How to Find a Historical Book Online

Did you find a reference to a historical book in an index, citation, or another family tree?  

At one point or another, almost every family history researcher will find something like this and want to obtain the referenced book.  

For example, you may have found the name of an ancestor in our New York Biographical Index, which contains more than 580,000 names from 6,000 often-overlooked sources. And now you want to find the book included in the index so you can read the full passage.  

Ideally, you will be able to find a free version of the book online and access it immediately. But if not, you can at least locate a print copy in a library near you, or find one to buy used online. 

It might seem challenging if the book is old or rare, but in this day and age most books are relatively easy to find if you look in the right places.  

Read on for our top suggestions for tracking down books online. 

Use a search engine  

Take the title of the book, and perhaps its author or publisher, and query a popular search engine like Google. Search engines are remarkably effective these days – chances are if the book is referenced somewhere on the web, you’ll see it in the first couple of search results.  

Some other websites are mentioned below, but a general internet search is the top option because a site like Google will query all of the below-mentioned websites (and a whole lot more) with one search. 

Search the giants of free digital books—Google Books and Internet Archive  

Google Books and Internet Archive are essential sources of free, digital books. Google Books has more than 10 million free books to read and download, and Internet Archives has over 28 million.  

Many of the books on these sites were created before 1925 and are in the public domain—this is good news because many of the books useful to family history researchers were published before 1925.  


FamilySearch—a large non-profit organization dedicated to preserving family history records from around the world—is another website with a large digital library with millions of free books that are useful to researchers. 

They have many collections of traditional genealogical records, but they also have an extensive collection of digital books that are especially useful for family history research.  

Head over to the FamilySearch Digital Library—you can search right from the Digital Library’s home page and then sign in or register to read any books of interest.


WorldCat is essentially the world’s largest card catalog.  

WorldCat aggregates the holdings of over 15,000 libraries from around the world, so it is an excellent way to track down a hard copy of a book if you’re not able to find a digital one.  

Enter the book title on the WorldCat home page and use filters to narrow down your results if needed. Some digital books are also available through WorldCat.  

Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) 

The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is another great option for locating books and other sources online. The site is completely free and open to all, allowing access to millions of materials from libraries, archives, museums, and other institutions.  

Search the book title on their website, and make sure to read their guide for family history researchers—The Family Research Guide to DPLA.

With these five suggestions, you should be able to track down a digital or physical copy of the book you’re seeking. Good luck with your research!