I started using Google Books several years ago while doing a literature review for my doctoral dissertation. I found it an excellent source for information from published materials; some of the books, journals, and magazines featured on Google Books have been out of print for decades. Others are even over a century old. While there are other sites with old books and magazines, Google Books is by far the best.
Types of Items AvailableGoogle has partnered with libraries and publishers to allow some material to be available online through Google Books. All types of published material is available that runs the gamut from fiction to non-fiction, from textbooks to technical manuals, and from historical magazines to limited self-published genealogies.
The available materials are within the public domain as well as those currently under copyright. Based on the specific arrangement with the copyright holder, archive, or library, some books may have full view, limited preview, snippet view, or no preview. I’ll address each of these views.
Full ViewGenerally for materials in the public domain, full view documents are available completely online. These books/magazines can be saved as complete PDF files or pages can be converted to text so that pertinent information may be copied and pasted into family history programs or word processed documents. These items are either in the public domain or out-of-print with permission of the copyright holder.
In the US, anything published or registered for copyright prior to 1923 is currently in the public domain. Later copyrighted or published materials may be in the public domain if the copyright holder failed to renew the copyright on or before its renewal date. Depending on when a item was copyrighted or published and when the death of the author occurred, different dates apply when a work enters the public domain.
Limited ViewThe limited view is found for materials that are currently under copyright. Some, but not all, of the book is available for reading. In some cases entire chapters may be intact; however, usually key sections are unavailable. Search results return both available and unavailable pages. The book cannot be saved as a PDF nor can it be converted to plain text; however, print screen allows you to save pages as images.
Snippet ViewWhile documents in snippet view are frustrating, these still can yield important information for your genealogical search. Some volumes now in snippet view may eventually become full view, I have found one that actually regressed to a no preview status. I’ll discuss how to get around the limitations of snippet view later in this article.
No PreviewProbably the most frustrating of the returns are those published materials that are not available for view. While you will not be able to read any of the information concerning the search return, Google Books returns the number of times the search criteria was found in the volume. Complete publication information is also provided so that you may be able to find the book for sale or at a local library.
Examples of Genealogical Data I've Only Found on Google BooksDuring the same period as I was conducting my doctoral research, I started also using Google Books to discover aspects of my own family. I had some surprising results. These included the following bits of information:
- My great-great grandfather’s (John Gillon Owston) exact date of birth, his photo, and a brief history of his career as a rail road engineer. This sketch documented a period in his life in Saginaw, Michigan that was heretofore unknown (1863-1868).
Because of this, I was able to further discover that he had a wife of which I had not known – a woman he married and that he apparently divorced by 1873. While the information of the second of his three wives was not found in Google Books, the knowledge gained from his biographical sketch in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Monthly Journal provided a springboard for additional information on this key ancestor.
Since writing this piece, I also found a description of this same ancestor's surprise seventieth birthday party. It was found in a January 1897 edition of The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Monthly Journal.
- One of my great-grandfather’s first cousins’ literary pursuits. For about 14 years, I have known that Euphemia Frances Smith (under the pen name of Frances M. Owston Smith) had a number of poems that were published in Canada and the US. Over the years, I had not been able to find any of her published works; however, these and her biography were eventually scanned and uploaded to Google Books.
Her biography, which I had procured a number of years ago, was also accompanied by her photo in American Women: Fifteen Hundred Biographies with over 1,400 Portraits. In addition, her photograph, signature, and a half dozen poems were featured in The Magazine of Poetry: A Quarterly Review, Volume 5.
- An 1867 published short by another first cousin of my great-grandfather. “Elsie Frasier’s Work,” printed in Hours at Home, may have been based upon the experiences of actual family members named Frasier. The story is replete with examples of the vernacular of Edinburgh, Scotland.
In addition, Frances W. Owston also had a prize winning literary work that was published in the New York Observer in 1865. This information is referenced on Google Books; however, it is not currently available online. I had no prior knowledge of this short story entitled “The Brothers Leinhardt.” Perhaps someday it will also become part of the catalog of Google Books.
- Google Books includes a published story of another one of my great-grandfather’s first cousins “Rose Elliot,” Jane Gillon Owston’s example of prose drew upon the experiences she had from living in Edinburgh in the 1850s and 60s. It provides a look at life in a 19th century Scottish fishing village. The author was careful to provide glimpses of Scots English throughout the piece. This was found in an 1878 issue of Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine.
- A complete listing of my great-great grandfather’s first cousin’s family with birth, marriage, and death dates. This documentation was discovered in The Scottish Law Reporter’s analysis of the contest of John Gillon's will.
- The ancestry of my great grandmother’s family that chronicles several generations with key dates in The History of Montville, Connecticut – formerly the North Parish of New London from 1640 to 1896.
- Three Gardner lines on my father’s side that converge into one that can be traced back to King Edward III of England. This was found in Gardiner-Gardner genealogy: including the English ancestry of George Gardiner, immigrant ancestor of Newport, R.I., & many of his descendants, especially his grandson, Stephen Gardiner of Gardner Lake, Connecticut.
