NIAGARA GENEALOGY: Using Google Books to research your family tree

LIBRARY OF CONGRESSSoldiers read in barracks, circa 1918. 

Imagine opening a book and finding your ancestors' names inside. Too good to be true, right? Actually, it’s not that crazy.

Recently, I began working on a friend’s brick wall, which I highly recommend. (Just swap brick walls and see what happens!) This brick wall ancestor had a very common Irish surname and details were scarce. After running through my usual checklist of genealogy site searches with no luck, I decided to search the name in Google Books. Lo and behold, I find a story about this ancestor heading to America in 1826 only to be shipwrecked on an island where he and his shipmates remained for three months until being rescued by a passing ship. Besides this amazing story of survival, it also included details about his marriage soon after arriving, his parents and subsequent children. Jackpot!

Google Books is essentially a library you can visit from the comfort of your home. It’s a collection of digitized books and magazines from around the world that are out of copyright or in the public domain. As of 2019, more than 40 million book titles have been scanned and that number continues to grow. With most of us still staying close to home, traveling to a large genealogy library may be out of the question. Fortunately, Google Books is at your fingertips and should always be on your checklist when researching your family tree.

Highlights of what can be found on Google Books:

Family histories. This is one of the most common searches for genealogists on Google Books. Please remember that not all family histories will contain sources so be wary and confirm the information.

County histories. Definitely one of my favorites as they would often list information on a family as well. The area’s history, settlers and even religious affiliations are often included.

City directories. Created for salesmen and merchants, you will find a list of adult residents which often include their address, occupation and spouse’s name.

Church histories. If your ancestor lived in a faith-based community, you may find them in a church directory/history.

When starting your research, instead of the basic search form, try Google Books’ Advanced Search, which makes even complex searches a simple matter of filling in the blanks. Common surnames may yield millions of results but by weeding out certain phrases and words while focusing in on terms such as genealogy, family or history your results will be much easier to sort.

Still getting too many matches? Narrow your search by adding a date range. You can search on a range of years (example: the years your ancestor lived) by separating the low and high years with two dots (Example: 1800..1852) in the "All of the Words" box.

Any genealogist knows an ancestor’s name might be spelled differently in different records (and sometimes in the same record!). Search alternate spellings by including each variation in the "At Least One of the Words" box connecting the first and last names with a hyphen. (Example: Christopher-McCormick Christopher-McCermick) This can narrow your search down easily.

If you’re still getting a lot of irrelevant results, try adding other known facts such as a spouse name, a location, or even an occupation to the "All of the Words" box. Experiment with different search combinations until the results become more defined. You can also search by an event or profession within a region.

Spend time exploring Google Books and let me know what you find. Happy hunting!



Carol DiPirro-Stipkovits is a member of the National Genealogical Society and Association of Professional Genealogists. She is a board member as well as president of the Niagara County Genealogical Society. Send questions or comments to her at

Recommended for you