Genealogists and Books

On National Read a Book Day, celebrated 6 September 2017, the public was encouraged to spend the day reading. Many family historians need no encouragement to do that; books are an important part of every day. Genealogists use books for research and they read them to learn about records, techniques, history, society, laws, and much more. In recent years, as more and more information has become available online, some newcomers to this field of study mistakenly think all they need to know can be found on websites. A significant number of valuable publications are still accessible only in book form. Genealogists who make the effort to look beyond Internet sources will discover both newly released titles and decades-old classic works.

How can genealogists learn about valuable books? One of the best ways to stay informed about new releases is to read book reviews. Each issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly includes several analytical reviews, each one written by a subject expert. Book review columns can be found in most genealogical periodicals. The books selected for review are relevant to the periodical’s readership.

Eagle-eyed genealogists pay attention to sources and bibliographies when reading articles or books, and they pursue interesting items. They study footnotes and endnotes. They look for chapters with titles such as “recommended reading,” “further reading,” and “the essential library.” They seek out published bibliographies relating to subjects of interest—and from those bibliographies they compile lists of books and articles for exploration. Querying the FamilySearch catalog using the keyword “bibliography” yields almost 50,000 entries ranging from general interest, such as Milton Rubincam’s Genealogy: A Selected Bibliography, to more specific topics, such as Curt Witcher’s African American Genealogy: A Bibliography and Guide to Sources. Cyndi’s List includes a “Books” category where links are sorted into groups such as “must have,” “locality and topic specific,” “general sources,” “fiction and non-fiction,” and other classifications.

Receiving word-of-mouth recommendations from other genealogists is an excellent way to learn about books of potential interest. Social media allow genealogists to interact with like-minded people from all over the world, providing even more opportunity for advice and suggestions. A recent Facebook discussion prompted Catherine Becker Wiest Desmarais, CG, to create a Google Doc to collect information about the top one hundred “must read” genealogy books from the last one hundred years.[1] Her list is crowdsourced—it was compiled and updated based on input from a large group of people. Individuals can add favorite books, placing them in their appropriate positions on the list. Others can move titles around to adjust the order. Some books on the list are of general interest to genealogists—Jones’s Mastering Genealogical Proof and Mastering Genealogical Documentation, for example. Other books focus on specialties that may or may not be relevant to all researchers. The document includes a “comments” column where contributors can describe each book and explain why it belongs on the list. What better way to learn about important publications than to ask a group of people with the same interests?

Conference exhibit halls usually include book vendors and publishers. Browsing their booths is a productive pastime for book-lovers, who often return home with new purchases. Some genealogists have space and finances that allow development of a private library devoted to their interests. Others with less room and limited funds take advantage of public libraries to borrow books, limiting purchases to a handful of titles. In recent years, more and more books have become available as downloadable PDFs and in Kindle e-book format—a benefit for genealogists in both space and cost.

Images of books that are out of copyright can often be located in digital collections. FamilySearch provides links to more than 350,000 books from its own library and partner institutions. HathiTrust Digital Library and Internet Archive offer more titles. Most subscription websites and membership organizations offer digitized books in their collections.

Knowledge-seeking genealogists keep lists of books they’d like to read. Usually those same genealogists are interested in hearing what others have found helpful so they can add titles to their own lists. They’ll study book reviews and bibliographies. They’ll look at Desmarais’s list of the top one hundred genealogy books. They’ll explore digital collections. They know there’s no need to wait for the next “National Read a Book Day” to dive into an interesting work.

[1] Catherine Becker Wiest Desmarais, “Based on a discussion on Blaine T. Bettinger’s post this morning . . .,” Facebook, 26 Aug. 2017 ( : 13 Sept. 2017). “Top 100 Must-Read Gen Books of the Last 100 Years,” Google Docs ( : 13 Sept. 2017).

  1. September 27, 2017 8:55 am

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *