For 26 weeks I will take you on a family history journey through the alphabet, one letter at a time. I have decided that each post will be educational in nature, focusing on topics related to resources, methodology, tools, etc. Although the challenge is complete, there are still some people who are finishing up and Alona, the host, is encouraging others to participate anyway. Additional information on the challenge, can be found at Take the ‘Family History Through the Alphabet’ Challenge.
Books are important in genealogy for several reasons. First, they are a source of education on the subject of genealogy and its many subtopics. Then of course there are the research-related books that include indexes to records, transcripts and abstracts of records, family histories and compiled genealogies, as well as books related to history (e.g., general history about a country, region, state, county, or town; historical events, such as a war; or a time period, such as The Great Depression). In this post, I’ll share a list of genealogy references I recommend, how to find research-related books, and a few other tips along the way.
The Genealogist’s Reference Shelf
The following seven books are must-haves for anyone with an interest in genealogy research. Between these seven books, you will learn tips and techniques for general genealogy research and analysis, how to find and use various record types, and how to deal with documentation, from collecting to abstracting to citations.
- BCG Genealogical Standards Manual
- Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, Second Edition
- Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case, 2nd Edition
- Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researcher, Writers, Editors, Lecturers, and Librarians (Don’t be intimidated by the title. This book is for everyone, not just professionals!)
- Red Book: American State, County & Town Sources, Third Edition (This book is available in hardcopy, but is also deconstructed and available through the Ancestry.com Wiki.)
- The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, Third Edition
- The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, Third Edition (This book is available in hardcopy, but is also deconstructed and available through the Ancestry.com Wiki.)
The books below are also great references for specific genealogical topics.
- Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures
- Land & Property Research in the United States
- Reading Early American Handwriting
- Walking With Your Ancestors: A Genealogists Guide to Using Maps and Geography (This book is out-of-print, so you may have to look for it at your local library or purchase a used copy.)
- Your Guide to Cemetery Research (This book is out-of-print, so you may have to look for it at your local library or purchase a used copy.)
In addition to these resources, there are plenty of books available on other topics, including ethnic research (e.g., German, Irish, etc.).
And while books are still a great source of information, many publishers are turning to short reference guides on a specific topic.
- The National Genealogical Society’s Research in the States series offers practical advice for researching in a particular state. While not all states are currently available, they have 18 and I believe their plan is to have one for each state.
- Genealogical Publishing Co. carries two lines of guides: Genealogy at a Glance and QuickSheet. These guides cover a variety of topics including Italian genealogy, Revolutionary War, African American genealogy, cluster research, and problem analysis.
- Legacy Family Tree recently came out with their Legacy QuickGuideTM series, covering many different topics from preserving family heirlooms to Canadian genealogy to land records.
For a listing of some other reference books, check out my Goodreads Genealogy General Reference list.
Finding Research-Related Books
There are so many books out there that contain transcripts and abstracts of records, as well as indexes to records. Also of use to the genealogist are compiled genealogies and family histories and the various history books as I described above. These books are often hard to find and many times are hidden among genealogy or local history collections in public and society libraries. Fortunately, the internet has made finding these books a little easier. Here are a few ideas to help you find these gems.
WorldCat – WorldCat is a online catalog of collections from participating libraries. It’s a good place to search for books to see what’s available. Each book listing provides a list of libraries that have that book in their collection. Here’s an example. Let’s say I want to see if there are books that contain cemetery records for Oakland County, Michigan. I used the search string cemetery oakland county michigan and found 72 results.
The second entry is for Mt. Hope Cemetery, which is a cemetery of interest. When I look at the listing for the book, I can see what libraries near me have the book.
Unfortunately, the nearest library is 138 miles away. But if one of these libraries circulates this book, I may be able to get it through inter-library loan at my local library. The listing also tells me the publisher of the book, which happens to be the Pontiac Area Historical and Genealogical Society. I may be able to contact them and see if they have the book available for sale.
If I found a book that had been published prior to 1923, I would try to see if I could find a digitized copy through Internet Archive, Google Books, or HathiTrust (more on these sites in a few moments). Or I might see if I could find a used copy to purchase from websites like Amazon, eBay and Half.
The other nice thing about WorldCat is that you can create an account and save books of interest to your account (you can even create lists to categorize your books, for an example, you can view my profile page here).
Genealogical and Historical Societies – Many research-related books, especially the books that are indexes to records or that contain transcripts or abstracts of records, are compiled and published by genealogical and historical societies in the interest of preserving records and history.
Let’s say that I do extensive research across the state of Colorado. I might check out the Colorado Genealogical Society website to see what publications they have that may help me in my research. If I find something of interest, I could do one of a few things:
- Purchase the book from the society.
- Search WorldCat (discussed above) and see if I can get the book from a nearby library or through inter-library loan.
- Search for a used copy to purchase. (Note: While I’m all for supporting genealogical and historical societies by purchasing their books, sometimes I simply cannot afford the price tag.)
Don’t forget the check out national, regional, state, county, and town societies to see what books the may have published. If they don’t have a website, call or email them. They should have a listing of publications that are for sale, even if they have to send it to you via snail mail.
