancestor’s voice), you can compare it with the store of accents on the site to determine which country (and even which part of a country) an ancestor might have come from!

Another useful tool when investigating accents and dialects from the past is the English Dialect App which is freely downloadable to both iPad and android devices. Answer the questions posed on the App and it aims to be able to pinpoint exactly where you come from in the country

The nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale made several voice recordings to raise money for the impoverished veterans of the Charge of the Light Brigade. One of these made on 30th July 1890 can be heard on www.youtube.co.uk and consists of the following lines: 'When I am no longer a memory - just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life. God bless my dear old comrades of Balaclava and bring them safe to shore.'
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Voices in Written Records

Sometimes, you might get a glimpse of what an ancestor sounded like from a written source, a letter or diary for example. On Thursday 17th March 1836, for instance, Queen Victoria recorded in her journal that ‘(Cousin) Ferdinand speaks through his nose and in a slow and funny way, which is at first against him, but it very soon wears off.’ At other points in the journal she refers to the ‘peculiarities of [Ferdinand’s] voice and manner of talking’ and his ‘merry funny voice.’ Such references in personal writing are more likely to occur, of course, if the person in question had a voice that was distinctive or unusual in some way.

Ancestors who turn up in newspaper reports (found, for example, by searching   www.britishnewspapersarchive.co.uk) are sometimes accompanied by written accounts of statements that they made. Likewise, defendants and plaintiffs in court records (to be found in local archives and County Record offices) might have had their words recorded. When, for example, working man and jury member Benjamin Gonalay was signed in as a jury member at a court in Shoreditch, London in August 1875, he was asked how he spelt both  his first name and his surname. He answered belligerently,  ‘How do I know? I tell you I can’t write. My son knows but he ain’t here. There’s only one way of spelling Benjamin.’ There is enough detail in this transcript of Gonalay’s voice in The Evening Telegraph for us to be able to sense something of his class status and his personality. The content of this particular example also reminds us that without such documentation of speech many illiterate people would be lost from history entirely.

A further offbeat way in which you might learn something about the way in which your ancestors spoke is by thinking a little about words and phrases that might have been passed down from them to the current generations of your family. The phrase ‘A dimple on the chin, the devil within,’ for example, is of Irish origin and may have come to Britain with immigrants in the mid nineteenth century.  For more on inherited phrases see my article ‘By Word of Mouth’ (http://searchmyancestry.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=by+word+of+mouth). The most interesting inherited phrases in your family will probably be those which describe the weather, eating or toileting habits, and often have a metaphorical  element.

The Voice of Queen Victoria

One of the most intriguing old sound recordings available for general consumption online today is a 20 second snippet recorded on a wax-coated cardboard cylinder (graphaphone) that purports to be of the voice of Queen Victoria. It is in fact, fairly certain that Queen Victoria allowed her voice to be recorded by solicitor Sydney Morse (who had distant connections with the pioneer of sound recording  - Alexander Bell), in an early experiment conducted at Balmoral in the autumn of 1888. What is less clear, however, is whether this recording found in the Science Museum, London, is the actual one.

Queen Victoria whose voice recording (apparently made in 1888) has intrigued and baffled historians.

Credit: From: Britain and Her Queen, by Anne E. Keeling http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/13103 via Wikimedia Commons

Whilst most of the recording consists of a poor crackling sound, there are listeners who have claimed that they can hear Victoria saying: ‘My fellow Britons,’ ‘Greetings, Britons and everybody,’  ‘The answer must be’ and ‘I have never forgotten.’ A grandson of Sydney Morse claimed to remember having heard the recording as a child and being able to make out the word ‘tomatoes’ – but, unfortunately, no subsequent listeners have been able to corroborate this! Perhaps you can do better? Why not listen to the recording yourself at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RVmf10OcVUQ

Find Out More

Paul Tritton. The Lost Voice of Queen Victoria: The Search for the First Royal Recording. London: Academy Books, 1991.

http://cadensa.bl.uk/cgi-bin/webcat Sound and Moving image catalogue at the British Library.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/6968321.stm How the BBC Sound Archive came into being.

http://www.charm.rhul.ac.uk/history/p20_4_1.html A Brief History of Sound Recording to 1950

http://www.recording-history.org/HTML/answertech1.php The history of the telephone answering machine.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dictaphone  History of the Dictaphone

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/11341071/Seven-unique-voices-saved-by-the-British-Library.html Listen to the voices of such historical figures as nursing pioneer  Florence Nightingale, suffragette Christabel Pankhurst, writer James Joyce, poet Alfred Lord Tennyson and actor Noel Coward.

