Identifying and Obtaining Instructional Materials
|This article originally appeared in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, edited by Kory L. Meyerink.|
Identifying and locating instructional materials is not always easy. Evaluating these materials is even more difficult, especially for newcomers to the field. Which guide was written for a quick sell and which will withstand the test of time, aging as gracefully as a well-researched and properly prepared family history? Annotated bibliographies can help researchers assess the value of instructional works.
Identifying and Obtaining Instructional Materials
Annotated bibliographies for genealogy are in short supply. Of these, a handful of contemporary works can help identify instructional materials. One modestly sized, slightly outdated, but authoritative and annotated work is Genealogy: A Selected Bibliography by Milton Rubincam, editor emeritus of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.
A more comprehensive listing appears in American and British Genealogy and Heraldry, by P. William Filby, in the section titled United States, General Reference, Records, Guides, Indexes. This section contains annotated titles of works known through its date of publication (1983).
Marian Hoffman has compiled and edited Genealogical and Local History Books in Print: General References and World Resources Volume. This volume is perhaps the most current source of instructional materials because new editions or supplements are to be issued on a regular basis. Many titles are submitted by authors or publishers; editors’ comments, if any, should be noted. Two important features of this work are its complete list of vendors and special ordering information. There is an index of authors, titles, and advertisers.
Book reviews and advertisements in genealogical journals and magazines provide an excellent means of learning about new instructional publications. Most publishers advertise in Everton’s Genealogical Helper (published by The Everton Publishers, Logan, Utah) and submit their books for review to several journals. Some journals critique each book; others merely describe the content of each book without evaluating its substance.
People can obtain how-to books easily through publishers or bookstores that specialize in genealogical publications and supplies. In addition, national, state, and local conferences have created opportunities for book vendors to display their merchandise, making customer examination and purchase very convenient.
Evaluating Instructional Materials
Gone are the days when researchers could learn their craft solely by practical application. Acquiring knowledge by trial and error is inefficient and unnecessary, and can jeopardize the research opportunities of those who follow.
Instructional material helps researchers progress from the personal to the universal. No longer can a family historian, a professional genealogist, or a teacher function autonomously. As members of the larger genealogical community, researchers must operate under a code of ethics and proper standards of conduct. This code includes not only adequately documenting and describing sources of information, but also developing an awareness of local and national concerns about records preservation and access. The best method of developing an appreciation of issues and a policy of responsible action is receiving quality instruction.
The introduction of online computer bulletin boards, the high attendance at national conferences, and the potential for networking among researchers certainly offer many instructional opportunities. But they do not alter a basic fact: the printed word reaches more researchers than any other medium and thus is most influential in transmitting skills, information, and attitudes. Genealogical society leaders, book reviewers, teachers, and professional genealogists are likely to be asked, How do I begin? These experienced researchers must be prepared to recommend the best instructional materials in the field. The following criteria should aid the selection process.
An important consideration in evaluating instructional material is the experience and expertise the author brings to the work.
- Is the author a practicing genealogist who has gained recognition among peers through writing or lecturing? Or is the author a professional writer who has chosen genealogy as the subject for a marketable book?
- Is the author familiar with the concepts, research principles, records, and regions that are described in the book?
- What training has the author received for this type of work?
- What other works have been prepared by this author and how well were they received by the genealogical community and reviewers?
This is not to imply that only a professional researcher can write a research guide or that only a practicing teacher can prepare instructional materials. Instead, it suggests that an author’s credentials and reputation are a prime evaluative factor.
Another consideration in evaluation of instructional material is the reader’s purpose. Is the reader seeking personal development? If so, on what skill level? Will the publication be used be as a classroom text or as reference material from which lessons or lectures will be prepared? With the purpose clearly in mind, book selectors first should examine the preface and the foreword. If readers need an authoritative reference on record categories, for instance, books that claim in the preface to focus upon methodology would be inappropriate. If a book’s purpose, stated in the introduction, is to interest children in family history, adults may not find the guide compelling or helpful.
Book selectors should examine a work’s table of contents closely.
- Do the topics parallel the author’s stated intent?
- Does the selection of material seem comprehensive?
- Is the division of sources or methods reasonable?
- Is there adequate emphasis on the time periods and regions that readers are interested in?
- Are the topics appropriate to the skill level of readers? (An introductory how-to guide that purports to help readers take the first steps in writing a family history need not detail the deciphering of colonial handwriting or discuss the change to the Gregorian calendar. On the other hand, such discussions would be necessary in a how-to book intended for intermediate or advanced researchers.)
Next, book selectors should read a dozen or more pages of the publication.
