Using New Resources Effectively

by Carolyn L. Barkley

I work in the booth at two national genealogical conferences (NGS and FGS) each year. As I assist customers for several days at a time, I have a first row seat that allows me to observe how many people approach a new resource. The most common method is to pick up the book, look at the spine and/or cover title, check the index for a specific item, and then check for the price. I’d like to share a strategy to approach a new title that will enable you to use it more effectively.

 One of the first things to do is to look for information beyond the cover and spine title. An author may have chosen a title that does not immediately reveal the contents of the book. How many of us would know on first looking at the title that George Elmore Reaman’s Trail of the Black Walnut is about Pennsylvania-German contributions to the founding of Upper Canada? Sometimes the spine or cover title have been abbreviated, omitting clarifying information. Consider Charles Edward Banks’ Planters of the Commonwealth, as the title is shown on the cover and spine. When I first saw this book on a shelf, given that I have lived and researched in Virginia for many years, I assumed that the title dealt with planters in Virginia. In looking further, however, the title page provides the following clarification: “A Study of the Emigrants and Emigration in Colonial Times: to which are added Lists of Passengers to Boston and to the Bay Colony; the Ships which brought them; their English Homes, and the Places of their Settlement in Massachusetts 1620-1640.� What a difference in understanding of what this title was about! An additional example can be found in J. Houston Harrison’s Settlers by the Long Grey Trail, where the title page explains that this book details pioneers in Old Augusta County, Virginia and their descendants, particularly the Harrison family.


Next, review the table of contents to gain a clear understanding of the book’s organization and format. Note the chapter headings. Is the book divided chronologically, geographically, by family, by subject? Are there maps and other illustrations? Are there appendices? By understanding the scope and organization you will be better able to judge the book’s applicability to your research and the ease with which you may be able to use it.


Approximately 25% of those looking at books at the conference booth will ask for assistance when they can’t find what they are looking for in the index, or if they don’t understand how to locate the indexed reference. I usually respond by saying, “Let’s look at the introduction (or preface) to see what it might tell us that will help locate the information.â€? This strategy is one of the most important you can follow when looking at a new resource. The introduction is where the author describes his (or her) intent in writing the book and shares specifics about the book’s format and tips for using it, including any abbreviations used. The introduction may be short but still provide a wealth of information. The Library of Virginia’s new publication, Guide to the Personal Papers Collections at the Library of Virginia, lists what types of materials may be included within the term “personal papers,â€? describes the extent of the collection, mentions prominent people whose papers are included, emphasizes the importance of the papers as replacements for burned records, and finishes by explaining the arrangement of the entries. George F. Jones’ German-American Names is a dictionary containing the spellings, meanings, and variants of about 18,000 names. However, its introduction is lengthy, almost a book in itself, and its three parts discuss the origin and significance of given names, the need and origin of surnames, and Christian names. The ability to understand the dictionary contents would be significantly diminished without reading the introduction. Finally, I am currently indexing a church history. The church history committee that developed the content and format of the book made a decision not to use individual footnotes or endnotes, but rather to combine the reference notes into one list, thus consolidating references to the same source. They suggest in their preface that anyone wishing to know a specific reference for a quotation or fact should contact the history committee – perhaps not the most researcher or reader-friendly decision, but nevertheless an important one to know prior to using the source.


Finally, it is important to understand the index, or indices provided at the end of the book. As a librarian, I believe that an index is simply a finding-aid to information included within the book. It can take many forms: every-name, place-names, subjects, or any combination of those. Some authors, however, offer additional information such as generation numbers, birth and death dates, marriage indices, and more. In considering any index, first understand what is being indexed. I mentioned the German-American Names book earlier. As a dictionary, it might be logical to assume that there would be no index. One is included, however, but the index citations are to specific paragraphs in the introduction, not to page numbers. Often abstracts of deeds or other records will provide index citation to the entry numbers in the list of abstracts, rather than to a page number in the book itself. In a previous article, I mentioned James Savage’s Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England.  Originally published in the 1860s, its index, created by O. P. Dexter twenty years later, is not the easiest to use. Men can be found by checking the various pages indicated for their surname. Women can only be found if their father’s or husband’s surnames are known. Only with this year’s publication of Patty Barthell Myers’ Female Index to Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England can women be easily located throughout the original four volumes.


A thorough examination of a new resource is essential to its effective and efficient use. Consult the title page; don’t rely solely on the information on the spine or cover. Look at the table of contents to understand the organization of the content. Thoroughly read the introduction and/or preface to gain an understanding of the scope of the book as well as find the tips the author may provide about how to best use the resource. Consider the index carefully to understand what is being indexed and how the index entries relate to the text. I guarantee you’ll be able to put the information in the source to much better use.



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