Internet Archive, Google Books, and HathiTrust – These websites contain digitized copies of books that are no longer under copyright. Their scope is very broad, meaning that the digitized books cover more than genealogy and history. While you certainly can find books by using keywords, I find that it’s usually better to have a title to search on. But, absent a specific title and looking for books on the history of Ontario County, New York, I searched on the string ontario county new york history on each of the websites.
On HathiTrust I received four results. The first one certainly looks promising.
On Google Books, using the same string ontario county new york history, I received 262,000 results, although the first three on the list were very relevant. A modified search string of "ontario county" and "new york" and history narrowed it down to 45,100 results. Like with any Google search, you may need to play around with search terms to narrow the field to the most relevant results.
Also, keep in mind that Google Books contains information on non-digitized books in addition to those they have digitized, so it’s also good for finding books on a subject, even if it’s not digitized. And, if you are a Google user, you can create bookshelves and save the books you find.
On Internet Archive, using the original search string of ontario county new york history, I received 16 results. All look promising, but there are duplicates (this happens when more than one institution digitizes the same book).
Family History Books – If I remember correctly, this project used to be hosted through Brigham Young University. Family History Books is now available through FamilySearch and continues to grow by leaps and bounds having now partnered with institutions beyond BYU and the Family History Library. Unlike the three website we just discussed, this website contains digitized books specific to family history. The collection includes compiled genealogies, county and local histories, gazetteers, and even genealogy magazines and how-to books.
Using the same search for books related to the history of Ontario County, New York, I used the same general search string ontario county new york history and received 6,705 results. Many of the results seemed irrelevant. So I tried using quotation marks and the word and (then the + sign) and while the results narrowed down considerably, there was still a lot of irrelevant results. So I used the search string “ontario county” and came up with 598 results. This of course broadened it beyond a county history, but the results were at least centered on Ontario County (in and out of New York). The website is in Beta, so maybe there will be some improvements to the search in the future.
I did try the advanced search once I was able to get an idea of how the subjects were constructed (originally my subject searches were going nowhere). That narrowed down the pool considerably to any subject that contained “New York, Ontario.” I wish it was set up like the FHL card catalog; I think that would make finding things much easier, but perhaps I just haven’t played around with it enough.
Search Engines – Another way to find book titles is to do an internet search using your favorite search engine. For example, I wanted to see what books exist for the War of 1812. I’m looking for general references to learn more about the war itself, not tied to anything in particular, so I used the search string “war of 1812” book.
While my Google search returned books for sale at Amazon and those digitized by Google (or others), there were some interesting search results. One of the first ones was an article in the Washington Post that talked about three different books on the subject. I also found a War of 1812 website that had a listing of several books, with links to the Amazon descriptions, as well as reviews.
Where to Purchase Books
Genealogical Publishing Co. specializes in genealogy and history books. In some cases these books are new or recently published books, while other times they are reprints of those previously-out-of-print books such as compiled genealogies.
For hard-to-find or out-of-print books, used copies may be the only way to go. You can purchased used books through Amazon, eBay, and Half. I like Half because I can set up a wish list and I will be notified by email when a book is posted for sale. I can usually find a good deal this way. With eBay you can save your searches and get notified by email when a new item matching your search becomes available.
And don’t forget the genealogical and historical societies we discussed above!
One Final Tip
Several months ago, I was introduced to a website called Goodreads. It’s similar to a website that I was previously familiar with called LibraryThing. While I joined LibraryThing, I didn’t really get into it and never invested the time in it. Things may have changed in the last few years since I visited it, so it may be something you’d like to explore.
Anyway, I really got into Goodreads. I found it very easy to keep track of my own book inventory, as well as books that I want to read but do not own (for instance I have tags for where I can obtain the book such as Amazon or the library). I also get to keep track of the progress I make on a book I’m reading, as well as provide a rating and a review when I’m finished. Keeping an inventory also helps me to not buy a book I already own (or borrowed from a library and read), which I have done in the past.
But the best thing I’ve found is that I can see what my friends are reading (or want to read). I get to see how they rated a book and what they thought of the book if they provided a review. I’ve discovered several genealogy-related books that I may not have otherwise found, and I can quickly add them to my “Want to Read” list.
I’m still working on getting my inventory logged. It takes some time, but I do a little bit each day. And I also created tags so I know if I own the hardcopy, the Kindle version, or a PDF (such as those I’ve downloaded from Internet Archive and Google Books). This way I know what I have and more importantly, where it is!
If you are using Goodreads and we are not friends already, feel free to friend me. Same goes for those who decide to start using the site in the future. Earlier in this post I provided a link to my Genealogy General Reference book list; you do not have to be a Goodreads member to view it. You can visit my profile and peruse all of my bookshelves, but here are a few links to my genealogy-related shelves in case you’re interested.
- Genealogy General Reference
- Genealogy Italian
- Genealogy German
- Genealogy Irish
- Writing Genealogy
- Family History-Memoir-Bio
- Historical Fiction
- Historical Nonfiction
I hope you got some good ideas and tips from this blog post. If you have ideas you’d like to share, I'd love to hear them, so drop me a comment!