Genealogy How-To Books: How a Little Reading Can Save You A Lot Of Time

By NYPL Staff
March 25, 2019
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

"A book which people praise and don't read" is how Mark Twain sardonically defined a "classic." But his bon mot also fits—albeit with much less wit—another category of often-recommended-but-rarely-read books: the genealogy handbook, aka "how-to" genealogy books.

When family historians come to the Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, they want to immediately "type their name" into a database, not be referred to a book about how to trace their family tree.

It's only human nature. Just as travelers (especially men, according to a 2015 study) will wander for hours rather than ask for directions… in the same way do-it-yourself-ers would sooner abort a project than consult an instruction manual… so too, genealogists are willing to hunt through thousands of digitized records to (not) find their ancestors instead of referring to a genealogy guidebook.

Try to rise above this! Your instincts may counsel against it, but consulting a genealogy research guide can—and almost certainly will—save you time, effort, and frustration, and also lead you to information and sources you might never discover otherwise.

Still feeling resistant? Consider a few examples of how researchers can benefit from genealogy guidebooks:

  • A researcher had been unsuccessfully searching for a deed for her ancestor’s property in Colorado. She consulted the book Digging for Ancestors: An In-Depth Guide to Land Records (available on the shelves in Room 121) and learned the Bureau of Land Management has digitized all land transfers made by the U.S. government in Public Land States. Armed with further tips in the guidebook about how to navigate this database, she was able to find the land grant to her ancestors, pinpoint its exact location, and discover the names and land plots of all of her ancestor’s neighbors—all within about a half-hour.

  • Another researcher who believed his Ukrainian ancestor had passed through Ellis Island spent hours trying to find her on the Ellis Island passenger lists, with no success. Finally, he consulted the book Ukrainian Genealogy: A Beginner’s Guide (also available on the shelves in Room 121). From this book, he learned that "Seventy percent of Ukrainians departing for North America used the two German ports of Hamburg and Bremen" (p. 67), and that departure records from these ports were being digitized (they are currently available on Ancestry Library Edition and the Staatsarchiv Bremen). Using these online departure records, the delighted researcher located his ancestor who had departed on the ship Seydlitz, from Bremen to New York, on July 7, 1923.

  • A third researcher had been unable to find a death record for her ancestor, who she believed died in Arkansas in the 1850s. After referring to the Red book: American state, county, and town sources (available at the Reference Desk in Room 121), she learned that Arkansas did not begin keeping death records until 1914. Giving up on a death record, she decided to focus on Census research, and consulted The census book: a genealogist's guide to federal census facts, schedules and indexes : with master extraction forms for federal census schedules, 1790-1930 (available on the shelves in Room 121), in which she learned that, from 1850 to 1880, the census included "Mortality Schedules" that recorded the deaths of all household members who had died in the year before the census was taken. She checked the mortality schedule for the 1860 census and, sure enough, found an entry for her ancestor who had died on November 3, 1859.

  • After enjoying some initial success in tracing her family tree on Ancestry.com, a researcher learned there was an Unofficial Guide to Ancestry.com and decided to see if there was anything she was missing. She discovered that Ancestry.com has digitzed a number of U.S. school yearbooks, and decided to look for a photo of her great-aunt, whom she had only seen as a very old woman. Although she did not locate a photo of this great-aunt, she did find her mentioned as a "music school senior" in the 1938 University of Louisville yearbook. Since this researcher had not been aware that her great-aunt had majored in music, she was thrilled with her discovery, which added a new dimension to her family history.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg: no matter what genealogy questions you have, or where you are in your family research, there is a genealogy guidebook that is likely to help you—really help you—find what you are seeking. They range in content from very general, introductory books like Genealogy Online for Dummies to very narrowly focused topics such as Non-Federal Censuses of Florida, 1784-1945, and cover pretty much every other genealogical subject in between. And unlike War and Peace, Middlemarch, Huckleberry Finn, or any other classics you may not have read yet, most genealogy guidebooks are a quick and easily digestible read.