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/in-search-of-queen-victorias-voice-98809025/ Article by Mike Dash on the early recording of Queen Victoria’s voice.

This article was first published in Discover Your Ancestors online periodical 2017.

My books provide similar creative approaches to family history

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Friday, 29 September 2017

Actually Listen - Tracing Your Ancestors Through Sound - Includes Example Sound File To Try

'Sounding Out the Past '

my article in November 2017's Family Tree Magazine UK

Recreate the soundscape of your ancestors' lives and experiences using the multitude of audio records online and in the archives.

Example: Click below to hear gardener John Cornelius (b.1949) talking about his ancestors who worked in the Somerset gloving industry (British Sound Archive file)

Finnish Broadcasting Archive, 1930, Wikimedia Commons

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Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Branwell Bronte - What the Records Hide

See my article to celebrate the bicentenary of  Branwell Bronte's birth in this month's

Discover Your Ancestors Online Periodical

By subscription

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Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Ancestors' appointment diaries

How did your ancestors organise their time?

See my article on ancestors' appointment diaries in this month's issue of Discover Your Ancestors online periodical (August 2017) (by subscription)

Read about how Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf and Emma Darwin used their appointment diaries. 


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Friday, 26 May 2017

Helen Stratton Original Watercolour - For sale

Beautiful original watercolour painting by Victorian/Edwardian artist and children's book illustrator

Helen Stratton (1867-1961)

   For Sale

Buy  Directly From naomi@naomisymes.com
or from ABE BOOKS: bit.ly/2rGrzUP

Helen Stratton, Walberswick Marshes

             Walberswick Marshes, Suffolk c 1910 ?

Signed by the artist

Detail from Walberswick Marshes - Walberswick bridge

Date unknown. An original delicate watercolour painting on card (unframed) believed to be by the artist Helen Stratton (24.5 cm x 27.5cm or 9.5 inches x 10.5 inches). Stratton is a highly-regarded illustrator of children's fairy tales. Signed with initials in bottom right-hand corner (active 1891-1925). Framer's plate (which is separate, but which has presumably been on the back of the picture when framed) gives provenance - Walberswick Marshes - Helen Stratton - and her London address: 113 Abingdon Road, Kensington. The picture, in greens and blues, is of a bridge over marshland. Walberswick in Suffolk was a haven for artists in the 1890s and 1900s and is associated with Philip Wilson Steer and his circle of English Impressionists. The card has suffered a little acidification from the original backing boards. Corners worn, one slightly split, some browning to edges, and light brown staining to top left edge, about 1.5cm wide. Otherwise very good. Bookseller Inventory # C15466

For more on Helen Stratton https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Stratton. Other illustrations by Helen Stratton https://binged.it/2qjaCjp

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Thursday, 11 May 2017

Mother's Day USA - A Mother's Record - Baby Books and Family History

Our Victorian and early twentieth-century ancestors, it would appear, had just the same desire to make memories concrete as we do today. Keeping records of a baby’s early life in the form of a baby book was one of many ways in which they set out to record, categorise and organise their world. Baby books may turn up among family papers or in second-hand bookstores.  Some may be advertised for sale on-line at bookstores and auction sites such as www.abe.com and www.ebay.com. And if you are lucky enough to come across such a book that relates directly to your family, it may provide you with a great deal of useful genealogical information and a lot of pleasure along the way.

