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Finding and Using Digital Collections for Genealogy

Finding and Using Digital Collections for Genealogy

Are you using digital collections in your genealogical research? They are an essential resource that can easily be accessed from your home or in the repository you are researching. 

What are Digital Collections?

Digital collections are one of the benefits of an online repository that can scan and host all types of records, images, periodicals, and books. Anderson Archival defines a digital collection or a digital library as:

 …any collection of files that has been digitally preserved and is accessible on the Internet or through software. A digital library may contain manuscripts, newspapers, books, journals, images, audio, and video.[1]

For family historians, digital collections provide ease of access to documents, images, books, periodicals, and other materials that would typically require us to travel to a repository.

Where to Find Digital Collections

Digital collections can be hosted by libraries, archives, museums, businesses, or even individuals. While some are housed at a repository in a specific location (for example, the New York Public Library), that doesn't mean they only have materials for their city, state, or country. Exploring large repository digital collections may provide opportunities to discover items pertinent to the family or location you are researching.

Digital collections exist because of the dedication or mission of the entity that wants to take items they house and make them available either for free or by an online subscription. It makes sense that a university might scan and make available its yearbooks and then make available subscription digital collections for their students and faculty. In addition, there are examples of individuals making digitized materials available from their own collection or because of their passion for that record (consider Thomas Tryniski's Fulton History).

As you contemplate your research, consider what repositories exist in your research location and the state/province. Then look at their websites and notice any digital collections pertinent to your research. In addition, consider more extensive national and international collections to add to your research plan.

Examples of Digital Collections

The following is not meant to be an exhaustive list of digital collections, they are instead some that you might want to look into or will inspire you to search for those that would benefit your research:


Because it's online doesn't mean you can use a digitized item for publishing projects. Digital collections provide copyright statements. Consult these before using the digitized item in any publication online or off.

What Digital Collections are you Using?

Are you using a digital collection for your research? Is it a collection not mentioned above? Please share with us your favorites. Together we may discover digital collections that can break down a research brick wall.

[1] "What Is a Digital Collection or a Digital Library?" Anderson Archival ( accessed 8 February 2023).


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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I use many digital collections - the Vancouver Public Library has a wonderful digital collection of City directories from the late 19th and early 20th century for British Columbia:

Another BC favourite is UBC's BC Historical Newspapers - a project funded by the Irving K Barber Centre. It's amazing. The local museum where I volunteer has had two of the three local papers digitized through the program:

Over in England the University of Leicester also has a collection of city directories:

And then there are the digital map collections at the National Library of Scotland, London Metropolitan Archives, McMaster University Library, Princeton University Library, Harvard University Library, Penn State University Library, Norman B Leventhal Center (Boston Public Library), Libraries Tasmania, and the David Rumsey Collection. Many of these repositories have maps that can be used under Creative Commons Licenses, which is a boon for genealogy bloggers. As you might have guessed, I LOVE historical maps.

Finally, the Digital Panopticon is a fantastic collection dedicated to those accused and convicted of crimes, and includes links for those who were transported from the UK:

I could easily go and an list many more...

See also to search across a multitude of digital collections created at the community level and Ontario Community Newspapers ( for digitzed newspapers and index records.

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