Free Books Online
In a perfect world we might expect to find every book who's copyright has expired to be available free on the Internet. There is, however, money to be made by re-publishing these old books in hard copy and so the transition to having large quantities of free books on the Internet will take time. There will probably continue to be several flavors of "free" as we go forward and we'll try to sort them out.
Project Gutenberg began in 1971 when Michael Hart was given an operator's account with $100,000,000 of computer time in it by the operators of the Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the Materials Research Lab at the University of Illinois.
Michael decided that the best use of the money was not computing per se but inputting and storage of previously published documents including books. To qualify, of course, the copyright had to have expired. Today, over 3 million pages are available.
Since that beginning, PG has published thousands of books that are available free at the PG site. Titles and/or authors can be browsed online or complete list of books either by author or title can be downloaded in ZIP format. (ZIP is a compressed format to shink file sizes for storage or delivery over the Internet.) Any book on the list can then be downloaded into your computer and read at your leasure. Books are in straight ASCII text so any word processor can read it including Wordpad that comes with windows. Files are too large for Notepad.
Unfortunately, you won't find much genealogy or history on this site. Since they are not itemized by subject, it's hard to know what categories exist but a perusal of titles shows mostly classical texts. See books-online below for more information. As an example, there are 26 books by Edgar Rice Burroughs and over 50 by Balzac and all of the famous authors are represented. Click on the above logo above to see what PG offers for you.
Making of America
A site that's more in line with our goal of genealogy and history is The Making of America at the University of Michigan. Here's the introduction from their site with the number of volumes updated to Feb 2, 2002.
While just having access to this many books is impressive, the full text search capability is even more impressive. Type in an ancestors name and if he is mentioned in any of the books or journals, the book or journal name and the page numbers will be presented for you to read and/or download. You may go forward or backward a page at a time from that spot to get the full context. There are no genealogies but there are local and town histories and other works that might mention your ancestor.
Bartleby.com Great Books Online.
How can it get any better than that?
You can choose from Reference, Verse, Fiction or Non-fiction. Reference includes the Columbia Encyclopedia, the History Encyclopedia, Dictionaries, Thesauri, the Bible and Quotations just to cite some of the 42 books listed. Non-fiction includes writings of many scientists and others and includes 70 volumes of the Harvard Classics. Go there and check it out for yourself. You'll be amazed at how much free stuff is available. You can read books online or you can use the honor system to download them as e-books from Amazon.com for $1 a book. The e-books are available in three different formats and the e-book readers are available for free downloading.
Books-online is a mixed bag. It lists books that are free and books that can be ordered on line. It doesn't have a genealogy list but it does have an extensive history list and a separate Civil War list. Some books are available in more than one format. For instance Captains of the Civil War: A Chronicle of the Blue and Gray is listed as free if you download it as text or $99 if you order the soft cover from Amazon. The free version was created by Project Gutenberg and this may be a better way to approach that site since titles are characterized by subject.
Internet Public Library
While this site may not qualify as free Books, Internet Public Library is a compendium of online books and other information sites. Their mission statement is as follows:
Even if it doesn't totally qualify as a free book site, it's much too valuable not to include here. Resources are listed by subject and sub-category. Genealogy is listed but no actual genealogies are presented; most references are to genealogical web sites but the provided description will help determine if the site is appropriate to your needs. Under Arts and Humanities is a section on history that includes historical documents including old newspapers, Washington's diary, old photographs, and movies.
Don't overlook USGenWeb as a source of online books. Volunteers in many states have taken local histories, genealogies and gazeteers and placed them on the Web. The content, format and structure vary greatly from state to state and from county to county within a state. Consider checking the state and county in which you are interested to see if any of the books relating to that entity are on line. You can generally save these to read off line, probably best by highlighting only the portions of interest and saving those. Of course there's a load of other volunteer generated data also available here including cemetery epitaphs, census data, local genealogies etc that are beyond the intent of this paper.
How free is free? Is paying a yearly fee to have unlimited access to all of the books on line at a given site free? Perhaps not but if you downloaded all 500 books at Heritage Books On Line Library for the $30 annual fee you'd pay less than a dime a book. And they all fit our goal of genealogy and history. When you subscribe, you can search for a book or peruse the book list. When you find a book that you want, an index is presented along with the cover page of the book. Use the index to find if what you seek is included. You can download the entire volume if you desire, or just the pages of interest as found through the index.
Etext.at the University of VA.
The etext center at the University of Virginia has many etext available to download. One that I like was the complete Salem Witch Trials compiled by the WPA in the 1930's from the original court transcripts. It's here.http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/
There's also a place called etext.org that publishes material without judging it's content. It includes magazines and topics on religion, politicas, fiction and poetry. Go here www.etext.org.
Reading a Computer
Reading books on a computer is not exactly the same as reading a hard copy. There are some comfort aspects to be addressed. If you're going to spend time reading on a desktop computer, configure it for comfort and lack of neck strain. Human Factors Engineers suggest that the monitor be placed so that you look down at it at about 15 degrees below horizontal. Looking horizontally (or heaven forbid, above horizontal as mine is) is a common cause of neck strain. Using a laptop to read a book can be quite comfortable and hand helds with a large enough screen may also serve. Microsoft's new type enhancement for LCD screens can help make laptop and handheld type more legible.
This only covers the surface of free books. Many colleges and universities have books online and are adding more. Some of these are on a pay-per-view basis and appear to be geared to students. Searching for "free books" on a search engine such as Google will yield more results. Consider searching for the family or town you are seeking to see if Google turns up a free book.