Baby books were often beautifully illustrated and contained additional features such as songs, poems and extracts from literature. From Eva Erleigh, The Little One’s Log: Baby’s Record, Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. Partridge, 2nd impress, 1929.

Baby books first came into vogue at the end of the nineteenth century. Titles such as A. O. Kaplan’s Baby’s Biography (1891) and the Reverend Illingworth Woodhouse’s  Baby’s Record: Mother’s Notes About Her Baby (1895) comprised a list of blank forms in which mothers could record the important details about their child’s first years. In the 1920s, a number of prominent women produced a clutch of rather more sophisticated and detailed baby books aimed mainly at the upper classes. The Jewish child welfare reformer Eva Violet Isaacs (Marchioness of Reading) came up with The Little One’s Log (1927) which was published under her penname, Eva Erleigh. Lady Utica Beecham, the first wife of the composer Thomas Beecham (and from the same metropolitan social circle) designed Our Baby (1920).

All these writers used their Baby Books as an excuse to lecture mothers on all aspects of childcare or ‘mothercraft’ as it was sometimes known. Some hoped that their book would act as a medical reference for mothers, so that if a child developed an illness later in life, the mother could look back to their babyhood to trace why and when it had begun.

Given the fact that baby books were not primarily designed with family historians in mind, it’s surprising just how much useful genealogical information they can contain. It’s relatively common, for example, to find the child’s name, the year, month and day of the week on which the child was born, the time of birth, the place of birth, father’s name, mother’s name, father’s occupation, father’s birthplace, mother’s birthplace, mother’s maiden name, names of siblings, and addresses of the family’s home or homes. Baby books may also include the names and addresses of schools attended by the child with dates of attendance and there were often spaces for the date of Holy Confirmation, the Date of Holy Communion and the date of matrimony (assuming that the family continued to keep a record of the child’s progress into his or her adulthood). 


Less interesting from a genealogical point of view might be the physician’s signature and address and the nurse’s signature and address as well as details of the child’s christening including the hour, day of the week, month and year that it took place, by whom the child was christened, and the place of christening. There were also places to record dates of weaning, immunisations and hospital stays.

Baby books usually provide the names of a child’s godparents. These might well have been direct relations of the child. It was common, for example, to ask grandparents to be sponsors. But even if they were not directly related, the names of godparents might help you to place a child socially. Godparents were usually chosen because of their friendship with the family, and their social and financial position was carefully considered. It was not ‘the done thing’ to choose godparents from a very much higher social rank than your own family, but on the other hand, it was certainly hoped that godparents might provide for a child  - in one way or another - later in life.

Baby books can also be helpful in solving the mysteries of where certain family heirlooms came from. It was common to give items made of silver, coral or mother of pearl such as cups or porringers, knife-fork-and-spoon sets, basins, napkin rings and ‘comfit implements’. These are often listed in baby books next to the name (and relationship) of the person who gave them.

Finally baby books allow you to flesh out your knowledge of the first years of a particular individual’s life in a way that no other record really can. Even early examples include spaces to record the dates of the baby’s first laugh, first step, first words, and ‘pretty sayings,’ his or her first illnesses and the presents he received on his first few birthdays. There may also be places in the book specifically in which to keep material reminders of the baby’s development: photographs, locks of hair and even baby teeth. Sometimes, tables provide the opportunity to keep a monthly record of the baby’s height and weight, and the appearance of teeth. Some books even have spaces for drawings of the shape of the baby’s head or tracings of his hands and feet.  In addition, Baby Books typically contain envelopes for the storage of cards, telegrams, letters and even valentines sent to the child: all of which may include further family history clues. 

Filling in a Baby Book was primarily the task of a mother but other members of the family (including the child itself as it got older) might also have added details. The many hands at work within these books (sometimes retrospectively) may not always have been accurate, so be careful with the information you find. Eva Erleigh, The Little One’s Log: Baby’s Record, Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. Partridge, 2ndimpress, 1929.

