5 Public Domain Sites That May Help You Find Your Ancestors

Nothing lasts forever, not even copyright. For researchers this is a good thing, it means that we can not only access works created in the past, but also use them in our own publications, presentations, and work in general. It might not seem like an obvious source, but I have found surprising and exciting information for my clients among public domain works that have been digitized and made available online. As a follow up to last week’s post about Public Domain Day, here are a list of online sources for works that are in the public domain.

Internet Archive

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This is one of my favourite repositories and the first one I turn to when I start branching off from the usual genealogical databases. It’s full of city directories which are an invaluable resource for following an individual’s life year by year. I’ve also found publications put out by the Chamber of Commerce that gave information about the company an individual I was researching worked for and the type of job they did. You can learn a lot about where your ancestor lived and what it was like during their lifetime. Much of the website’s holding were donated by universities and archives, and when you find something that’s useful you can easily view the rest of the collection to see what else they have that’s related. They also run the Wayback Machine, an archive in websites going back to the dawn of the internet. Fall down the rabbit hole at archive.org/.

Project Gutenberg

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This is probably the most well-known source for public domain works. with over 57,000 available titles in a variety of ebook formats, you’ll find a wealth of information in several languages. Want to read the very first issue of The Atlantic Monthly from 1857? It’s there. Is one of your ancestor’s an escaped slave? Read Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom for a firsthand account of what that may have been like. You can easily get lost browsing the pre-made bookshelves, alone! Check out the project, and even sign up to be a volunteer proofreader, at gutenberg.org.

Digital Public Library of America

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DPLA is a gold mine for family history research. You might find the meeting minutes of the local clubs and organizations your ancestor belonged to, or photographs or maps of the town where your ancestor lived. They have collections of family photographs, school yearbooks, oral histories, published genealogies, even family bibles. The holdings draws from libraries and archives all over the United States, including the New York Public Library, Harvard University Library, and the Library of Congress. See if you can find your great gransfather’s military photo and many other treasures at dp.la.

European Collections

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Europeana is basically DPLA across the Pond. It provides access to digital collections from thousands of libraries all over Europe, including the British Library and other national libraries. You can browse their curated collections on archaeology, fashion, and natural history. They also have over 4 million newspapers from across Europe, which is invaluable for researchers, especially considering how narrow in geographical focus most online historical newspaper sites can be. They even have a collection of royalty-free images that anyone can use (the image I chose for this post’s heading is from this site). The site itself is available in over two dozen languages. Look for your European ancestor’s wedding announcement at www.europeana.eu.

Google Books

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It may seem too obvious to include, but Google Books is an excellent source of public domain books for research. Most people think of it is a source for modern ebooks, but it also has city directories, trade magazines, and lots of sources of historical information. Try plugging your ancestor’s name into Google Books and you may be surprised by what you find. I found one of my ancestor’s listed in a professional chemists and druggists newsletter; not because he was a druggist, but because he was accused of highway robbery against the daughter of a chemist (he was later found innocent). I already new about this even in his life, but this find added some details that I hadn’t come across anywhere else. Get ready for some surprising finds at books.google.com.