Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The impact of E-books on genealogy

Yesterday I worked with a patron at the Mesa Regional Family History Center that was looking for a book about one of her remote ancestors, a member of British nobility. She was wondering if there was a book in our library about this individual. I quickly found three bound journal articles containing references to the individual, but also helped her look online for additional material. I decided that this same process would work for many other researchers looking for printed material online.

The name of the distant ancestor was Sir George Beeston. There are several places I could start a search, but I chose to do a Google Books search first. By putting his name in quotes, I did an exact search on his name and found 667 results. Nearly all of these were for this specific individual. Needless to say, the patron was overwhelmed. However, she also wanted to see a physical book. In her words, "I just want to hold it in my hands." Most of the books that were listed on Google Books had free online digital copies. Choosing one,
Debrett, John. Debrett's Baronetage of England: Containing Their Descent and Present State, Their Collateral Branches, Births, Marriages, and Issue, from the Institution of the Order in 1611 ; a Complete and Alphabetical Arrangement of Their Mottoes, with Correct Translations ; a List of Persons Who Have Received the Honour of Knighthood, of Such As Have Been Advanced to the Peerage, and of British Subjects Holding Foreign Orders of Knighthood. London: Printed for C. and J. Rivington, 1824. 
I also found the book in website. The original book proved to be quite rare and not generally available, however there were several other editions and several libraries had copies. At this point she had the option of ordering the book through inter-library loan or being content with an online version of this particular book.

The trick here is figuring out that Google Books, and several other large digitized book databases are interrelated with links to each other. So the total number of scanned books online is extremely large.

What does this explosive growth of digitized books mean to genealogy? In one word: availability. Many genealogically significant books have been entirely unavailable. It is not unusual for someone to research their genealogy for a lifetime and then put all of the information they obtain into a book. My Great-grandmother did just that. But there was one problem, usually the author had little or no funds to print a large number of books. So the books were out of print as soon as the first printing was done. Many of these one-of-a-kind genealogy books have found their way into libraries across the world, but the library may have the only copy available anywhere.

Previously, the one and only copy issue was insurmountable. Even if you had access to the library, there was really no way of knowing that the book was there in the first place. So now we have and its counterpart Google Books. Now, at least, we can find out if the book exists somewhere in a library. For example, the book written by my Great-grandmother can be found in the Brigham Young University (BYU) Library. How would I know if did not tell me? But in addition, there are copies in five other libraries. Now, at least, if I wanted to see a copy of the book, I would have a chance of finding one.

In addition to being able to locate the book in a library, once a book is digitized, it will appear in an online collection. In the case of my Great-grandmother's book, the book was digitized and may some day appear in the Family History Archive, the huge BYU digitized collection. The reason I say someday, is because the website has yet to be updated and even though books are being digitized they do not necessarily show up online.

In many cases, these books have never before had anything approaching a general circulation and in addition, many of the digitized copies are completely searchable. I think we are only just now seeing the beginning of the changes that will come to research as more and more publications become available online.


  1. Digital e-books are a fantastic resource. Google books and my Kindle are a huge part of my tool kit. Even though I can search through the book online, I like having my own digital copy for reference. I recently purchased Adobe professional and have started taking some of the 800-page county history tomes that I've downloaded and running OCR text recognition on them. This way I can search the content on my computer or kindle - AND insert e-bookmarks, e-comments, e-sticky notes, etc. Carrying an 800 page book around in my kindle is much lighter than the real book.

  2. I have to admit I have been slow to go digital over print when it comes to book. I am not just a book lover, I am a book addict! But James and you and Susan's comment have given me reasons to see the merit of both! Thank you for the excellent post!