In the Beginning… Resources for Beginning Genealogists

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

We begin to research the genealogy of our families at different times and for different reasons. Some of us seem to be born with a “genealogy gene” that predisposes us to an interest (often an overwhelming interest) in family personalities and stories. Others of us come to genealogy later in life following the discovery of a box of family letters and papers in the attic, an oral history assignment at school, or some other event that awakens our interest in our ancestors and their lives. Today, genealogy has become a main-stream hobby, marked by advertisements for appearing on television during prime time and full length programs featuring research into the roots of famous people. During my recent visit to the Virginia State Fair I was pleased to see that FamilySearch had a booth that attracted many visitors who talked with staff about how to start their genealogical research.

Whatever your impetus to begin researching your family, it is important to begin well. Learning to conduct effective research is the foundation for success. Here is a highly-selective list of six resources that will help you get started. Be sure to check your local library or book-seller for even more titles – there are lots available.

  • The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, by Val D. Greenwood. 3rd edition. (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007). Greenwood’s book has long been a standard work in the field of genealogical research, used as a text by many colleges and universities offering courses in genealogy. It discusses genealogical research methodology and explores the relationship between computer technology (the Internet, etc.) and these research “best practices.” This third edition contains new material including a section on the property rights of women and a revised chapter on the evaluation of genealogical evidence.
  • The Handybook for Genealogists. 11th edition. The Handybook is a good companion book to The Researcher’s Guide. It provides at-a-glance genealogical guidance for each county in the United States. Each state chapter includes an alphabetically arranged table of counties keyed to a corresponding state map. A county table furnishes the date of the county’s creation, the name of the parent county or territory from which it was created, and the address and phone number for the appropriate county court. For example, the entry for Nelson County, Virginia, notes (in addition to contact, map and location information) that the county was formed in 1807 from Amherst County, and that the office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court has birth, death records from 1865 to 1888, marriage, divorce, probate, civil court, and land records from 1865. The entry for Hampshire County, Massachusetts, notes that City Clerks have birth, marriage and death records, that the Superior or Probate Court has divorce records, the Probate Court has probate records, the Superior Court has civil court records, and the County Planner’s office has land records from 1632. In addition, towns organized before 1800 are listed along with their date of organization. The Handybook is also available with an optional CD that allows keyword searching and maps that can be downloaded and printed.
  • How to Do Everything with Your Genealogy by George G. Morgan. 2nd ed. (McGrawHill Osborne Media, 2009). George Morgan has incorporated a wealth of information into one easy-to-use volume. Each chapter clearly enumerates the learning objectives for that section and also includes samples of records, photographs, URLs for further research, and the historical background of the topic being discussed. The chapter on locating and using immigration and naturalization records, for example, states that you will learn “the reasons for migration, how to identify, locate and study migration routes, expand your family’s story by tracing their migration, locate and use immigration records, and understand the naturalization process and work with those documents.” This book is now available for use with Amazon’s Kindle reader, which would be very useful during research trips (and will keep down the weight of your luggage when flying).
  • The Organized Family Historian: How to File, Manage, and Protect Your Genealogical Research and Heirlooms by Ann Carter Fleming (National Genealogical Society Guide Series, Thomas Nelson, 2004; available for Kindle reader). As important as how to research effectively is the knowledge of what to do with the information discovered as a result of that research. This book (which includes a CD of forms and worksheets), walks you through the steps needed to organize your “heritage trunk,” the family papers, photographs, and other materials your family has saved over the years. It includes discussions of specific forms, organization systems, record types, research reports and surname lists, research trips, and sharing your story with others. Organizing your materials well from the beginning is essential for continued success with your research.
  • The Everything Guide to Online Genealogy by Kimberly Powell (Adams Media, 2008). Many beginning genealogists go to the Internet first. This title, written by the author of the genealogy blog About Genealogy, provides very useful information about the effective use of the Internet in genealogical research, including where to search, which key-words are most successful, how to create a quality on-line search strategy, how to use search-engines, and much more. Many references are provided to online databases, genealogical research sites and online documents.
  • The Official Guide to by George G. Morgan. 2nd edition (, 2008). While there are many online genealogical websites,, described as the number one site for genealogical research, is the one with which beginners are probably most familiar. The Official Guide provides a detailed look at the site and how to make the best use of its over 23,000 databases and many features, including the new search version, Ancestry DNA, the Learning Center, and MyCanvas. Even if you are not a beginner, the tips and information provided in this book will prove valuable.

These titles represent only a few of the many helpful titles available to both new beginners and seasoned researchers beginning work in a new subject or geographical area. If you have a favorite that has proved to be essential in your research, please add your comment and share the title and your experiences with it.

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