Google Books for Genealogy

by Thomas MacEntee | Jun 14, 2011

Thomas MacEntee

There have been many modern changes to the way in which we read books - just look at the popularity of e-readers like the Kindle and the Nook. For genealogists, the most radical shift in accessing books has to be the advent of Google Books.

What Is Google Books?

Google Books started out as Google Book Search and is one of many services provided by the Internet behemoth Google. In essence, Google Books provides the user access via the Internet to over 15 million books which have been scanned and converted to searchable text.

Several features of Google Books that are important to genealogists and family historians:

  • Text from books in the Google Books database appear in the general web search at Google. So if you are searching for your great-grandfather Silas Austin and his name has appeared in a book, most likely you will find it on Google.

  • Some books can be downloaded to your computer. Depending upon copyright issues (see below), you can actually save a copy of the book to your desktop computer, laptop, tablet PC or even a mobile device.
  • Easy access to reference information about a book. You can access book reviews, maps related to the book and more - all making it easy to determine if the book is relevant to your research project.
  • Build your own online library. Researchers can mark their favorite books and organize them by topic or keyword for later retrieval. You can also share your finds with others and even create a link for your blog or website.
  • Buy or borrow. For some books, you can purchase a printed book right from Google Books or find a library where it can be borrowed. In addition, you can also purchase an ebook for certain works from the Google eBookstore.

Is This Legal? What About Copyright?

Many of the books available through Google Books were published prior to 1923 which is the cutoff data for published works in the public domain. This means that the copyright has expired and the book is publicly available to anyone.

There are, of course, exceptions and there is no "hard and fast" rule concerning copyright and free access to published works. For a better understanding of US copyright laws and what is considered in the public domain see Copyright Term and the Public Domain (opens in PDF).

In addition, there are some books for which the author or copyright holder has agreed to work with Google Books and make the book available - in whole or in part - via Google Books. So don't assume that anything you find using Google Books is in the public domain.

Searching For Books

The process of locating books related to your genealogy search is relatively easy, especially if you are already familiar with Google and you know some tricks. Here's how:

  • Instead of using Google's main site - - drill down to the Google Books specific site at
  • In the Researching a topic? field, enter the search term or key words.
  • Use search terms that are most helpful to your genealogy research:
  • Press Search Books and your search results appear.
  • You can also accessing Google Books search results during a Google Web search. Simply click the More drop-down list and select Books.

The Various Views In Google Books

Once you have search results, you must understand the various views available in Google Books in order to access the books and get the most out of Google Books. This is one of the most frustrating features of Google Books due to the misconception that all books located are easily accessible and can be downloaded.

  • Full View: the book is in the public domain - meaning the copyright has lapsed - or the publisher or author has requested that the book be fully viewable via Google Books. Besides viewing the entire book, you can also download and save the book to your computer, and print a PDF version as well.
  • Limited Preview: only certain pages of the book can be viewed via Google Books because the publisher or author has made such an arrangement with Google. Why would someone who owns the rights to the book allow this? Usually it is a means of increasing sales of the published work - much like the "freemium" concept used with certain software and website applications. You can only view the pages available, you cannot download, print or copy text. You will see a gray bar with the statement "Pages ____ to _____ are not shown in this preview."
  • Snippet View: a limited view, much like you would see in a library card catalog (remember those?) but also "snippets" or sentences on each page with your search term shown in context. Contains keywords, information about the book, the author and the publisher. In most cases this means that a copyright is still in force for the book and it can be purchased - if it is still in print - from various venues.
  • No Preview Available: similar to the Snippet View above but no pages are shown with the search term in context.

Viewing, Accessing And Using Books

The key word when working with Google Books is "viewing" rather than "accessing" or "downloading." Now that you have a better understanding of the different views in Google Books and what they mean in terms of how you can or can't view the contents, here are some ways you can use the books you locate. The majority of these functions can only be done for those books with a Full View availability.


  • Search terms. Your keywords will be highlighted in yellow in the text. To clear the search click Clear search.
  • Plain text. Click Plain text to move to plain text view. You can then highlight text and copy and paste it into an email or a document.
  • Clip. Click Clip to use the Clip function and share text with others or to embed the text image in a blog post or on a website.
  • Link. Use the Link function to create a link to the entire book or to embed the book in a blog post or website.
  • PDF Download the entire book in PDF format. Note: Once downloaded, you will lose the ability to search the contents of the book.
  • Contents. Display the table of contents and jump to other areas of the book.
  • Clear Search. Removes the yellow highlighting for the keyword search. Also makes the Search in this book field available.
  • Search in this book. Enter new search terms to be located in the current book.
  • Add to My Library. Include a link to the book in your Google Library private bookshelf or publicly mark as a favorite book.

My Library

One useful feature of Google Books is the ability to add books to the My Library application. My Library is a free application which allows you to designate your favorite Google Books - even if they are not fully accessible - for future reference. In addition, you can create a "bookshelf" based on keywords or topics such as New York Genealogy.

Note: you will need to establish a Google Account in order to use the My Library feature


Other Features

There are a variety of useful features for Google Books titles:

  • About this book. Clicking About this book in the upper left-hand corner near the book cover image, will reveal basic information about the book, the author and the publisher. Here you can read reviews by other Google Books users under What people are saying (or write your own review), see books related to your search term under Related books, view Other Editions, and even Bibliographic information.
  • Read on your device. In the right sidebar, click Read on your device and you will be presented with several formats for the book including those requiring Android, iPhone or iPad apps as well as EPUB and PDF formats.
  • Get this book. If the book is still in print, various online book vendors will be listed in the Get this book section.
  • Find in a library. The WorldCat listing for the book will help you locate a library near you where the book is available or arrange for an Inter-Library Loan.
  • Export citations. Scroll to the bottom of the About this book screen and you can see the Bibliographic information. In addition, you can export the book's citation text using several popular formats.
  • Magazines. While search results for magazines are interspersed with books in the Google Search results, you can also browse magazines. Note: the last two letters of the link indicate the language (en = English). Change this to fr for French, es for Spanish, etc.

Alternatives To Google Books

There are other websites that offer the same type of service as Google Books. For the most part, if the book is available on one of the alternative sites it most likely is available on Google Books. Check out these sites for more online access to books:


Now that you know about Google Books, how to locate books and how to put them to use, there is no limit to the ways in which this resource can help with your genealogy research. Many genealogists and family historians use Google Books to locate not just information on their ancestors, but to learn more about the history of their ancestral lands, to understand social and political factors that impacted their ancestors and more. Being "well-read" makes for a "well-rounded" person. With Google Books you can turn your 2-dimensional ancestors into more "well-rounded" 3-dimensional ancestors.

Additional Resources

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