- Is the writing clear and concise and the style pleasing?
- Are the examples drawn from a wide spectrum of experience rather than only the author’s personal research?
- Are descriptions adequate or do they provide only a superficial account of topics for the sake of selling the book?
- Does the text contain typographical and grammatical errors? (Carefully edited books do not.)
- Did the editing process include a reading of the manuscript by an authority in the subject matter?
- Is the text free from technical errors?
Accuracy of information can be tested by checking some portion of the text against credible sources. For example, a typical error in material that discusses census records would be a statement like the following: The 1880 Soundex indexes heads of households having children under ten; actually, the 1880 Soundex indexes heads of households having children aged ten or under. This and other inaccuracies should be noted and weighed in the evaluation. Technical errors indicate that the author consulted mediocre sources in preparing the text.
Those who select books should also consider the currency and life span of the text.
- Does the publication address twentieth-century sources adequately?
- Is the information timeless, or does the book’s focus limit its life?
Research methods do not change drastically over the years, but "shortcuts" may, as may prices, addresses, and locations of collections. Instructional materials that devote a great amount of space to these subjects are severely limited in their life span unless they also provide a worthwhile account of methodology or sources.
Next, book selectors should examine the bibliography.
- Does it contain an adequate number of titles for supplemental reading?
- Are these titles quality publications?
- Are the references divided into categories or annotated so that readers can identify works that will be helpful?
- Are the citations properly noted so that the reader can obtain them easily?
Book selectors should appraise maps, illustrations, charts, and tables. Are they relevant and legible? Poorly reproduced records and maps frustrate readers. Not all reproductions need to be in color nor of such high quality that the publication’s cost soars beyond reason; however, illustrations and other graphics must be decipherable and appropriate to the text.
The index should be comprehensive enough to permit readers to locate specialized topics within larger categories. Broad index entries such as "Census" or "Military" are inadequate. Secondary entries, such as "Cross Index to Selected City Streets and Enumeration Districts, 1910 Census," or "War of 1812 Bounty Land Records," enable readers to access desired information quickly.
Finally, do book reviewers in respected genealogical journals and newsletters recommend the publication? If several reviewers recommend the book with a caution on its treatment of the Social Security Death Index, for example, readers can judge the usefulness of the book with confidence. While book selectors should use caution in making decisions on the basis of promotional material or paid advertisements, a publisher’s notice that includes endorsements from recognized professionals serves as one measure of quality.
Selecting Textbooks for Classroom Use
The selection of textbooks in many ways relies upon the guidelines already discussed. The book must be pleasing to read, substantive, and current.
A textbook should also present a logically arranged balance of methodology and sources. The total research process should be a central theme throughout the book, with no single factor (note-keeping, location of records, etc.) dominating the text.
The book’s availability and cost, along with the skill level of the intended users, should also be considered. Availability of a proposed text is often a crucial factor. If class is conducted in an area with limited access to certain texts, choices are obviously limited.
Price must be weighed, particularly if students are on fixed or limited incomes. Instructors should also consider the commitment of the students in general. For a five-week course, an inexpensive text may be more practical than a high-priced one; a semester’s course might justify students’ investing in a more expensive publication.
The skill level of students is a critical factor. Beginning genealogy classes may not benefit from textbooks used in advanced classes. Indeed, a comprehensive compendium such as The Source may overwhelm beginning students. One means of selecting appropriate textbooks may be to evaluate the texts selected by faculty at national institutes or other recognized programs of study.
The Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, has been held annually for three decades. The institute, co-sponsored by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, offers five course levels and areas of coursework in U.S. genealogy. The following works were selected as texts in the 1994 sessions on U.S. research: Greenwood’s The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy for course I, Fundamentals of Genealogy and Historical Research; The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy for course II, Intermediate Studies in Genealogy and Historical Research; and the American Society of Genealogists’ Genealogical Research: Methods and Sources, vol. 1 for course III, Southern Colonies and States: Pennsylvania through Florida. (Course IV, Advanced Genealogy: Methodology and Research Techniques, and course V, Professional Genealogy, did not use textbooks in 1994.)
Students who subscribe to the home-study course of the National Genealogical Society, American Genealogy: A Basic Course, are assigned readings from The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. Other popular texts include Emily Croom’s Unpuzzling Your Past: A Basic Guide to Genealogy, Wright’s Preserving Your American Heritage, Wilbur Helmbold’s Tracing Your Ancestry: A Step-by-Step Guide to Researching Your Family History, and both The Source and Johni Cerny and Arlene Eakle’s Ancestry’s Guide to Research: Case Studies in American Genealogy.