While a snippet view is only available on Google Books, I found the complete volume on Ancestry.com and was able to access our royal lineage. Ancestry's search of the family did not allow for a narrowing of the search that would have revealed this information. Therefore, without Google Books, I would have overlooked this extremely important volume.
- The names of my step-father’s three half siblings that did not survive infancy. One lived to be four months old, while the other two only lived several hours each. Even cemetery records did not have names listed for these three children - they were only recorded as "Infant Akerberg."
This information was found in a published family history that was written by my step-father’s step-mother’s uncle (got that?). Portions of this book were available last year on Google Books in short snippets of text, but since that time, textual access to the book was restricted to no preview.
- Although too numerous to specifically mention, most of my colonial lines are well documented in volumes found on Google Books. Anyone searching colonial families should have tremendous luck using this tool.
Maximize Your Searches in Google BooksThere are certain tricks on how to maximize your searches in Google Books; these same techniques will work on all of Google.
Search names as exact phrasesWhen searching for specific names, do so by exact phrases. For example, search for a name encased in quotation marks. For example, in searching for my great-great grandfather Isaac S. Champlin, I can do it by word or phrase. If I search by word as Isaac S. Champlin, Google Books returns nearly 16,000 hits. If I search by phrase as “Isaac S. Champlin,” Google Books provides only one return – the only pertinent volume relating to my search.
Search names in reverse orderYou may find alternate listings for a person you are searching by searching in reverse order. If I were to search for “Martin Brechall,” I would see a return of 149 references. By searching in reverse order for “Brechall, Martin,” I may find additional references in the 72 that are returned. One danger in this is a false positive which may return a page that is actually a listing for two different people such as “Reuben Brechall, Martin Swiger.”
Search multiple words or phrases with Google operativesGoogle provides a number of operatives that aid in narrowing your search.
The Plus Sign + is the AND/MUST operative is used when you want to insure that all of the search terms or phrases are used in the search. The plus sign must be next to the search term or phrase without a space on its right side.
To search for my ancestor Thomas French, I may want to make sure that the only Thomas French returned is the correct one. I can do this by formulating the search with the AND/MUST operatives as: +"Thomas French" +Burlington +"New Jersey."
Sometimes using the AND/MUST operative returns the same number as not using the operatives. This is really dependent upon the available materials. The larger number of possible entries will produces a larger variance between the two search methods.
If I search for my surname in relation to Pittsburgh (our family's home since 1838), I get 412 returns for a search of Owston Pittsburgh; however, this is narrowed to 405 when searching +Owston +Pittsburgh.
The Minus Sign - is the NOT/ELIMINATE operative and is used when you want to omit certain pages that contain a word or phrase. The minus sign must be next to the search term or phrase without a space on its right side.
If I want to search for my 3rd great-grandfather, I could just search his name. William Owston brings 12,100 hits. “William Owston” narrows the search to 241.
Since William Owston appears on a number Royal Navy lists, I can eliminate the word navy in my search as “William Owston” –Navy. This equals 175 returns.
The Tilde ~ is the SYNONYM operative. Using the tilde (up next to the word) will allow synonyms to be searched. This operative does not appear to work with phrases. Although this is an option, I find it less important than the AND/MUST and the NOT/ELIMINATE operatives.
Search misspellingsIf the surname you are researching can be spelled numerous ways, try searching an alternate spelling. With my surname of Owston frequently having been misspelled, I have found a number of references that I would have missed had I not searched for Owsten, Ouston, and Ousten. Several important links to my past were only discovered by doing a misspelling search.
Search names by initialsIn the 19th and early 20th century, men were often identified in print by their first and middle initials and surname. Encase the name within quotation marks such as I did with “C.W. Owston.” My great grandfather’s first cousin, Charles William Owston, was an executive with Standard Oil during the monopoly’s heyday. Several volumes reference him as C.W. Owston and give a clearer picture of his employment history. Searching his full or partial name does not return most of these references.
Disable Spelling AutocorrectOccasionally, Google’s algorithm will attempt to out think your searches by respelling words to what it believes is proper. This can happen with names or even with certain words. For example, I used the British version of the word gaol which is pronounced the same as its American counterpart – jail. During this search, Google Books rethought my spelling and corrected the search to be goal. This can be disabled by placing the word or name within quotation marks and Google Books will not autocorrect your spelling.
Getting Full Text Results from Snippet ViewAs mentioned previously, snippet view books and articles can be frustrating. While you may not be able to gain the entire text, you should be able to return enough to satisfy your needs. In relation to the above, I searched Google Books for my last name of Owston and “gaol” to see if there were any examples of individuals bearing my surname being recorded as a prisoner.
With my search, I found a snippet view book with information concerning an Ann Owston who was sentenced to death. With snippet view books, you may receive a portion in the description and a different portion with the partial page return.
Step 1: In the search summary, we learn the following:
“OWSTON, ANN (c1754-1811) Ann Owston was sentenced to death at the 9 August 1787 Croydon (Surrey) Assizes for the ...”
