The Portable Research Library

eReaders and tablets have become a must-have tool for genealogical research. We can now carry our genealogy databases with us to the research library, read while we sit in the waiting room and scan documents wherever we find them. They also give us the ability to keep a research library with us wherever we are.

What do these devices 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 a device with hundreds of books so you can carry an entire reference library with you at all times–without breaking your back. Even if you have limited storage on your tablet, you can keep your library in an easily-accessible cloud storage account. 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.

These tablets and readers can also read PDF documents. I’ve 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 iPad. Since they’re searchable, I can quickly get right to the passage I need using my reader app’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 reminding 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 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 or tablet to your digital toolbox.

Send to Kindle Button

Bloggers can now add a Send to Kindle button to their posts which gives their readers the opportunity to send that post to their Kindle device/app to read later. For WordPress users, there’s a plugin for easy setup. Blogger users can create a widget, then copy the code to your site. Both pages have details on customization and installation.

From what I see in the instructions, this setup works best for blogs with “classic” themes. When the theme is highly customized, the widget/plugin will also require customization to insure the content sent to the Kindle will display properly.


Creating Kindle Docs

My fascination with the Kindle is two-fold. Yes, I love the reader itself because it’s just the right size and so easy to use, but it’s also the reader of choice for a growing number of people in my family. We have our own little community of Kindle users which continues to grow as older members upgrade and pass their old readers on to the younger crowd. Not only do we share books, but thanks to the Kindle Personal Document Service, I can create and share family stories quite easily.

No, you don’t need any special software to create a document to send to a Kindle device. All you need is an app that can save documents in Word format (.doc or .docx). Once your document is created and saved, send it on to the Kindle (or Kindles) of your choice and Amazon will convert your Word document into Kindle format before delivering it to the device(s). Here are some formatting tips to give you the best results possible:

  • Stick to one font throughout the document and use a standard font rather than a decorative one.
  • Take advantage of your word processor’s styles feature to format headings and paragraphs. Use the Normal style to define things like paragraph indention and space between paragraphs. Not familiar with styles? See the All About Styles fact sheet below.
  • To force a new page to begin at a specific point in the text, use the Insert > Page Break command.
  • Don’t use the Return key to add space within the document.
  • Using bold and italicized text is fine, but headers and footers, bullet points and fancy fonts won’t convert so leave them out.
  • You can include tables, if needed. Just remember that screen size is quite limiting and large tables will be difficult to read. Use the Insert > Table command to add you table to the document.
  • Take advantage of Word’s table of contents generator if your document is large enough to need one.
  • Images should be inserted using the Insert > Picture command to insert an image file. Don’t use copy/paste . Only use JPEG format for your images and insert them on a blank line using center alignment.
  • For e-Ink readers, generally an image sized at 600 x 800 pixels will fill the screen. Size limit for each image is 127KB.
  • It’s okay to use color images (not every Kindle is black and white) but e-Ink devices will display them in 16 shades of gray. My experience is that images with less contrast (like screen shots with lots of white background) look quite washed out on those screens.

You can distribute your document to your family using their Kindle’s email address. You will need to get that address from them and have them add your sending address as an authorized source for personal documents in their account. You can also send them the Word document and they can use the Send to Kindle app [Win & Mac – free] to send it to their device themselves.

What about those people who don’t have their own Kindle devices? There are free Kindle reading apps for desktops, iOS and Android devices, Windows Phone and Blackberries. If none of those works, there’s the Kindle Cloud Reader for browsers.

Creating content to read on a Kindle device is easy enough that it’s not only a great way to share your family history stories with your family, it’s also a convenient way to build your own research reference library on your own Kindle. Try it yourself and see!