too many books, genealogy books, Collegiate records

Must Have Genealogy Books for Your Reference Collection

Editor’s Note: Following is a revised and updated post containing the recommendations and personal opinions of the late Carolyn L. Barkley. Her experience as a librarian gave her unique insight into which genealogy books should be a go-to for both amateur and professional Genealogists as research tools, and we wish to preserve that expertise.

As a retired public librarian, I am a firm believer in the use of public libraries (in fact, all types of libraries). In addition, I realize that more and more how-to resources are available online. However, there are basic tools for research that you need to have at hand in your home library, books that you can reach easily from your computer chair. These are the titles that you refer to over and over again, no matter the time of day, or whether your DSL connection has disappeared yet again (I live in the mountains and for some reason this happens all too frequently!).

I started writing this post with a specific number of books in mind; top 6 then top 10, then top way-too-many. What appears, then, is very selective and definitely personal. I recommend these titles both for your home collection, as well as for your local library’s collections of genealogy books.

Methodology / Best Practices

Mills, Elizabeth Shown, ed. Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers, and Librarians. Do not be scared away by the title! I’ve seen this happen in the GPC booth at conferences. This book is for everyone from family historians to professional researchers. With articles written by experts in the field, it describes best practices, defines quality, and offers each of us the opportunity to advance our skills and enrich our research. Topics include lineage papers, proofreading and indexing, family histories, abstracting, evidence analysis, writing research reports, copyright, execution of contracts, and more. Various sections will apply at different times in our research lives, but the aggregation of this knowledge is essential to have available.

Citing Your Sources / Writing

Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace.

This book is the definitive guide to the citation and analysis of historical sources. The mark of good research is the richness of the documentation. The mark of a good researcher is the quality of the citations provided as part of a research report, periodical article, newsletter article, compiled genealogy, etc. These skills need to be learned from the inception of our research and this book is the best available, discussing source citations for every known class of records, including microfilm, microfiche, and records created by digital media. I recommend this book as one that needs to be within easy reach of your desk. You may want to consider putting its predecessor (and lighter weight!) Evidence (2007, © 1997) in your briefcase when you travel to do research.

In addition, I recommend the 15th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style to use in conjunction with Evidence Explained.

Finally, I refer frequently to Sharon DeBartolo Carmack’s Carmack’s Guide to Copyright & Contracts: A Primer for Genealogists, Writers & Researchers. It is easy to be unsure if permission is required to include a map, an illustration, or other material in your writing or on your web site. Copyright law has undergone significant recent changes, and it is important to have an easy-to-understand guide to the law and its application to genealogical writing and research. You can read more about Carmack’s guide in an additional blog post here.

Land Research

Hone, E. Wade. Land and Property Research in the United States (Ancestry, 1997).

Land research is often overlooked by researchers who are concentrating solely on vital records. Land records, however, can often shed new light on problems that would be otherwise impenetrable. Deeds, particularly deeds of gift, can provide answers to relationship problems. An example in my own research is a grandson returning to North Carolina to dispose of land left to him by his grandfather. The record established not only the relationship between grandfather and grandson, but placed the grandson’s residence in South Carolina, thus opening up a previously unknown branch of the family. Hone’s book contains a wealth of information about land research. I recently found the best description of the military bounty land process in its section on military land research. Other sections include pre-U.S. possessions, State-Land States, Federal-Land States, Individual Lands, and, in the Special Interest section, a chapter on Native American land records.


Sperry, Kip. Reading Early American Handwriting. I have to confess that colonial research is the bane of my existence and definitely not my favorite time period to research. Kip Sperry’s book provides guidance to make research in this time period less difficult. Techniques are provided to assist in reading early documents. Numerous illustrations include sample alphabets and letter forms. Definitions for terms and abbreviations used commonly in documents such as wills, deeds, and church records increase our understanding of the documents being transcribed. Documents, both simple and complex, are provided with Sperry’s transcription on a facing page. If you have colonial ancestors, you will appreciate the assistance and strategies offered in this book. Read more about deciphering handwriting in a blog post here.


This recommendation is a kind of 3-in-1. First, I recommend that you own an edition of Black’s Law Dictionary. When reading original documents and analyzing their content with regard to our research, it is important to understand the terms included. What, for example is an heir apparent? A laughing heir? Or a bill of certiorari? A law dictionary will assist you in understanding the document and its implications for your research. If the term is very old, you may need to do an online search for a definition, or better yet, call your local or state law library and ask them to research it for you. For further assistance with definitions, I also recommend Paul Drake’s What did They Mean by That: A Dictionary of Historical and Genealogical Terms Old & New (Heritage Books, 2000) and Barbara Jean Evans’ The New A to Zax: A Comprehensive Genealogical Dictionary for Genealogists and Historians (3rd ed., The Author 1995).

Online Resource Guides

There are many guides available to on-line resources. We spend a great deal of our research time online and it is important that our time is as effective and efficient as possible. George G. Morgana’s The Official Guide to (Ancestry, 2007) is one of the best. Your time spent reading the Official Guide is time saved in your on-line research. I began reading it on the airplane on the way home from the last national convention and learned an enormous amount about how to use this online resource effectively. Beginning with basic navigation and including such topics as database search basics and templates, accessing digital image collections, and working with specific types of records, your use of will become more productive very quickly.

What have you found to be your indispensable genealogy book for your own research?

Image Credit: Pouya sh at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

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