Unpuzzling the Past – the Return of a Classic Genealogical Resource

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Each one of us has genealogical resources to which we return to again and again. One of my favorites is Emily Anne Croom’s Unpuzzling Your Past: The Best-Selling Basic Guide to Genealogy (4th ed., 2001, expanded and updated by Genealogical Publishing Co., 2010). Previous editions were published by Betterway Books, but after it was allowed to go out-of-print, Genealogical Publishing Company recognized the value to the genealogical community and returned it to publication.

My retirement from public library service in 2006 has allowed me to devote much more of my time to genealogical research, but when Unpuzzling Your Past returned to print, I remembered that members of my staff at the Meyera E. Oberndorf Central Library in Virginia Beach, Virginia, consistently used this title with customers in the library’s local history/genealogy section and in genealogical how-to programs offered to the public. In preparing to write this article, I asked Mary Lovell Swetnam, a Reference Librarian at the Central Library, to share with you her comments and experiences in using Unpuzzling Your Past.  They describe the strengths of this resource, both for genealogists and for the librarians who serve them.

“All of us, professional genealogists, hobbyists, and beginning researchers need to have a core collection of sources to assist us in our genealogy and family history projects. The titles and numbers of these reference sources can vary depending on our skill level and the locale and ethnicities of our research.

“However, each of us needs to have at least one does-it-all-explains-the technique book. For years, I have used Unpuzzling the Past by Emily Croom as one of my go-to books. I have recommended it to hundreds of others as I introduce them to the consuming endeavor of ancestor hunting. I have a copy at work, a copy at home, and a copy in my research bag. Obviously, I am a big fan!

“There are other good general genealogy titles, which have also stood the test of time, but because of its size, its light weight, its treatment of various types of research, and its general readability, Unpuzzling the Past is in the top of my core collection.

“Kudos to Ms. Croom, who makes quite clear the difference between surveying existing research and completing original research. This is a concept which needs to be stressed often when assisting those who begin a family history project in the computer age. Given the huge amounts of information available, we need to be especially vigilant in what we use and how we use it.

“I find the icons which appear throughout the text to be very helpful. If you were to read only the bolded sentences next to the icons, you would get a pretty good grounding in the topic for each chapter. (I am not recommending that you do that, but I do know that some people just have to skim!) The tips, tricks and warnings of common errors encompass many of the hints that a friend might give us if he or she were coaching us through a new type of research.

“A proponent of organization, Ms. Croom spends two chapters on the creation and organization of a project. To aid in this goal, there are excellent reproducible forms in the appendices. Wouldn’t it have been nice if we had all started our projects in an organized manner?

Unpuzzling Your Past is a balanced presentation of how to find and use sources which help flesh out our ancestors (maps, diaries, artifacts, journals and interviews) and how to locate and understand the sources which create the framework for their lives (court, census, military and land records). Anytime I need a refresher on a topic, I know that I can trust Unpuzzling Your Past for an accessible overview, often including a graphic of the pertinent documents. Chapters range in length from ten to thirty pages. They are clear enough for a novice and meaty enough for an advanced researcher. I would wager that each of us would materially advance our research if we were to read through the “Things to Do Now” section at the end of each chapter and execute even one suggestion provided for each chapter.

“Many public libraries have circulation copies of Unpuzzling Your Past in their collections and it is certainly a viable option to borrow it from your local library. However, it is worth more than the investment of the purchase price to have Emily Croom at your side as you research, whispering ‘Did you check here?’”

It is difficult to read Ms. Swetnam’s comments without wanting to review this title for yourself. In my own experience with the book, I have appreciated the twenty-four icons, used throughout the book, that focus our attention on reminders and methods for documenting information; where to turn for more in-depth coverage; techniques and prods for further thinking; information and tips you can’t overlook; where on the Web to find what you need; when to stop before you make a mistake; useful words direct from the experts; and ways to make research more efficient, etc. In addition, eight strategies for winning in genealogy include: be systematic; be resourceful; be thorough; be a cluster genealogist (studying each ancestor as a part of a cluster of friends, relatives and neighbors); be considerate; be a cautious detective; be passionate about accuracy; and be smart: document your facts. I think we should all post these eight statements right over our PCs!

I particularly like Ms. Croom’s focus on the family as a primary source of information. Her introductory comments include the wisdom that “Genealogy and family history go hand in hand. The goal is not to accumulate more ancestral names than anyone else in town, but to learn and preserve whatever you can about the ancestors you identify – their lives and cultures, their places in the history happening around them.” Every researcher should read both the chapter on “Fitting the Pieces Together: A Case Study” which discusses the methodology for combining documented genealogical facts, gathered from original documents, with information from family interviews and stories; and the chapter entitled “Sharing Your Family History.” Many of us intend to write our family history, but most of us never actually complete that writing, thus depriving our descendants of an organized presentation of our research and discoveries. Anyone who reads these chapters, I believe, will not only feel compelled to write, but will feel capable of doing so.

If you own a previous edition of Unpuzzling Your Past (1st, 1983; 2nd, 1989; or 3rd, 1995) in your personal library (or, if you are a librarian, in your reference and circulating collections), now is a perfect opportunity to update your collection to the 4th edition. Described as “expanded, updated and revised,” this edition includes expanded information on public records, added useful Internet addresses, and includes a chapter-length case study of a search to identify female ancestors. I predict that you will find many reasons to use this title to “unpuzzle your past.”

Leave a Reply

Next ArticleExploring Findmypast.co.uk - an Inside Look at a Major British Online Resource