Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Required Genealogical Reading

As I work in various genealogy libraries, I find an interesting phenomena. Very few of the patrons use the books. Even in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, very few of the patrons actually use the book collection as compared to those who are busily involved with computers. I also find it interesting that young people are being told to do genealogy (or family history) without any attempt being made to provide them with instruction. As I was working in the Brigham Young University Family History Library yesterday, there was an entire class of family history students who were searching for resource material. It was not that they were going to use the material in any way they were simply being given an assignment to look for and find certain books and other reference materials. After a very short time, they all disappeared from the library.

I had another experience along the same lines. In a class I was teaching, I was using the following book as an example of one of the best beginning reference works about genealogical research.

Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Publishing Co, 2000.

One of the class participants observed that the book was published in the year 2000. He questioned whether the book was still relevant because it was so "old." I pointed out that the book referred to historical records for the most part, and they were unlikely to go out of date. The fact that there were few references to online or computerized searches was unimportant.

Started me thinking about the books that I would suggest to anyone who wishes to become truly involved in genealogy and achieve some measure of competency. I've tried to do some of these lists in the past but I feel that there is a need for an update. Whether or not you are a beginner or an expert, you need to have a basic understanding of the history of genealogy. I am aware of only one book that covers the subject from an academic, and mostly impartial standpoint. This book is as follows:

Weil, François. Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America. 2013.

Although the topic of the book is American genealogy, there are enough references to work done in Europe to give a good idea of the history on the Continent. You may be surprised and even offended by what was passed off as genealogy in the United States previously.

Another essential book for an understanding of the complex processes that preceded the modern giant online resource known as is the following book:

Allen, James B., Jessie L. Embry, and Kahlile B. Mehr. Hearts Turned to the Fathers: A History of the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1894-1994. Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, Brigham Young University, 1995.

In my opinion, this book should be required reading for anyone associated with FamilySearch. Actually, in reading the book I'm surprised that it was ever written. However, the value of the book is not confined to understanding FamilySearch, it is also a valuable reference for an understanding of the current large online databases and how they came to be. The book is available online from and in various libraries.

My list of "essential" books is substantially shorter than a suggested reading list. Of course, most genealogical books fall into the category of reference material. One could hardly be expected to sit down and read a reference book from cover to cover. But I would strongly suggest reading the latest addition of the following book:

Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006.

I have found a number of books written about genealogical research in specific countries that I feel are extremely valuable. So, if you are involved in research in a specific country I would search out books on doing research in that particular country. I feel that many people believe that books have been marginalized by the Internet. Of course, I do seek out digitized copies of the books I read one available, simply because I can access the books from my computer or mobile device and can read them at my leisure rather than carting around a book. But I still suggest that referring to books is an essential part of genealogical research.

I've been focusing lately on the selective collection of reference books in the Brigham Young University Family History Library. I feel it is a tragedy that these books are largely ignored by most the patrons of the library. You may have your own list of essential genealogy books. If you like, make a comment and add additional books you think are essential. Then, if you are reading this post, don't forget to read the comments.


  1. I like "The Family Tree Problem Solver" by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack. It's really good for teaching you how to think like a genealogist and solve brick walls. Those two books on the history of genealogy in America and Utah sound really interesting. I will have to look into them sometime.

  2. About patrons not using books - I used to browse many more books in the Family History Library than I do now for one reason - so many of them have been digitized and I access them at home. I use the library for microfilms and for the fabulous volunteer help plodding my way through Scandinavian records.

    1. I don't see or hear about them using the online books either. When I teach a class on digitized book sources, I get a lot of "I didn't know that" comments.

  3. I have found this book extremely helpful for British research:

    Ancestral Trails. The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History, Second Edition Jan 1, 2006
    by Mark D. Herber

    Unfortunately, I think your observation about the use of books stems from the message we hear now that family history is "easy" and "fun," with the need to acquire research skills being somewhat marginalized.

  4. James you will be reassured that my research priority pre RootsTech is the book section of the FHL...I've ordered and viewed many (all?) my relevant films but I can't get the books in Australia.

    1. Books do require and investment of time and money and they do take up a lot of space when you have a lot of them. We just got through moving and know all about how much space we need just to store our books even after donating hundreds to children and libraries.