How-To Guides and Manuals for Adults
|This article originally appeared in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, edited by Kory L. Meyerink.|
How-to guides and manuals for adults generally are a blend of methodology and record category description. Most are published for adult hobbyists who are just beginning genealogical research. However, lecturers, instructors of genealogy, and professional researchers may find these materials useful as quick refreshers or for detailed accounts of particular topics.
While writing styles vary in tone and quality, five themes, or approaches, predominate: records description, research as a process, twentieth-century family history, special groups (ethnic research), and regional and state guides.
The most widely used approach, record description, gives source material precedence over methodology or process. Chapters may stand independently of each other, and readers can understand one chapter without reading all preceding chapters. Self-contained sections are usually organized by type of source.
Text that is organized according to the agency or official who maintains a particular collection of records has a jurisdictional arrangement. Works organized this way generally categorize records in one of the following five levels of jurisdictions: private caretakers (perhaps the records have been stored in a private residence); local (such as newspapers); county; state; and Federal. Jurisdictional subheadings are the commonly accepted record group names. Within the Federal jurisdiction, for example, are census, military, U.S. district court, and ship passenger lists.
One very successful handbook that covers a multitude of sources arranged by record descriptions is The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, edited by Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source includes sections on major U.S. record sources, immigration and ethnic groups, and twentieth-century research. Each section contains in-depth discussions of source categories or special fields, ranging from records of marriage and divorce to urban area research.
The Source has been labeled the single most comprehensive guide available in terms of its selection of resources and the detail with which they are explained. One of the book’s greatest attributes is its use of many contributing authors, who collectively have attained a level of expertise that few single authors possess.
An excellent textbook is Val D. Greenwood’s The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. Written by an instructor of genealogy who was frustrated by the lack of an adequate textbook, The Researcher’s Guide admirably fills the gap. Using a records description approach, Greenwood divides his work into two major parts: "Background to Research" and "Records and Their Use."
"Background to Research" examines basic principles of genealogical research including the need for historical background, the concept of jurisdictions, use of libraries, and the use of primary sources versus secondary sources. "Records and Their Use" identifies and explains the most frequently consulted sources. The chapter titled Abstracting Wills and Deeds deviates from other guides in a significant way: detailed instructions are followed by actual deeds and wills in both full and abstracted forms.
The Researcher’s Guide discusses not only the historical background of the record categories, but also the legal implications of these records. This innovative approach, plus a highly readable style, have made Greenwood’s text a popular choice among genealogy teachers.
Other examples of records description are the research outlines published by the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS church) in Salt Lake City, Utah. The outline for the United States introduces basic research strategies and twenty-six major record categories with concise but detailed information about general U.S. sources.
Research as a Process
Process is the highway along which research progresses. In instructional materials that use a process, or methodology, organization, sections and chapters are arranged sequentially to parallel the actual research procedure. The information in each chapter builds upon preceding chapters, so readers should study sequentially. The focus is on the process or methodology of research. Materials with this style of organization may need to be supplemented by works that deal with specific record categories.
A guide that exemplifies the process approach is Voices in Your Blood: Discovering Identity through Family History, by G. G. Vandagriff. In this work, the message builds as the chapters progress. The approach is emphasized in chapter titles: "Asking Questions;" "Constructing a Bridge;" "Starting to Build;" "Using the Census as a Building Tool;" and "Building with Twentieth-Century Technology." One early chapter focuses on Using the Largest Family History Library in the World. A later chapter discusses "The Finer Touches and Putting Your Work in Perspective.”
Although it lacks a suitable number of references for supplementary reading and is not always adequate or accurate in citation of sources, titles, or terminology, Voices in Your Blood is highly motivating and presents some good advice about false leads and persons of the same name.
One value of the process approach is that, if the text is well written and comprehensive in scope, its life span and usefulness extend beyond that of most guides. Consider the enduring quality of Searching for Your Ancestors, by Gilbert H. Doane, originally published in 1937. This book has become a classic because of its gentle good humor, encouragement of sound collection procedures and analysis, and no-nonsense approach to verification.
Twentieth-Century Family History
Works in this category focus on finding living persons and contemporary information. Often, these works are produced for the general reading public by professional writers who do not claim to be family historians. Materials in this category include helps for planning reunions, establishing single-surname societies, producing family newsletters, writing autobiographies, and conducting oral interviews. They seldom can be classified as how-to guides, for they contain only superficial treatment of research methodology and sources. However, several recent works rooted in contemporary discovery offer practical advice on research practices and can effectively guide researchers concerned with finding living relatives, learning about adoptions, or preserving the stories of living family members. Included in this category are books on adoption research, such as Search: A Handbook for Adoptees and Birthparents by Jayne Askin with Molly Davis.
In Search, Askin shares successful methods she used in seeking the facts of her birth. The authors list search and support groups, as well as both state and private reunion registries. Search identifies contact points not often used for family histories, such as state departments of motor vehicles, current voter lists, hospitals, and foundling homes and adoption agencies. The book’s discussion of methodology and public records is useful for researchers who lack personal knowledge of living family members. The sound methodology, emphasis on fact over fiction, and outlining of process over "hit-and-miss" research provide a stepping stone for research into past generations.
