Unexpected finds: Learning about your ancestor’s life using the library and Google Books

An illustration from Children’s Stories of American Progress, circa 1889

One of the best parts of doing genealogy is the unexpected finds that bring your family history to life.  Genealogy is more than just birthdates and marriages.  It is also learning the things that made up your ancestor’s world, from food to music to school.

I recently had such a discovery.  I was at the Tacoma Public Library, hoping to find my grandmother in the high school year books from the 1920s.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find her (they only included photos of seniors, and she may not have graduated).  But another book caught my eye:  The Tacoma Public Schools Annual Reports, 1889-1894. 

I pulled out the book and discovered it was pamphlets that had been published by the Tacoma School Board during those years, and they shared wonderful information about the curriculum and reading lists for students.  My great grandmother Louise came to the Washington Territory in 1885, so the class lessons were just what she would have been learning!  I was able to read through the list of books she was likely reading when she was a fifth grader.  Some of the books I recognized, like Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.  It is fun to imagine that over a hundred years ago, my family was reading books I have read today.

Some of the other books looked intriguing, so I searched for them on Google, just to see what I might find.  One book, Children’s Stories of American Progress, by Henrietta C. Wright, I was able to find on Google Books.  I was able to read it online, because Google has made it available as a free eBook (you can see it here).

If you would like to search for a book that was printed before 1937, here is how to use Google to find them.

1.  Go to Gooogle.com in your web browser

2.  Type in the full name of your book, along with author.  Click the search button.

3.  On the list of results that comes up, look at the title of each link.  If the name of your book is in the title, there is a good chance you may have found it, or at least information about it.

4.  Next, look at the website address listed underneath the title of the link.  There are several website addresses you will commonly see in searches for old books:

  • www.amazon.com– this link would probably allow you to buy the book.  Wait on this one, as you may be able to read it online
  • www.archive.org– this link will probably connect you to an online version of the book.  This is a good one to click.
  • www.books.google.com– this link will probably connect you to an online version of the book.  This is a good one to click.

Once you click on one of the links that takes you to an online version of the book, you will be able to flip through the pages and read what your ancestor may have actually read.  You can sometimes save a copy of the PDF version of the book to your own computer for later use.  You may also do screen shots of the book to put into your family history narratives.