Building a Digital Research Library

What do ebook readers (devices and apps) provide that makes them so useful to family research? First, every ebook is fully searchable. You can quickly find things that never show up in the index of a print book. You can load an ereader device with hundreds of books so you can carry an entire reference library with you at all times–without breaking your back. Many devices and apps offer the ability to highlight and annotate your books. Some even let you share your notes with others. Speaking of sharing, a growing number of ebook sellers let you lend your purchased books to others, and many public libraries have subscribed to the OverDrive service so they can offer ebook lending, too. For those of us with aging eyes, one of simplest, but most useful, features is the ability to adjust the font size of your book’s type. Oh, what a joy that is!

Most of the ereader devices can also read PDF documents. I have spent a lot of time and effort scanning family documents, genealogical and historical society periodicals and other useful documents into searchable PDFs and I can now read them on my Kindle and iPad. Since they’re searchable, I can quickly get right to the passage I need by using my reader’s search function.

How does all of this put me into a “better place” as far as my research goes? First of all, I have the books and documents I frequently use on my iPad as either an ebook or a PDF. They are with me at the research library, the Family History Center and on a research trip. I’ve moved my magazine subscriptions to digital whenever possible and although they aren’t as search-friendly as other publications, I can maintain my collection of back issues with little effort and no guilt. I’ve been digitizing the society journals that don’t yet offer electronic versions of their pubs – and frequently remind them how much money they would save if they did offer digital editions. My workspace clutter is slowly beginning to disappear and I’m finding it easier to put my fingers on the information I need thanks to my computer’s search box.

There has been another unexpected – and very pleasant – result of my move to a more digital library. There are a number of public domain digital libraries that are digitizing dozens of new books every day. Many offer news feeds announcing each new book added to the collection. You’ll be amazed at the number of local histories, personal memoirs, regimental histories and published genealogies that are being digitized. Then there are the 19th century periodicals like Harper’s and The Atlantic, along with a growing number of alumni magazines from universities and even medical and scientific journals. All of these can provide some amazing research jewels.

Where do you find these nuggets of genealogical goodness? Here’s a list of digital libraries to get you started:

  • Internet Archives. This is a truly amazing organization dedicated to digitizing not only books but audio, video, web sites and more. In the Texts section you can browse the many libraries and collections or search for specific content. They offer an RSS feed announcing their latest additions. A quick look at the collections included in the American Libraries section shows some familiar names–Allen County Public Library, New York Public Library, The Library of Congress and the Georgia Historical Society. The site has a web-based reader so you can navigate and read books right in your browser, and they offer downloads in formats for just about any e-reader.
  • Google Books. Google has been digitizing books for years. The collection includes both public domain and copyrighted publications. They also provide a web-based reader and downloadable files. And, being Google, it has amazing search functionality. You can create a personal library in your Google profile to keep the useful books within easy reach, or download copies in several formats.
  • Project Gutenberg. This is the oldest and largest library of digital books. Since 1971, volunteers have been digitizing books and making them available to all. It’s not the best platform to browse, but does have a very good search engine. You might also check out the various bookshelves (topics) for books related to specific historical events or geographical locations. Books can be read online or downloaded in a number of formats.
  • ManyBooks is a much smaller library but has two things that make it very useful–RSS feeds by category and a very pleasant browsing experience. Titles often include nice descriptions and there is a facility for readers to add their own reviews. It also offers a large number of download formats. Although I use this library more often to find pleasure reads, the RSS feeds have delivered several histories that have provided useful tidbits for my family research.
  • The recent opening of the Digital Public Library of America has demonstrated the tremendous potential digital archives offer. Hopefully DPLA and its contributing archives will combine their contents under one search engine.

The efforts by these groups–and many others–to digitize historical books and publications are quickly becoming yet another research asset for the family historian. You can access any of these resources right from your desktop, but as your library grows you may well want to add an e-reader (device and/or app) to your digital toolbox.

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