Another significant contribution of works that focus on the assembly of current data is their ability to link family history to other disciplines. David E. Kyvig and Myron A. Marty, authors of Your Family History: A Handbook for Research and Writing, introduce issues of sociological and historical perspective. They note how clues, such as the script-type on a tombstone, might indicate a family’s financial status and how the retention of certain cultural traditions suggests ways that immigrants adjusted to life in a new country.
Research on Native Americans, Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, and many other groups requires special approaches. The sources and search methods appropriate for such groups must be presented within the context of their specific historical heritage. The unique features of this interweave of history, tactics, and sources may require researchers to read texts that pertain exclusively to the research and resources of special groups. Helpful books in this category include Cecelia Carpenter’s How to Research American Indian Blood Lines: A Manual on Indian Genealogical Research; Arthur Kurzweil’s From Generation to Generation: How to Trace Your Jewish Genealogy and Personal History; and Norma Flores and Patsy Ludwig’s A Beginner’s Guide to Hispanic Genealogy.
A few general how-to books provide quality advice about special groups. For example, a helpful chapter on Native Americans appears in Norman Wright’s Preserving Your American Heritage: A Guide to Family and Local History. Chapters on Native Americans, Hispanics, African Americans, and Jewish Americans are contained in The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Ethnic research is a rapidly expanding area of family history study.
Regional and State Guides
Various guides have been written to describe the specific records and sources in particular regions or states. These are not how-to guides, and the quality and extent of their coverage varies considerably. Most begin with a narrative or chronology of state history, followed by a county-by-county listing of record groups, including their content, location, and beginning dates. These works tend to be descriptive rather than instructive, so they must be supplemented by more extensive works on methods and sources.
State or regional guides are seldom designed to present a comprehensive treatment of methodology. A notable exception, however, is the detailed and well-written North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History, edited by Helen F. M. Leary. Part 1 of North Carolina Research, “Research Techniques,” includes a fine discussion of research strategies. Various sources are explained in general terms, followed by suggestions for analyzing findings within that record group. The book contains extensive information on the use of primary and secondary records and provides instructions for evaluating and ranking these sources. Each chapter is self-contained, making the book valuable as a reference manual. Charts, illustrations, and maps are plentiful, appropriate, and legible. The editor’s attention to detail and consideration of readers’ needs make this book an excellent resource.
Part 2, "County Records," and part 3, "State Records," include some discussion that is unique to North Carolina. However, the treatments are so comprehensive that the usefulness of these record explanations transcends state boundaries. The sections on Federal, private, and nonwritten records (parts 4, 5, and 6) also have universal appeal, are well constructed, and reflect a consultation of authoritative sources rather than the singular view of the editor. Selected references follow each chapter.
State guide outlines published by the Family History Library may be particularly useful for states for which no comprehensive material is available. The series consists of fifty state guides that range from eight to twenty-two pages. Each outline includes succinct commentaries on alphabetically arranged topics, from Archives and Libraries, to Cemeteries and Land, to Vital Records.
An ongoing effort by the National Genealogical Society is the production of the Research in the States series. Currently, the series contains informative and accurate guides for the District of Columbia, Indiana, Minnesota, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, and Tennessee. These booklets are outgrowths of articles from the National Genealogical Society Quarterly; their content has been expanded and updated to include the most current information available at the time of publication. The series eventually will include guides for additional states: authoritative articles on Georgia, North Carolina, and Mississippi are being adapted for future booklets.
Several chapters in Alice Eichholz's Red Book present current information on sources, repositories, and locations of records critical to successful searching. While the quality of the chapters varies, those written by authors who conduct research in the subject state tend to be well done. The American Society of Genealogists’ Genealogical Research: Methods and Sources, edited by Milton Rubincam and Jean Stephenson, somewhat dated but carefully prepared, also provides background material to aid researchers.
The titles in Topics Found in Beginner's Guides were selected from those that appear under the heading “How-To Guides and Manuals for Adults. This table is informational in nature and not evaluative, and the topics (subject matter) listed do not constitute recommendations. For example, half of the titles in the table discuss the change from the Old Style to the New Style calendar, yet one might question a beginner’s need to know this.
The table is not intended to be critical of omissions in a text. An author’s decision to include or exclude a topic may be explained in the works’s introduction, preface, or title, and this fact should be considered. Marlin’s My Sixteen: A Self-Help Guide to Finding Your Sixteen Great-Great-Grandparents might not be expected to provide a kinship chart.
Indication of a topic’s inclusion does not mean that the discussion is in-depth or appropriately placed. For example, Croom’s Unpuzzling Your Past discusses citing sources but is not explicit in linking family group sheet entries to the source (via a footnote or other attribution); Raymond Wright’s The Genealogist’s Handbook refers to source citation only in the chapter on writing a family history.
Works obviously will not refer to topics or sources that were not available at the time of publication. For example, the World War I draft (Selective Service) registrations were not accessible when Norman Wright’s Preserving Your American Heritage was published. Below are the full citations for the works shown in Topics Found in Beginner's Guides.