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Researching Family History in Hathi Trust

It’s no secret that I love digitized book websites. I literally beg people to use them when I give presentations. It makes sense that I would be passionate about them. These websites provide researchers access to genealogical rich information at home, 24 hours a day/7 days a week. What’s not to love about that?

What can you find on a digitized book website? Plenty. Consider just some of the books that might aid your family history research:

  • City Directories
  • Local Histories
  • Histories
  • Encyclopedias
  • Family Histories
  • Indexes

In addition, these websites have all types of periodicals including those that were published for membership organizations, labor unions, and community groups. So yes, digitized book websites are truly the place where you “don’t have to know what you’re looking for” and still find what you need.


One digitized book website, not as familiar to researchers is Hathi Trust. Hathi Trust  is “a partnership of academic & research institutions, offering a collection of millions of titles digitized from libraries around the world.” What this amounts to is 120 participating institutions providing 16,385,034 volumes in which 38% are public domain works. In some cases the materials you find on Hathi Trust can only be viewed at a participating institution, for many of the public domain materials you would be interested in, you can view them from home.

If you have used other digitized book websites like Google Books, Hathi Trust’s interface will be somewhat familiar. Search by keyword in the search engine box found on the homepage. You can either search by  “full text” or catalog. A catalog search allows you to specify whether the search term can be found in the title, author, subject, publisher, ISBN/ISSN, publisher, or series title fields. A full text search (also available as an advanced search) will find your search term anywhere in the digitized text.  

To get started, I decided to do a search for the keyword phrase, “Quaker women.” This search only resulted in 23 hits. But if we look at some of those hits, it’s easy to see that they could be very useful to my research. They include histories as well as writings of early Quaker women.

Hsearch for the keyword phrase, “Quaker women.”
Click to englarge

Now, if I were to receive hundreds or thousands of hits for my search, I could use the tools on the left-hand side of my results to narrow my search and focus it according to what I needed such as a date of publication.

Once I find what I need, I can click on either Catalog Record or Full View. Catalog Record is just that, it’s a card catalog view of the item. Full view, if available, provides you a digitized copy. In this example, we are looking at the book, Memoir of Martha C Thomas, late, of Baltimore, Maryland (1837). 

card catalog view of the item
Click to enlarge


A Full View not only provides you the ability to read the digitized images but you can search within that specific book for names or keywords. You can also download a single page or the book as a PDF; embed a link to the book on your website, blog, or social media; or share what you found on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter.

 the book, Memoir of Martha C Thomas, late, of Baltimore, Maryland (1837)
Click to enlarge

As you can see this,  is an important tool for research. I suggest not only looking for books that might help you with the gathering of names, dates, and places related to your personal family history but also search for books that provide a social history background, for example, an occupation or an early homekeeping or recipe text.


One last feature of Hathi Trust that family historians will appreciate is their Collections. Collections are virtual bookshelves that users curate that can be public or private. By clicking on Collections at the top of the page, you will have the ability to search or browse various collections. Many of these are historical in nature an may help you find books that will be helpful researching an ancestor such as:

As you can see there’s a lot for family historians at Hathi Trust. Make sure to add it to your list of websites to search for your ancestors.


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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