Case Study: Baby Book of Felix Hope-Nicholson

This particular Baby Book evidently belonged to a rather well-to-do family. The child: ‘Charles Felix Otho Victor-Gabriel John Adrian Hope-Nicholson,’ was born on July 21st 1921 and was thankfully known to his family only as ‘Felix’. According to the details penned inside in black ink, Felix’s father, William Hedley Kenelm Hope-Nicholson, was a Barrister at Law at the Inner Temple and the family lived in Chelsea.

The book is reasonably well filled in with all the important details of the birth and christening recorded as well as some little gems such as (under a section headed ‘Journeys Made’) the information that baby Felix’s first trip abroad was ‘to Beaulieu in August 29th 1922 and thence back to London on October 14th.’

The family were evidently prosperous and rather showy. Nowhere is this more evident than in the description of Felix’s place of birth which is described as ‘Mamma’s blue and gold bedroom at More House, 34 Tite Street, Chelsea.’ The romantic phraseology shows how Baby Books are, in some sense ‘idealised biographies’ – giving the rosy picture of the family that they wanted to present to the world.

As with all such records, some of the information in the book is frustratingly non-specific. Under the potentially exciting heading, ‘Those present at the christening,’ appears the lacklustre list: ‘His parents, Grandparents, 4 of his Godparents, 5 great Aunts, 4 cousins and 10 friends, besides, of course, Lauretta and Nannie.’

A simple search for the surname ‘Hope-Nicholson’ on Google turned up an online obituary in the Independent from February 18th 2005. This recorded the death of Lauretta Hugo nee Hope –Nicholson (artist and wife of the painter Jean Hugo who was the grandson of the famous French novelist Victor Hugo). This lady is evidently the very same Lauretta recorded as having attended the christening in the Baby Book. The obituary goes on to confirm that she was Felix’s older sister.

According to the obituary, the Hope-Nicholsons had a difficult childhood. Their parents separated in 1937 and whilst Felix stayed in England with his mother, the two sisters went to live in France (at Beaulieu) with their father. So much for the hectoring advice from the book’s editor Lady Beecham about the merits of a harmonious marriage!

Useful Books and Websites

Lady Utica Beecham, Our Baby: A Mother’s Companion and Record. Leopold E. Hill, 1920.

Eva Erleigh. The Little One’s Log: Baby’s Record, Partridge, 1927.

Ginger S. Frost, Victorian Childhoods, Praeger Publishers, 2008.

A. J. Pierce and D. K. Pierce, Victorian and Edwardian Children from Old Photographs, Batsford, 1980.

http://www.victoriana.com/victorianchildren/baptism.htm On the etiquette of Victorian births and christenings.

www.abe.com  and www.ebay.com  Second-hand baby books may come up for sale here.

This article first appeared in the Discover My Past England 2010

USA: To buy my book on family relationships in the past especially motherhood, Family First: Tracing Relationships in the Past, click below


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Free Guide to Free Digitised Books (Helpful to Family Historians) online

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Books, Books, Books

Our family history research can lead us in some strange directions and up some new paths to find out more about subjects that we knew nothing about before. Whether you are interested in discovering more about an ancestor’s place of birth, his or her occupation, customs from the time at which he or she lived, or any one of thousands of other issues, you should be aware that there will probably have been a book (and possibly many books) published on the subject in the past.

Nowadays you can do your family history reading anywhere. By Mia5793 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays, however, the content of huge numbers of old books are freely available at the click of a button over the internet. Whole texts of books can be accessed (and searched) on screen within seconds from the comfort of your own living room. You can read such treasures straightaway online or download them to another device such as a Kindle, iPhone or Ipad for future consumption, providing that your device has a ‘reader’ for the book format that is on offer. Additionally, in many cases, books can be downloaded as searchable pdf files which can be easily read by most desktop and handheld computers.  A very useful article on the different ways of reading books via electronic devices is at www.moneysavingexpert.com/shopping/free-e-books#baen. 

Whether you have a particular title in mind or just want to browse areas in which you are interested, here are some of the top websites to get you started.

