Building a solid genealogy library (part one)

Researchers in all areas tend to pride themselves on their libraries. Genealogists work in fairly specific areas—usually either geographically- or ethnically-based—and their libraries tend to prominently reflect these specialties. While I prefer good old-fashioned paper books, a current library will almost certainly also contain e-books.

Every researcher’s personal library will be different, but a solid library should almost always contain these five types of works.

1. General reference books

General reference books would include those on general genealogy and research methodology and standards as well as even more general reference material.

For example, some books, in my opinion, every genealogist should own:

  • Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained, 2d. ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009).
  • Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof (Arlington, Va.: National Genealogical Society, 2013).
  • Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tenn.: Turner Publishing, 2014).

In addition to these, you probably have other general reference books depending on your specific activities. Writers, editors, and publishing probably have the Chicago Manual of Style within reach. A good dictionary and/or thesaurus might be useful. I often find myself consulting Black’s Law Dictionary. Those who research in other countries might need to have a good -to-English dictionary handy.

2. Specialized research guides

Specialized research guides may focus on a specific location, ethnic group, record type, or repository, or some combination of these. There are a few authors who have written research guides for a wide variety of subjects, but I would recommend choosing guides written and published by researchers with a strong reputation for experience and expertise in a given area.

Some notable examples:

Location-specific

  • Helen F. M. Leary, ed., North Carolina Research, 2d. ed. (Raleigh, N. C.: North Carolina Genealogical Society, 1996).
  • Robert S. Davis and Ted O. Brooke, Georgia Research, 2d. ed. (Atlanta: Georgia Genealogical Society, 2012).
  • John Grenham, Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, 4th ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2012).
  • Any of the guides published as part of the National Genealogical Society’s Research in the States series.

Ethnicity-specific

  • Virginia Humling, U. S. Catholic Sources: A Diocesan Research Guide for Family Historians (Orem, Utah: Ancestry.com, 1995).
  • Dee Parmer Woodtor, Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African-American Genealogy and Historical Identity (New York: Random House, 1999).

Record-specific

  • Kenneth L. Smith, Estate Inventories: How To Use Them (Morgantown, Penn.: Masthof Press, 2000; reprint 2008).
  • John T. Humphrey, Understanding and Using Baptismal Records (Washington, D.C.: Humphrey Publications, 1996).
  • Desmond Walls Allen and Carolyn Earle Billingsley, Social Security Applications: A Genealogical Resource (Conway, Ark.: Research Associates, 1995).
  • Ann S. Lainhart, State Census Records (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1992).

Repository-specific

  • Anne Bruner Eales and Robert M. Kvasnicka, eds., Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives of the United States, 3d. ed. (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2000).
  • Judy Riffel, A Guide to Genealogical Research at the Louisiana State Archives, revised 2d ed. (Baton Rouge, La.: Le Comité des Archives de la Lousiane, 2009).
  • Eric G. Grundset and Steven B. Rhodes, American Genealogical Research at the DAR, Washington, D. C., 2d. ed. (Washington, D.C.: National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, 2004).

Combinations

  • Jason Kruski, A Guide to Chicago and Midwestern Polish-American Genealogy (Baltimore: Clearfield, 2012).
  • Timothy N. Pinnick, Finding and Using African American Newspapers (Wyandotte, Okla.: The Gregath Publishing Co., 2008).
  • Joseph Buggy, Finding Your Irish Ancestors in New York City (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2014).
  • Harry F. Thompson, Guide to Collections Relating to South Dakota Norwegian-Americans (Sioux Falls, S.D.: Center for Western Studies, 1991).

3. Derivative sources & finding aids

Not every record is online. We all know that. Even those that are online are not always indexed. Records that tend to hold a significant amount of genealogical information–especially when the record set covers a relatively narrow location or time period–also tend to be indexed, abstracted, or transcribed, and published. Every research library should have at least a few of these works, to save time and provide easy reference to records consulted frequently. A few in my personal library:

  • Debbie Hooper, Abstracts of Chancery Court Records of Maryland, 1669-1782 (Westminster, Md.: Family Line Publications, 1996).
  • Wesley E. Pippenger, Index to Virginia Estates, 1800-1865, vol. 6: Counties of Augusta and Rockingham, City of Staunton (Richmond, Va.: Virginia Genealogical Society, 2005).
  • J. Estelle Stewart King, Abstract of Early Kentucky Wills and Inventories (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1961; orig. pub. 1933).
  • Ralph Clayton, Cash for Blood: The Baltimore to New Orleans Domestic Slave Trade (Westminster, Md.: Heritage Books, 2007).
  • Elizabeth Hayward, American Vital Records from The Baptist Register, 1824-1829, and The New York Baptist Register, 1829-1834 (Mt. Airy, Md.: Pipe Creek Publications, 1991).

4. Compiled genealogies & biographies

Researchers who focus on a specific family (perhaps their own) may want to own copies of family genealogies for families of interest. Those who focus on a larger area may also want to own single-family genealogies for prominent area families. However, the many published multi-family genealogies or compiled narrative biographies may be quite a bit more useful.

