Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Thursday, 11 May 2017

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 

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, and

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


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.


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 ( and Early English Books online (

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 (], 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)


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

3.     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


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


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


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 (; Thought Audio (www.;; and Podiobooks (

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: or 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 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 and  

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

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