Seeking names, dates, places, relationships -- it’s the great fun of genealogical research. So much fun, in fact, we may forget that some background reading is in order now and then. No instant gratification here, so it is not easy to tear oneself away from the treasure hunt long enough to sit down with a book and notepad (digital or analog).
In writing up a narrative for my paternal line, descended from Thomas Cain who settled in Delaware in the 1700s, I wanted to fill out the picture with some details on living conditions, social life, and what the surroundings were like, so it became necessary to turn to just such background material. Here is how you can do the same.
The first step of course is to learn what is out there. In the old pre-computer days, one went to the library and looked for appropriate subjects in the card catalog. Even children’s books could be helpful (and still can) in explaining matters (besides, they have pictures). If nothing came up, the next step was to ask the reference librarian if she or he could make some suggestions. Books not held locally could be borrowed on inter-library loan (ILL) though the process often took many weeks. And it was necessary to know the exact title, not just a subject.
It is a lot easier now. For one thing, there is WorldCat, the online catalog of the holdings of numerous public and academic libraries. The researcher can inquire about books on his/her subject of interest without a precise title, and find records galore, with information on where the items are held. Another place to search is the Family History Library catalog, also online, at FamilySearch.org. They do not lend books, but … there are plenty of options. Your local public library may be able to find a copy from an institution that does lend. This is the old ILL procedure, but today many libraries enable that process online as well. At most, you may have to go to your local public library and hand in your request in person. In my experience, the turnaround times are much shorter now.
In all your searches for a “book” don’t overlook the possibilities of digitized works -- books you can read online. With a tablet or laptop computer you can download whole volumes for reading whenever and wherever you choose. Or you can simply read the books online as long a you are connected to the internet.
FamilySearch.org has a “Books” choice, at the top of the home page. Enter a title or keywords on the Books site and you will get a list of items. Also, books that have been digitized will be so designated in the Family History Library catalog.
Google has a section named (at this writing) “Google Play.” More online books are found there, for reading online or downloading. And you can find other sources by simply typing in a book title or keywords such as "Delaware Kent history" (without quotes) on Google’s main page.
But suppose your subject is too obscure or narrow to be covered by a whole book? Try PERSI, the PERiodical Source Index, which is an index of nearly 10,000 genealogical newsletters, magazines, journals and other publications. If your library subscribes to Heritage Quest you can search PERSI online for articles of possible interest (the index is just for title and subject, not every word), or you can search the same service via Ancestry, if you or your library subscribe. Articles may then be requested by mail.
Did I say most of this is free? Downloading older digitized books, from Google and other services, costs nothing. (They are clearly marked.) There may be a minimal fee associated with ILLs (though I have never had to pay one.) PERSI requests have a basic $7.50 charge for up to five articles, and when the material is sent you will be billed an additional 20¢ per page. There is of course no charge for searching online catalogs or having the local public library’s reference person assist you.