Some large sites of general interest

Man Reading - John Singer Sargent, undated. Wikimedia Commons

1.     Internet Archive

A not-for-profit archive including millions of digitised books. Special collections include: American Libraries, Canadian Libraries, European Libraries and Project Gutenberg (see below).

2.     Digital Books Index

This includes a wide range of texts from the ‘highly scholarly to the contemporary and popular.’ It is a Meta-index for most major e-book sites as well as thousands of smaller specialist sites. Over 14000 of the 165,000 texts are available for free.

3.     Universal Digital Library Repository

This project has the long term aim of digitising all the books ever written! Between 2006 and 2007, however, it achieved a smaller goal of digitising 1 million books (The Million Book Digital Library Project). The project was initiated at Carnegie Mellon University and has participating universities in places as far away as China, India and Egypt. More books are continually being scanned at 50 global centres.

4.     Project Gutenberg

This project provides the free full text of over
50,000 free e-books (mainly pre-1930s and so out of copyright) which can be read online or downloaded. There is no fee or registration process on this site but readers are encouraged to donate a small amount towards the cost of further digitisation projects.

5.     Wikibooks


This is a ‘collaborative book authoring’ website. Volunteer users from all over the world work together to write textbooks and other types of instructional books on many topics. If you have an area of specialty, you could join in. Otherwise, search the site to see if there is anything that might help your research.  

6.    The E-server

This site hosts short writings by over 35,000 writers, editors and scholars. The history section has items on such diverse topics as ‘medieval carpentry’ and ‘Russia 1914-1917.’ The non-fiction section includes the full text of such key historical works as Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.  

7.     Just Free Books

Searches the content of more than 700 websites that offer books without charge, including www.gutenberg.org, www.wikibooks.org and www.archive.org.

8.     Google Books

More than 2 million full text books now in the public domain are available for free via this site. Many more copyrighted books are included via excerpts and snippets.   

9.     Hathi Trust


Based on a partnership of academic & research institutions, this offers millions of titles digitized from libraries around the world. It includes the full text of books, monographs and pamphlets out of copyright and covers the arts and humanities, sciences and social sciences. You can also search for individual words within books.

10.  Internet Public Library

This site, hosted by the University of Michigan, is no longer adding new material but it can still be searched. It has over 16,000 texts searchable by author, title or Dewey Decimal Classification and is especially strong on 19th century English language items.

 11.   British Library

·        www.bl.uk/manuscripts/

Access to digitised copies of some manuscripts and books in the British Library’s collections, with descriptions of their contents. The site currently features the full text of the Library's latest major acquisition, the St Cuthbert Gospel.

Links to free digitised early manuscripts and books elsewhere on the web.

·        www.bl.uk/reshelp/findhelprestype/webres/rarefacsimile/

Links to free digitised facsimiles of early manuscripts and books elsewhere on the web. 

12. British History Online

A digital library, (founded by the Institute of Historical Research and the History of Parliament Trust in 2003), of key printed primary and secondary sources for the history of Britain and Ireland mainly between 1300 and 1800.   

13.  Humanities Text Initiative

Whilst this huge database (hosted by the University of Michigan) focuses on American history, there is a section on British and Irish studies. Of particular interest might be the links to Eighteenth Century Collections Online (www.quod.lib.umich.edu/e/ecco/) and Early English Books online (www.quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebogroup/).

14.  Europeana Collections

Explore 53,050,578 artworks, artefacts, books, videos and sounds from across Europe. Explore 53,050,578 artworks, artefacts, books, videos and sounds from across Europe.
A multi-lingual portal for over 53 million artefacts including searchable books (as well as images, music, and multimedia) housed in museums and other cultural institutions across Europe.

15.  World Digital Library


Content includes books, manuscripts, maps, newspapers, journals, prints and photographs, sound recordings, and films which can be browsed by place, time, topic, type of item, language, and contributing institution. Each item is accompanied by an item-level description (in seven different languages) that explains its significance and historical context. Books, manuscripts, maps, and other primary materials on the site are presented in their original languages (one of over a hundred!) and are not translated.  

