Sources and resources

Using online books in family history

Books are an essential source for family history research and there are vast numbers of online books available for you to access from your home computer.

Books may contain family stories or family trees, or copies of records such as baptisms, marriages and burials. Or they may contain photos of times past, places we cannot visit or people we never met. They may also provide historical information which helps us understand what life was like in a certain place and time. This information can help us identify the types of sources available for our research and where the sources might be found now.

Where to find them

Here are just some of the websites with online books that can be used in family history.

The Internet Archive is the one that I use most frequently. It is a non-profit library of digital resources. In addition to books it also has movies, software, music and websites. Access is free, but you do need to register for an account to access all the content.

Open Library is a project of the Internet Archive.

Project Gutenberg claims to be the oldest digital library but has a much smaller collection than the Internet Archive and focuses on literature.

Google books makes finding books easier, but most are not available to read.

The Hathi Trust is a partnership of academic and research institutions that provides digital books from libraries around the world. You can log in as a guest, or read books which are ‘full-view’.

There are also geographical based websites, such as the Library of Congress for American research and the Digital Library of the Caribbean.

Many libraries provide online access to books in their collections. The NSW State Library and the National Library of Australia, for example, provide access to books, collections and databases to researchers who hold a free library card.

Tips for using online books

Before you use the information you find in an online book, it is important to take time to analyse it so that you can make an informed decision about the accuracy of the information it provides.

Check whether the entire book has been uploaded or just extracts. If the book contains a Foreword or Introduction, take the time to read it.

Examine who authored the book. What were their qualifications? How informed were they about the subject? What sources did they rely on? Is there any indication about their perspectives on the subject or potential biases? Have they written other books? How analytical and objective has the author been while presenting the information? What evidence is provided? How thorough was their research? How persuasive are their arguments? Is the book well organised and skillfully written? Have they provided source citations, captioned the photographs and included a reference list or a bibliography?

Who published the book? Do they have a good reputation? Are they known for publishing scholarly publications or is the target audience the general public?

When was it written and published? How does it fit into scholarly debate about the subject? Is the information still current or is it out of date or has it been refuted by subsequent work? When was it uploaded? Is there a later edition that may have additional information or corrected errors?

Check if the book is still under copyright. Older books may be out of copyright, which is great for family history because it means you can use images from the book in your own published work without infringing copyright.

Citing online books

Use the standard book citation format, but add information about where and when you accessed it to clarify which version you used. Some people suggest adding the full URL but I prefer to use the URL for the main page of the website. Do not forget to add the citation to images as well as text.


Oliver, Vere Langford (ed), Caribbeana: Being Miscellaneous Papers Relating to the History, Genealogy, Topography and Antiquities of the British West Indies, vol. 1, London England, Mitchell, Hughes and Clarke, 1910, Internet Archive accessed 23 November 2021.


Broaden your research with FANs

One of the traps to fall into with family history research is narrowing the target too much. Many researchers focus on just their direct ancestral line – parents, grandparents, great grandparents and so on. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes it is a desire to forge back into the past as quickly as possible, or to make the research task manageable. Or it may be an attempt to focus on the people who are thought to be the most important.

The danger of this approach is that it can result in information gaps, errors or a ‘brick wall’.

Research is the process of collecting information, which is used as evidence to support conclusions. A narrow research approach reduces the amount of information collected. This will mean that the stories you compile about your ancestors are pretty sketchy, but more importantly it means that you will have less evidence. With less evidence, inconsistencies are not apparent and the wrong conclusions can be made. Having more information increases the likelihood of reaching correct conclusions and the likelihood of having a comprehensive and accurate family history.

Information is collected from sources. Increasing the number of sources has the potential to increase the amount of information. It is not as straightforward as that, as the type and quality of the sources is also a factor, but that is a topic for another time.


To increase the information you need to gather as many research leads as possible. One way to do this is to expand beyond your direct ancestral line and research your ancestor’s FAN club. FAN stands for friends, associates and neighbours. The technique is also referred to as ‘collateral research’, but I like the term FAN because it presents an image of something opening up which is what this technique is all about.

Your ancestor interacted with a lot of people during their lifetime. By researching some of those people, you can gather more information about your ancestor. Some of this information will be direct – such as a record of an event that specifically mentions your ancestor and their FAN. Other information will be indirect – such as a story about disastrous floods that affected a FAN who lived near your ancestor.

Researching your ancestor’s FANS also increases the likelihood that you will obtain information from sources that are independent of the sources about your ancestor. Think of it like getting a second opinion. If two sources were created by different people for different purposes contain the same information, it increases the chance that the information is accurate.

How do you find your ancestor’s FANS?

Start by looking at people who were the closest to your ancestor. Within a family there may be siblings, aunts and uncles, half- and step-siblings, multiple wives and husbands, and more. Next, look at the people mentioned in the sources about your ancestor – the witnesses to a marriage, the minister who married them, the informant on a death certificate, the people who appear in the census with them and so on.

Researching your ancestors’ FAN club takes a lot of time, so it’s best to have a research question in mind. You should select the FANS who are most likely to provide information relevant to your research question. However, if you are just interested in collecting as much information as you can about a family, you could broaden your search to the locality in which they lived – who taught at the local school, who attended the same church, who owned the land next to them and so on. Then finally, you could examine groups who were potentially affected by the same broad forces or events that affected your ancestor –  for example, the convict period, the First World War, an occupational group.

What do you do with all the information?

There is not a lot of point in gathering all this extra information if you cannot make good use of it. You will need tools and techniques to analyse the information, see patterns and inconsistencies, and draw conclusions. I’ll be writing more about such tools and techniques in other posts.


Excel and family history are natural partners

Excel seems to be made for family history. It is designed to manage large amounts of data and one thing we can say about family history is that it generates a lot of data!

Let’s see…. If you had 5000 individuals in your family tree with just the basic data for each one (two names, birthdate and place, christening date and place, death date and place, burial place and date, and one source for each of those), that’s 20 bits of data; plus say five events for each person, with age, type, date, location and one source, that’s another 25 bits of data; some certificates and images for each one, with sources, another ten bits of data; alternate names, cause of death and identifier, add another five…. say 60 bits of data for each person, that makes a total of 300,000 bits of data in your family tree. And that’s a conservative estimate, as many of us have a lot more than five events per person.

One of the key reasons to use Excel in family history is that it not only stores a lot of data, but it has numerous ways for you to manipulate that data. This means that it is a really important tool for analysing your data and solving family history problems. By having a lot of data in one place, you can play around with the data and see patterns that you wouldn’t notice if your information was just in a family history database, a word file or a paper file. Plus, Excel lets you have thousands of columns and rows, which means you are not limited by what can fit on an A4 or A3 page.


Excel is great for research plans. The sort and filter features allow you to create subgroups of your data by where the records are held, which tasks are incomplete, by the location of events and so on. It is also great for timelines and lists of references or photographs. This example is an extract of the table I use to track how and when each of my ancestors arrived in Australia.

I will be running a workshop on using Excel for family history at the Society of Australian Genealogists on 28 July.