Digital public domain libraries are full of genealogy treasures

I am fascinated with the number of small histories becoming available through various public domain digitizing projects. By “small” I mean histories targeting a particular event, military unit or person. Memoirs, regimental histories, journals and genealogies are showing up regularly. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the volunteers digitizing all these fabulous publications are focused on the process and often the catalog record only lists the most basic of information.

Wandering the stacks at the local library or book store is a delightful experience. Books are organized by topic and displays are designed to catch your eye and your interest. If a title or cover looks interesting, there’s the teaser to help you decide if this is the book for you. Browsing has always been a fun way to find my next read.

Browsing a digital library leaves a lot to be desired. If you know which book you want, it’s easy to find using the library’s search feature, but looking for inspiration can be a challenge. Barnes & Noble has the best online storefront. Each book has a synopsis, editorial and customer reviews, information about the author and recommendations for other similar books. And, thanks to e-books, we can now often download a sample to see if this is what we want. It’s a delight to wander through this digital display trying to grab both my attention and my cash. Why can’t public domain libraries provide a similar experience?

Actually, some of them can. The infrastructure is in place to provide much of this information. They just need some help in pulling it all together. One of my favorite online libraries is ManyBooks. It’s a great spot to find both fiction and research titles – all of them in the public domain so you can download them at no cost. Once you’ve registered, you can build your own collections – called bookshelves – or add them to your GoodReads collection if you are so inclined. You can download the book in any number of electronic formats so they are all readable on just about any e-reader. I find the reviews especially useful and, since anyone can add a review, it’s a good way to give back to the community. You can also subscribe to their RSS feed and learn when new books are added to the library. I have found journals, memoirs, military histories and biographies are regularly added to this library. It’s also been my experience that the e-books are better quality – better formatting, fewer typos, etc. – than many other public domain libraries.

Other public domain digital libraries include:

  • Project Gutenberg is one of the oldest and largest collections of digital books. It’s search feature is a joy to behold, but each book page is limited to basic bibliographic data and the list of format options available for download. If you know what you’re looking for, this is a good place to find it.
  • Internet Archive collections include video, audio and music along with texts and while each book’s page is basic bibliographic stuff, their Open Library project provides an editable catalog of all their books in a very user-friendly format. Users are encouraged to add descriptions, reviews and other information about the book.
  • Feed Books has a limited collection of non-fiction, but if you’re looking for some affordable pleasure reading, this is a good place. It has descriptive information along with the bibliographic stuff and readers often use the comments to review books. As with ManyBooks, Feed Books quality is a notch above many of the public domain collections.

These are just some of the online libraries offering digital editions of books useful in your research. The number of universities and associations building digital libraries is growing daily. We’ll take a look at how to find and manage their information in future articles.

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