Man and Woman Reading a Book, Carl Mautz Collection of cartes-de-visites photographs By Beinecke Library [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Some specialist digitised book collections

There are, of course, many, many, more online digital libraries focusing on particular subject areas or offering specialist services. These might include, for instance, books about a particular region, a particular time period or a particular discipline such as politics, religion or literature. These libraries might offer books in different languages, or in different formats, and e-texts to ‘borrow’ as well as to keep. Here are a selected few of the best just to whet your appetite.

1.     National Library of Wales

Includes 25,000 e-books many of them available in Welsh and on Welsh themes.

2.     Historical Directories (England and Wales)

www. specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16445coll4

Digitised local and trade directories for England and Wales, 1760s to 1810

3.     Histories of Scottish Families

www. digital.nls.uk/histories-of-scottish-families

Collection of histories of old Scottish families digitized by the National Library of Scotland. Transcriptions have been provided for each page.

4.     Manx Note Book

General information on the Isle of Man in history including some full-text digital books and old guidebooks. 

5.     Victorian Women Writers

www. webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/vwwp/welcome.do

Transcriptions of works by lesser-known British women writers of the 19th century, including poetry, novels, children's books, political pamphlets, and religious tracts. Hosted by Indiana University. 

6.     Fabian Society

www. digital.library.lse.ac.uk/collections/fabiansociety

Digitised versions of papers and published tracts by members of the Fabian society (1884-2000) – a great influence on the Labour movement.  Early members included George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb and Emmeline Pankhurst.

Includes digitised seminal texts by key Marxists which can be downloaded.

8.     Wellcome Library Digital Collection
The Library's digital collections include books on a wide variety of topics, including asylums, food, sex and sexual health, genetics, public health and war.

9.     International Children’s Digital Library

www. en.childrenslibrary.org

A collection of historical and children’s books from around the world in many different languages. The site is hosted by the International Children’s Library Digital Foundation.

10. World War One Document Archive

Includes digitised documents and books relating to World War One.

11. Bartleby (Literature)


Literature, reference and verse including a digital version of the Bible online, should you need one!

12.  Open Library

This American site has thousands of free e-books and many more which can be ‘borrowed’ for two weeks. It is helpfully organised not only by subject but also by time period. Many of the books are available in several different formats so that you can choose the one most convenient to you.

13. Bibliomania


Thousands of free e-books, poems, articles, short stories and plays. This site has the added feature of a Discussion board at the bottom of the page on any book or author where you can ask questions or post opinions.

14. Eighteenth Century Collections online

If you want to take things a little further back in the past, try this site for full text versions of many books published in the eighteenth century.

Boxout: Hands-free: Why not listen to your books?

In this busy world, it is sometimes just more convenient to listen to a book in your car or whilst doing something else, rather than to read it online.

15.  Librivox

This is a non-profit-making organisation, run by volunteers. Anyone - regardless of accent -  can send in audio recordings of whole books or chapters of books in any language which are then released back on to the net for free. The texts are provided by Project Gutenberg (see above) and the Internet Archive (see above) hosts the audio files.  
For other interesting and free audio books see, Open Culture (www.openculture.com/freeaudiobooks); Thought Audio (www. thoughtaudio.com/); www.etc.usf.edu/lit2go/; and Podiobooks (www.podiobooks.com/).

Woman Reading at a Table (undated) - Collection of National Media Museum, @FlickrCommons @WikimediaCommons

Top Tips:  Many old books, of course, have not (yet) been digitised but you can still use the internet to find out the location of an old-fashioned hard copy. Use either: www.bl.uk or www.copac.jisc.ac.uk/ to search for titles held in the British Library and UK and Irish academic, national and specialist libraries. To locate the nearest (ordinary public) library to you that holds the book you are looking for enter the name of the book and your postcode at www.bookmarkyourlibrary.org.uk/find-a-book. And if you wish to buy an old book, don’t forget that many rare titles come up for sale (and often quite cheaply) at www.abe.com and www.amazon.co.uk.  

This article first appeared in Family Tree Magazine UK in February 2017

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