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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Review of a Crash Course in Family History, 5th ed.

Larsen, Paul. Crash Course in Family History: An Easy Step-by-Step Illustrated Guidebook and Comprehensive Resource Book : the Easiest Way to Trace Your Own Family Roots and Stories. St. George, UT: Pub, 2014.

This is Paul's 5th edition of this very helpful basic look at genealogy and family history. I previous wrote a blog post entitled, "A review of Your Family History Toolbox" about another book by Paul Larsen. Paul provided me with a electronic copy of the both books to reviews. 

Most of what I said in my previous post would apply here to the Crash Course book. In the introduction to the book, Paul explains how he came to write a basic introduction to family history. His goal was to write a simple step-by-step approach in his own style with lots of colorful illustrations. See page vii. He succeeded admirably in achieving his goal. 

There are very few genealogical publications and even fewer genealogy websites that have the visual appeal and the variety of Paul's books. This book is full of quotes, links and suggested activities enough to keep a prospective genealogist or family historian busy for a very long time. There is a good outline the thrust of the Crash Course on page 17:

    10 Things You Can Do Today to Get Started

  1. Plant a seed in your heart for a desire to connect to your
    ancestors; nourish the seed so it can grow; learn about the sacrifices they made to make your life better, prepare to receive help from your ancestors. (Pages 4-6)
  2. Take a free online “HowTo”lesson (or tutorial). (Page 14)
  3. Subscribe to a free e-newsletter or magazine; register for a free blog. (Pages 16-20)
  4. Review and purchase a family history software program and get acquainted with the basics.
  5. Write down everything you know about your ancestors; contact your family’s “keeper of the flame” (your family’s historian), and ask him/her to share their information. (Page 35)
  6. Search existing online family tree Websites
    and published family histories for information on your ancestor. (Pages 73-79)
  7. Scan your precious photos and documents to a digital format to protect them and be able to easily share with others. (Page 201)
  8. Begin to write your family history; gather your family stories; record the life stories of your parents/grandparents before its too late; record your own story while you can still remember; interview a relative; get grandkids involved to help establish a bond between generations. (Page 219)
  9. Collaborate with others to add branches to your family tree using a social networking Web site; connect with your family, swap stories, and share photos, recipes and information. (Page 45)
  10. Hold a family reunion; organize your family; reach out to your extended family members; start a family blog or online photo album; volunteer to help index public records at home.
This very positive and constructive tone continues throughout the book. 

One reason why there is a need for new editions to this book (and any other book about genealogy) is that the subject changes so rapidly. The book is full of suggested websites that aid the family historian and keeping up with the large number of sites mentioned must be a challenge. 

Another of the very strong points of this book is the way technical subjects are simply explained and their relevance to genealogy explained. Paul explains blogs, podcasts, webinars, hangouts, reader programs (aggregators) and many other new and fairly technical topics in a way that is non-threatening and educational at the same time. No one, in book of this length could cover even a small part of the total online genealogical community, but Paul's samples are well chosen and invites readers to do more exploration on their own. 

In all this, the book does not ignore the basics of genealogy. This is not the type of book that I would read straight through from cover to cover. I would more likely look at topics in the book that I was most interested in, sort of like reading a magazine. But it has so much content, I am likely to go back through the book and keep finding new and interesting topics that I did not focus on earlier. Most of the websites highlighted in the book are merely mentioned. The author leaves it up to the reader to investigate the sites and determine their value to the reader's own interests. What is most important is that the reader is exposed to a great variety of resources which is a particular need for beginners.

In some cases, for example the section on cemetery resources, there are a large number of websites included, but there is really no way for the reader to evaluate which of all the websites should be visited first. It might make sense in these types of sections to highlight the most popular or most valuable websites and then list the others for a more in depth investigation. Some of the links are to particular articles or references to discussions about the topics and there is no real way to immediately determine if a featured website is a primary resource or merely a commentary.

Later on in the book, Paul lists various "best of" type of websites. It is not clear what criteria he is using for these lists other than his personal preference. It appears that the lists are loosely based on the number of readers from online reporting services, but there is no commentary on why the websites were chosen. One comment, in most of the "top ten" or "top 100" types of lists, the reviewers list various associated websites separately. For example, on the list appearing on page 233 of the Top 11 Genealogy Websites, five of the websites are owned by It would seem to me that these should be combined in some way to show their common ownership.

All in all, the Crash Course fills a definite need in the genealogical community for a comprehensive and very approachable resource for the beginner and it turns out to have some very good suggestions and insights for the more advanced user also.

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