In today’s world of the getting the latest and greatest “thing” - online genealogy researchers have a big advantage… Old books are a good thing to have, and you can find them online for free!

How would you like to get your hands on some rare old books about the land(s) your ancestors came from? They were written long ago and lead you into a place and time, generations ago, that is a part of your heritage. You can. In fact, you can start reading those books in the next few minutes….

In the past, I have written about how to find old genealogy books on-line at a discount,  (See: How to Find Rare and Valuable Genealogy Books for a Low Price) but today I’d like to introduce you to the world of public domain books.

Public domain means that the work is free to use without paying royalties. So, not only can you learn about the life and times that your ancestors lived and round out your personal research, you can freely use any of the text, photos or illustrations in any of your genealogy projects.

For example: Let’s say that you are preparing some pages to send to your family or distant cousins and you/they have several ancestors from Ireland. Having the normal genealogy information is a must: Born, died, dates, etc. You know, the vital stuff. This is a must. But why not jazz it up with some family stories that you know about and include some information about Ireland as well?

You are not in school anymore. And who wants to write a report on Ireland from scratch? You don’t need to. You can use public domain material - and what interesting things you will find.

Using Project Gutenberg

One of the best online resources for old public domain books is “Project Gutenberg.”

The Project Gutenberg search box

On the left-hand side of the Project Gutenberg home page you will see the search box. For now, use the Title Words(s) box to enter your keywords.

Note: The search engine methods that I teach using Google and other Internet search engines will NOT work here. You are limited to entering a few keywords.

Try this and follow along with me:

  • Enter the key words ireland history and click on the Go button:
Working with a search result in Project Gutenberg

There are many promising results about Ireland to be found.

  • Click on the “An Illustrated History of Ireland from AD 400 to 1800” link.

How to use the 'Formats Available for Download' section

This will take you to the “Format Available for Download” section for this book. Don’t worry, you do not have to download anything. You can view this book online.

Here are a few important things to keep in mind:

  • Look at the left column called “Format” of this area. You can view this book in HTML (which is a Web page) or in Plain text. Since this book is illustrated, you want to see it in HTML format because you want to see the pictures. Simply click on the link that says “main site” which is under the “Download Links” column on the right.
  • Note the column the says “Compression.” There are two rows that give you the HTML option. The option that you DO NOT want to use is the “zip” option. This will take you to a compressed file of the book. Of course, if you are comfortable using zip files, go for it.
  • Again, note the “Compression” column. You will always want to choose the option that says “none” when you look at these online books. This will let you view any of the books on Project Gutenberg like a Web page.
  • Some of the books will be in the Text format only. Be sure to click on the “main page” link that is not in the zip format when viewing these text only books as well.

This is simple when you know what to look for. Now you do!

You can see many illustrations and pictures when you choose the HTML format

Here is is one of many wonderful illustrations in this book. You will find photographs, maps and other original graphics found in these books (some may be in color) when you choose the HTML format to view a book on Project Gutenberg.

What keywords should you use?

If you do a search using the key word genealogy, you will come up empty-handed with no results. That may change as new books are added, but for now, nothing. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a treasure trove to be found by the online genealogy researcher. There is…

Place Names are a good way to start a search. Also, place names with the key word history will bring good results. Don’t forget the use variations on your place names. For example, the key words ireland and then irish (on a separate search) should be part of your key word searches if you have any Irish ancestors.

Here’s some examples of key words you can use:

  • history (Just for the fun of seeing what comes up)
  • ireland history
  • irish history
  • war ireland
  • war irish
  • scotland history
  • scottish history
  • census
  • u.s. census
  • journal scotland
  • journal scottish
  • diary scotland
  • diaries scotland

Here are a few good things that I found and bookmarked:

You get the idea. Experiment with keywords using the place names that you are interested in. Also, if you are interested in any war that your ancestors were a part of, you will have good results. For instance, type in the key words civil war and see what happens.

Try some searches using the tips that you’ve learned so far and you will see what a valuable resource Project Gutenberg is for you and your genealogy and family history research.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also share this with you…

You will find the most interesting diaries and journals from people that have left this earth long ago. You can get great insights from many of these journals and see what it was like to live in their time and place.

There are hundreds and hundreds of old novels that have been written long ago. If you are interested in fiction, this is a wonderland.

However, I’d like to show you an excellent example using one of the classic writers, Mr. Charles Dickens himself.

Finding literature and other things on Project Gutenberg 

Using only the key word dickens (in the Author keyword box from the main page of Project Gutenberg) I came to this single result. But when I click on the link “Dickens, Charles 1812-1870” under the Author column…

Example using Charles Dickens 

ALL of his work is listed. Do you have a favorite “classic” writer? This is the place to be.

All of Charles Dicken's work is here - some as an MP3 free audio books 

Look closely at the list of Dicken’s work. Note the little icon that looks like a speaker. You can also get free AUDIO BOOKS (in MP3 format or iTunes format for you iPod folks) on Project Gutenberg.

How to download free audio books from Project Gutenberg 

This is the exception to the rule when it comes to downloading. You will need to download the MP3 files. Once you do, you can listen to them while sitting at your computer or load them onto your MP3 player or iPod.

Downloading audio files is easy. You need to RIGHT CLICK the “main site” link, making sure that it says either MP3 Audio or Apple iTunes Audiobook under the Format column.

How to save free audio books from Project Gutenberg 

Then you save the audio file (in this case, an MP3 file) to your computer. You can and should change the name of the audio file to something you can easily recognize instead of the number that Project Gutenberg gives it.

Note the example here: I can name the MP3 (the title shown here in blue) whatever I want at this point.

Go wild, have fun and use this fantastic resource to help you fill in the blanks about the life and times of your ancestors.