Recommendations for Genealogists



One of the insights I happened upon while in college was that if a person reads five good sound books on the same specific topic, that person is an expert on that topic. Later on, a co-worker and I joked, while working over a weekend to get multiple computer systems connected, that we were the world’s experts on this one — because we knew more than anybody else. Well, there you have two definitions of expert. English is a wonderful language because our words almost always have more than one definition. In this case the two definitions do not collide. They intersect with reading. You should have seen the stack of IBM manuals Jerry and I had laying open beside the terminal.

More recently I have learned that it takes more than reading five books to be a decent genealogist. Of course there’s the doing. Hands-on experience is the most excellent teacher, especially when coupled with reading good sound books. The “good sound” part I think will always be true.

In my efforts, three broad categories of books come into play: genealogy, history and local history.

For the most part, the genealogy books are of the how-to variety, but they can be philosophical, and, for me, they need to be inspirational. Those with case studies are especially readable as they seem to satisfy at several levels. A good how-to book can be read from cover to cover and also be a reference book later.

As anyone well grounded in written history knows, it can range from a very wide scope to extremely narrow. Across that spectrum, if one is reading about the times, places and events of their ancestors, any kind of history at all may be appropriate. Though I doubt I will ever be reading about Tutankhamen’s era for genealogical reasons. On the other hand I also doubt that I will find the names of too many of my ancestors in the indices of history books.

History also tends to be either narrative or analytical where the narrative form has been in place for centuries and the analytical, a more scientific approach, is clearly of quite recent vintage. As is usually the case, both have there place. Also consider, definitive texts are generally recently published, so for the latest thought on a given topic, even if narrative is more fun, an analytical work may be an essential read.

In a local history is exactly where one wants to find their surnames listed in the index. Such a book will have a limited printing and it may well be another kind of challenge to obtain a copy. To me local history includes published genealogies, municipality and county centennial books, and the “mug” books of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Books on Genealogy for the Beginner

To get a sound start in the practice of genealogy, it may well be that five good books on the topic, will lead to something: at the very least, the similar yet differing views will help anyone develop the necessary inclination to be skeptical!

Allow me to make a short comment on genealogical magazines, as sometimes a good way to learn about a subject is by way of periodicals. If I had happened upon the magazines that cater to the intermediate and experienced before reading any books, my interest actually might have waned because I would have been overwhelmed. While the magazines (for example, Heritage QuestFamily Chronicle and Everton’s Genealogical Helper are wonderful and interesting, they clearly have their own place. I think that in the beginning, they lack the necessary depth, presume too much, and frankly, the incredible number of genealogically related materials for sale is frightening. An exception may be Family Tree Magazine which is geared for beginners.

The local library is a fine place to check out a first book to read on genealogy. Look over whatever they have available and pick one or two out that look promising. The risk is low.

I have borrowed genealogy books from the library and then purchased copies of my own. In my view, you can’t beat a volume that can be both read from cover to cover and also used as a reference. The following (mostly general) books on genealogy meet that test:

How to Trace Your Family Tree (1973), a guide put together by the American Genealogical Research Institute is readily available. Every chapter is written by an expert in their respective area. An early one in the book and an imporant one is “History for Genealogists” by William A. Rosky. This book is informative and has plenty of first principles; and I don’t mind,but rather find value in multiple points of view. On the other hand, this volume is dated. As one reading this book in the 1990s might expect there’s zilch on computers. Another curiosity, which shows how dated this book is, is that there is nothing on the destruction of the 1890 US Census; one gets the impression that its release is anticipated (and then of course, one wonders, when the bad news about the 1921 fire was released to the public).

My five year old son was aghast that I purchased and then read The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Genealogy (1997), by Christine Rose and Kay Germain Ingalls. I tried to explain to him that the publisher has found a very successful marketing ploy: idiot’s and dummies books sell phenominally well. I think he finally understood when I said that the point of the title is NOT to scare people away from a subject. Ms.s Rose and Ingalls do a great job. Their book is wonderful: it is upbeat, readable, and a supurb reference. Another measure to me on the quality of a book is how absorbing it is. This book kept my attention. I continue to reread parts of it for pointers; have internalized many of the definitions for terms it provides; and (this is a big one) I use the filing system they describe to make sense of the chaos that can appear pretty quickly.

Voices in Your Blood: Discovering Identity Through Family History (1993), by G. G. Vandagriff is an exceptional book. It is a good read and contains plenty of solid useful information and ideas. As the title hints, there’s also a flavor of mysticism that runs through the book. Normally I consider myself a non-believing pragmatic down to earth no-nonsense kind of guy. Somehow, Ms. Vandagriff has injected just the right amount, even for me. That thread and her style make this book one that is easy to finish reading. Her coverage of the Church of Latter Day Saints’ Family History Centers is an example of material I have come back to.

Your English Ancestors: A Guide for North Americans (1993) by Sherry Irvine is an excellent readable book. This volume is one that I borrowed from the library and then decided that I must own a copy. I have gone back to it on numerous occasions, the last time to validate an understanding I had about civil registration (which began in England and Wales on 1 July 1837). The how-to information in this book saves one seeking the details on their English ancestors the trip(s) to England (it’s okay to go though!).

You can look for these books and others at