For example,

  • Paul Heinegg, Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware, from the Colonial Period to 1810 (Baltimore: Clearfield, 2000).
  • Jonathan Pearson, Genealogies of the First Settlers of the Ancient Colony of Albany from 1630 to 1800 (Albany, N.Y., 1872; repr. Baltimore: Clearfield, 2003).
  • Gail Morin, First Mètis Families of Quebec, 1622-1748, vol. 1: 56 Families (Baltimore: Clearfield, 2012).

5. Periodicals

Most genealogy periodicals are benefits to membership in a particular genealogical society, though there are also a few that are available strictly by subscription. There are generally at least three kinds of genealogy periodicals:

a. Newsletters

These are most common among smaller societies. They usually contain news about the society and its members and generally contain a small number of pages. Sometimes these also include very short articles about genealogy resources or methodology. They are too numerous to count, nationwide.

b. Magazines

Some magazines are intended for the general public and are available on newsstands and by subscription, such as Family Tree Magazine and Family Chronicle. Other magazine-format periodicals are published by societies, either exclusively or complementing a more scholarly journal. The articles usually contain slightly longer (2-3 pages) and more advanced articles about genealogy resources or methodology. For example,

  • Crossroads, published by the Utah Genealogical Association
  • APG Quarterly, published by the Association of Professional Genealogists
  • NGS Magazine, published by the [U. S.] National Genealogical Society
  • New York Researcher, published by the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society

c. Journals

Journals represent the most significant (in my opinion) periodical publication offered in the genealogical community. These are usually offered as a benefit of membership to a society, though there are two journals available by subscription. Most journals offer at least some advanced research case studies or compiled genealogies. Some journals also publish record indexes or abstracts, particularly for rare records unavailable elsewhere; articles on record sources or methodology; and book reviews.

One key difference between most journals and other periodical types is the editing process. Several genealogical journals utilize the peer-review process used by traditional academic journals. Others simply rely on qualified editors, often Board-certified or otherwise experienced and knowledgeable genealogists. Both of these processes, however, involve more in-depth editing and review, resulting in a higher-quality publication.

For example,

  • The Genealogist, published by the American Society of Genealogists (available by subscription)
  • National Genealogical Society Quarterly, published by the [U. S.] National Genealogical Society
  • New England Historical & Genealogical Register, published by the New England Historic Genealogical Society
  • Maryland Genealogical Society Journal, published by the Maryland Genealogical Society

Of these periodical types, newsletters tend to have the least long-term value in a genealogical library, while journals have the most long-term value. The value in a journal, however, extends far beyond those articles that have specific relevance to a particular family or location. Reading published case studies and compiled genealogies offer examples of high-quality research methodology that can often be applied to unrelated families and locations.

To Be Continued … How to build your library

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12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Debra A. Hoffman on June 30, 2014 at 2:43 pm

    Great post! I love books and enjoyed seeing that I share similar interests with you and that I am off to a good start with my personal library.

    Reply

  2. I don’t know how your going to do a part two when part one covers almost the gamut. Unless you talk about digital book collections and websites. Can’t wait!

    Reply

  3. Posted by John Davis on June 30, 2014 at 7:33 pm

    Thanks, Michael. Great article! I also look forward to part two..

    Reply

  4. Posted by Gail Pivonka on July 1, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    ​Hi, I am looking for information on English and Canadian ancestors. I could use the same information that I am seeing on this blog, but in those countries. Is anything like that coming up in the future or is there some other place I could access this type of information ? Gail sweetpeamoon@gmail.com

    Reply

    • I do not plan to provide specific books for every specialty in the world. That would be an impossible task. The point of the article is that genealogists should investigate which publications of these various types are useful to their research interests.

      Reply

      • Posted by Annick H on July 3, 2014 at 9:28 am

        I now understand why you didn’t reply to my comment on your last post about French research books. Maybe you could schedule a post about helpful books for research abroad and give a list of your most favorite and helpful foreign books that are sitting on your very own library shelves. If you can read “Les archives notariales : Manuel pratique et juridique”, I know you own many more and more accessible books than that one. With the price of foreign books from foreign sites and the outrageous shipping fees, it would be nice to know, from a professional, what is between the covers of those books before ordering. Thank you for listening. Annick H.

  5. Posted by Denise Levenick on July 2, 2014 at 11:19 am

    Thanks for the helpful article and roundup of classic titles.

    Reply

  6. Posted by msualumni on July 2, 2014 at 10:30 pm

    Great post, Michael and a topic I haven’t seen blogged about often. These libraries are so important. I also want to tell people about Rootsweb’s Books We Own–I list all the books I own that are compilations or abstracts of records with the website and offer to do lookups. Others do the same and I have found it priceless over the years. And how ling did it take you to write this? This list is massive!;)

    Reply

  7. Posted by Lynn Tenney on July 4, 2014 at 10:24 am

    This is great list! I recently posted in Dear Myrtle’s G+ Genealogy Community looking for exactly this type of resource list. Thanks for posting and am looking forward to your next post on this topic.

    Reply

  8. Thanks for emphasizing the importance of journals, and their longer lasting shelf life. I need to look into those.

    Reply

  9. Thank you for this post on scholarly journals and what makes them different from other publications. I am interested in what life was like for the Chicago Irish in the 1850s onward. Using JSTOR, I found a great journal article by David W. Galenson from the American Journal of Education: “Neighborhood Effects on the School Attendance of Irish Immigrants’ Sons in Boston and Chicago in 1860.”

    Reply

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