Meet the Genealogy Gophers

Did you know that there are thousands of digitized family histories, regional and local histories, genealogy magazines along with how-to books, gazetteers, newsletters, and medieval histories freely available online? Organizations like Project Gutenberg, FamilySearch, Internet Archive, Google Books and educational institutions have been hard at work for years. That’s both good news and bad news. While there are a lot of freely-accessible publications available, finding them can be a challenge. That’s where Genealogy Gophers comes in. The Gophers have built an amazing search engine that will not only find the publication, but find – and display – the information that matches your search. In the example below, I’m looking for information about my ancestor, John Lewis Gervais, in South Carolina.

Sample Search Results


Within seconds I had two pages of results with excerpts showing the information matching my search. Clicking the title will display a screen that includes source information for that publication along with a reader opened to the page where the information on my ancestor appears.

the reader screen

In this example, there is only one page referencing my ancestor. The orange pointer you see at the bottom of the reading window is a bookmark to that page. In publications where there are multiple results, you will see additional pointers. Click on a pointer to move to that page. There are also controls to navigate forward and backward in this book, enlarge or reduce the view and more. Notice the link at the top of the reader to download a PDF copy of the publication.

Genealogy Gophers is free if you don’t mind responding to a number of surveys. If you don’t like surveys, a $19.95/year subscription will remove them.


The Internet Archive

The Internet Archive is a non-profit organization that is building a free, online library. It’s goal is to offer everyone permanent access to historical collections. It’s doing this by digitizing just about anything.

American Libraries

Their collections include documents, books, music, movies, images, software and more. The Genealogy Collection contains more than 122,000 text items from a number of impressive sources. Here is their description of this collection:

The Archive’s ever-expanding collection of genealogy resources includes items from the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana; Robarts Library at the University of Toronto; the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Library; Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah; the National Library of Scotland, the Indianapolis City Library’s Indianapolis City Directory and Yearbooks Collection, The Leo Baeck Institute Archives of German-speaking Jewry, and the Boston Public Library.

Resources include books on surname origins, vital statistics, parish records, census records, passenger lists of vessels, and other historical and biographical documents.

It costs you nothing to use Internet Archive. You don’t have to create an account to use the archive or download items, but having an account allows you to build your own library. Log in and start favoriting things you like. They not only show up in your library, but Internet Archive even indexes all the things you’ve collected so you can easily find them when you need them. See a view of a personal library in the example below. The topic index is on the right.

Fant Genealogy

For text items, you can read the item online or download a copy in the format you prefer. This example shows a published genealogy for the Fant family from the Family History Library. Notice the download options box at the bottom right. The quality of any document depends on a number of factors including the condition of the original publication and the scanning process used. Often a downloaded PDF copy is the best reading option. One big advantage of the online reader is its seach feature. Click the magnifying glass icon to build and activate your search. Once the search is complete, a timeline appears at the bottom of the reader with bookmarks for each find matching your search. Hover your mouse over a bookmark to display the found text. 

The genealogy collections include a surprising number of local and regimental histories along with periodicals from genealogical and historical societies.

The Internet Archive is enormous, but don’t let that intimidate you. Start by visiting the Genealogy Collection. The Help section offers lots of useful tips. It won’t take long to learn how to take advantage of this amazing resource. And, it’s not just for research either. Internet Archive also hosts the Open Library of free public domain ebooks.

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.

Originally published at Moultrie Creek Gazette.

How to Build a Virtual Research Library

Learn how your society can build a virtual research library.

One of the most exciting technologies to impact our research efforts is digitization – especially digitizing books. Every day, more books are digitized and posted online for anyone to read and/or download. Although books still protected by copyright have limited access, there are millions of books in the public domain that are freely available. How do these “old” books help us as a society? They…

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Internet Archive’s Digital Library

The Internet Archive is building a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form. Like a paper library, we provide free access to researchers, historians, scholars, the print disabled, and the general public.

Internet Archive: Digital Library of Free Books, Movies, Music & Wayback Machine

This is Internet Archive’s description of itself. It says it all – but doesn’t come close to describing how awesome it truly is.

The inventory of public domain (no longer in copyright) books, magazines and other media is huge. A number of organizations are digitizing their collections and making them available online – many at Internet Archive. For the researcher it’s a treasure of regimental histories, compiled genealogies, local histories – all searchable. For the reader, it’s a library of the classics (and not so classic) which can be downloaded to just about any digital device.

Spend some time wandering the virtual stacks and see for yourself. Watch a Bob Hope Christmas special from Southeast Asia or read the official Spanish account of their attack – and defeat – on the Georgia colony in 1742.