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

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Some must read books for genealogists

Yes, I do mean you need to read a book. Some of these might be available in ebook format, but there is a good reason for reading a whole book on one subject, especially if that subject is genealogy. Of course this list will change if you live somewhere besides the U.S. or the U.K., but the differences are cosmetic. Genealogical research is genealogical research no matter where your family comes from. For example, I may read about the process a genealogist had in finding an ancestor in Germany and benefit from the explanation even if I have no ancestral lines in Germany. There are some very specific records and types of records that are unique to a particular geographic area or time but the methods of proceeding with research are similar around the world.

If you still doubt the utility of general genealogical study, I can give another example. When I was working on a graduate degree in Linguistics, we studied many different languages. Each of these languages was unique, but the idea was not necessarily to learn to speak the language, but to learn how the language worked and thereby advance our knowledge of "language" in general. The same principle applies to genealogy. If you study many different genealogical challenges, you will ultimately figure out how they all help you understand how to do your own genealogical research.

My list of books is certainly open to expansion and could go on endlessly, but there are a few books that I return to constantly that have helped me understand how genealogy works. I am going to start my short list with this classic:

Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 1990.

Even though this book was published in 1990, it has been released again in 2013, see

Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. 2013.

In my opinion, there is no better book for understanding the process and sources for genealogy in the United States. If you look up any of the books I mention in, you can find a library close by that has a copy of the book. This book is not yet available for public use in ebook format, but if you have contact with a member university, you can see the ebook from the Hathi Trust Digital Library

Here are a couple of more classics. You might argue that online sources have entirely supplanted the need to look at a mere "paper" book. You may also argue that these books are now woefully out of date. Arguments can be made both ways, but I still find that I am using the paper versions regularly even though I sit all day in front of a computer. Here is the list:

Eakle, Arlene. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Publ. Co, 1984.

My friend, Arlene Eakle, began this monumental work and it has since be edited and re-published and is now incorporated into the online Wiki. The latest edition of the book was published in 2006,

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

The only thing you have to remember about whether or not the material in the book is still useful, is to check to see if the records mentioned have been put online somewhere. The book is gem of information. 

In my opinion, the U.K. equivalent to the Greenwood book is the following:

Herber, Mark D. 1997. "Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History".

As with all of these classics, this book has been republished multiple times. The latest edition is,

Herber, Mark D. Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History. Stroud, Gloucestershire [England]: History Press, 2008.

These books are substantial. They are likely intimidating to those whose reading habits are confined to popular novels and iPads. I suggest that they are substantial for a reason. Genealogy is substantial and cannot be explained or properly understood in a few simple online 5-minute videos. Sorry (not really).

Next are two semi-genealogy historical classics.

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

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

I say semi-genealogy because both of these books fall into the category of history. Both are masterpieces of clarity and give any genealogist a better understanding of who we are and why we believe the things we do about genealogy and history in general. 

Another book I have been reviewing serially lately needs to be added to the list. 

Meyerink, Kory L., Tristan Tolman, and Linda K. Gulbrandsen. Becoming an Excellent Genealogist: Essays on Professional Research Skills. [Salt Lake City, Utah]: ICAPGen, 2012.

Along with the Weil book, this one is very new, genealogically speaking. But it still has all the marks of a classic. I thought it important enough to comment on each chapter individually.

Here are a couple of more very valuable and classic books to add to list and then I will quit rather than get into an endless list of everything in my library and my head.

Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2012.

Eichholz, Alice. Redbook: American State, County & Town Sources. Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2004.

Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers, and Librarians. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2001.

Yes, Ms. Mills has two books on the list. Good work. 


  1. I am nearing the end of David Hackett Fischer's book, Albion's Seed. If your ancestors came to the American colonies before the Revolutionary War, this is a MUST READ. It also helps to explain why Americans are the way they are today! I am reading the e-book via the Kindle app on my iPad. I wish I had the actual book, because there are great maps. They are harder to read in digital format. The footnotes are also full of good information, but they are quite difficult to access in the digital version. If you still believe that our forefathers came to America seeking religious freedom and proclaiming that same message for everyone, you need to read this book. Your eyes will be opened.

    1. Yes, I had a similar experience when reading the book.

  2. Thanks for posting this genealogy book list! This is the second of its type since I put a request in Dear Myrtle's G+ group last month and it is very much appreciated. I've been building my genealogy library in ebooks (when available) and physical books. I hope your readers add their favorites. Are you aware of any site that lists genealogy reference books by category and/or geographical area? I was not able to find one in my searches.

    1. Yes, try Cyndi's List at There are a number of websites with lists.

    2. Thanks, I did see that list. I was looking for something similar to your post: recommended books versus all available books. As I find recommended readings, I look in the sources mentioned in to see if they are available in free ebooks. If not, I usually search for used books or buy new if it is a newer publication.

  3. Great list! May I suggest the addition of "Family Matters: A History of Genealogy" by Michael Sharpe? With its British Isles focus, it's a good companion to Heber. I think it's a better history than the Weil book.