Step 2: When we look at the page snippet, we gain the following information; however, there is no continuity with the previous search summary.
“April 1807. The couple appear to have separated, however, and Owston returned to Sydney some time during the years 1797-1801. In 1806, she was reported as childless and a resident of New South Wales. She was living alone in a house in the Hawkesbury district [probably at Windsor] when she signed a . . . ”
Step 3: We then take a portion of the text in the Step 1 and search within the volume. This portion is "Croydon (Surrey) Assizes for the."
Step 4: We return to the main search page and enter the following “Lady Juliana, transport, age given as 33.” No additional information was returned.
Step 5: Since we are at a standstill, a search for the page number of 466 provides a key to other names on this page.
“Eight weeks after landing at Sydney Cove Owston was among 194 mostly female convicts sent to Norfolk Island, arriving 7 August 1790. In July 1791 Owston was issued with a pig under Major Ross’s plan to encourage convicts to become self-sufficient. The First Fleet convict William Blunt . . .”
Step 6: With searches on “convict William Blunt” not providing anything additional to the mix, a look at the second column on the page provides key language of “SE of Faversham.” This phrase was searched on the main Google Books’ search tool.
Step 7: While the link inside the book did not provide any additional information, the description in the search return added "21 October 1786 of a silver watch."
Step 8: Inside the book, "21 October 1786 of a silver watch" was searched which returned additional information from the opposite column that read: “(b. c. 1756, tried Old Bailey) received a pig on the same day. Her position on the list after his name indicates that their association dates about this time. In July Blunt was recorded supporting one other person on a one acre allotment at Sydney Town, the island’s main settlement. They were prob-“
Step 9: The phrase “allotment at Sydney Town, the island’s main settlement” was searched via the main Google Books’ search engine and provided the additional verbiage “allotment at Sydney Town, the island's main settlement. They were probably still subjected to convict discipline and required to devote part of their time to . . .”
Step 10: Using the main search tool, “convict discipline and required to devote part of their time to” was searched and returned the additional information: “government tasks; but most convicts in this position were allowed a shorter working week to enable them to attend to their land . . .”
Since a search of “enable them to attend to their land” returned nothing additional, the beginning of the next section with “Blunt was recorded as a constable in 1805 and died on the island.” This linked it to the phrase “in April 1807.”
While I am not going to carry out the entire process here, I believe you can see by alternating between the main Google Books’ search engine, and a search within the volume, it is possible to recreate a complete section from a book that only has a Snippet View in Google Books.
The following is the entire piece that took about twenty minutes to recreate from various snippets and page descriptions using Google Books:
OWSTON, ANN (c1754-1811) Ann Owston was sentenced to death at the 9 August 1787 Croydon (Surrey). Assizes for the theft of eight yards of muslin from a shop in St. Georges parish, Southwark. She was reprieved soon afterwards to seven years transportation and was held in gaol until about April 1789, when she embarked upon the Lady Juliana, transport, age given as 33.
Eight weeks after landing at Sydney Cove Owston was among 194 mostly female convicts sent to Norfolk Island, arriving 7 August 1790. In July 1791 Owston was issued with a pig under Major Ross’s plan to encourage convicts to become self-sufficient. The First Fleet convict William Blunt (b. c. 1756, tried Old Bailey) received a pig on the same day. Her position on the list after his name indicates that their association dates about this time. In July Blunt was recorded supporting one other person on a one acre allotment at Sydney Town, the island’s main settlement. They were probably still subjected to convict discipline and required to devote part of their time to government tasks; but most convicts in this position were allowed a shorter working week to enable them to attend to their land. By the end of the year the couple had moved to a 12 acre farm at Grenville Vale (lot no.20). Her son James (1794) appears to have died in infancy.
In June 1794 they were described as a childless married couple; they had probably been among the many couples married by the Rev. Richard Johnson when he briefly visited the island in November 1791 with no record of the individual ceremonies surviving, Blunt was recorded as a constable in 1805 and died on the island in April 1807. The couple appear to have separated, however, and Owston returned to Sydney some time during the years 1797-1801.
In 1806, she was reported as childless and a resident of New South Wales. She was living alone in a house in the Hawkesbury district [probably at Windsor] when she signed a deposition with a mark X on 15 May 1810 stating that she had been raped by Lawrence Finland at her home. He was acquitted when she failed to appear at his trial at the Sydney Court of Criminal Jurisdiction. Her burial on 17 September 1811 was recorded in the register of St. Phillips, Sydney. She was described as from London [meaning she was believed to have been born there], aged 65 [she was nearer 55 according to the age given on embarkation and had borne a child only 17 years before].
Notes: her name was rendered Owton on the 1810 deposition (AONSW CCJ 1810); see also SG 2 June 1810.
The above came from Michael Flynn's The Second Fleet: Britain's grim convict armada of 1790, 1993, Sydney, Australia: The Library of Australian History, p. 466.
Google Books is replete with examples of snippet view books that with a little effort may provide keys to important genealogical information found nowhere else.