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 1154292

So, before you spend days on Ancestry trolling through the 444,931 Kellys who came through Ellis Island; or travel to Ireland to find a birth record that was destroyed by fire; or fail to discover your great-grandfather’s second wife because you didn’t analyze the census records properly, try consulting one or more of the many genealogy guidebooks available in the Milstein Division.

To help you get started, we’ve described the most important categories of guidebooks in our collections below. For more specific recommendations, come to Room 121 of the Milstein Division at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, or email us at history@nypl.org. To explore on your own, try searching our online catalog using a few relevant keywords (for example, "census records" or "irish genealogy guide" or just "genealogy guide"). If you find something that looks interesting, click on the subject heading(s) in the catalog record to see if there are similar books.

Getting Started Guides

Are you at the very beginning of your family research? These guides will walk you through the process, from identifying basic genealogy sources to organizing your research. Browsing through one or more of these guides as you start your research can save you countless hours down the line!

Here are a few of the "Getting Started" guidebooks available at NYPL:

Record Surveys

These are the guides that will take you beyond merely dabbling on Ancestry and help you systematically uncover your family history. At the top of the list is The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, a favorite of genealogists. It explains the different types of records available, what information they contain, and how to look for that information. Records covered include:

  • Censuses
  • Land records
  • Military records
  • Church records
  • Court records

The Source also provides topical overviews of:

  • African American genealogy
  • Colonial genelaogy
  • Hispanic genealogy
  • Jewish American genealogy
  • Abbreviations and acronyms

Researchers may also want to consult the more recently published book The Family Tree Toolkit: A Comprehensive Guide to Uncovering Your Ancestry and Researching Genealogy, which provides a similarly broad overview of how to conduct genealogical research.

There are also record survey guidebooks that focus on a single, specific catagory of record. Examples include:

These types of guides not only help you find and interpret the most fundamental genealogical documents, but may also lead you to records you didn’t even know existed. For example, did you know that many states conducted their own censuses, which can provide additional documentation of your ancestors in the "gap" years between Federal Censuses (which are only conducted once every 10 years)? Or that there are special resources that supply information about railroad employees? Or that the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, established in 1865, includes valuable genealogical records for both former slaves and white refugees? These are just a few of the many records we’ve been able to help researchers discover, solely by referring to record-specific genealogy guides.

Regional Guides

If your ancestors all hail from the same state or region, you may also find it useful to consult record surveys that are specific to a particular place, such as the New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer.

The Milstein Division’s genealogy collection is not limited to New York, or even to America: We have record survey guidebooks for areas across the United States (from Maine to Alaska and most everywhere in between) and for many other countries, as well. Since record-keeping practices vary widely between states in America, and across different countries, these handbooks are invaluable tools for discovering what’s available and how to get it.

The Library holds too many regional guides to genealogy to list them all, but here are a few examples to get you started:

Guides to Online Databases

Sooner or later, every family researcher will turn to Ancestry (available at all NYPL locations)—but how many know how to do more than type a name and see what comes up? And what about all the other genealogical databases that are available?

Guidebooks are essential if you want to take full advantage of the rapidly expanding universe of genealogical records now available online. Some records can be accessed only through subscription databases (many of which are available on-site at the Library), while others may be freely available on government websites or through other free databases. Since each database includes different records and has different search functions and limitations, consulting a guidebook is the best way to make sure you are finding everything that is available.

Here are just a few of the titles available in the Milstein Division to help you locate records online:

Guides for Specific Groups (Ethnic, Religious, Gender)

Tracing the ancestry of a family member from a particular ethnic or religious group —or of women family members, regardless of race or creed—often presents challenges specific to that identity. Examples include:

  • African Americans, many of whom descend from slaves whose lives may only be sparsely documented
  • Native Americans, whose ancestors normally relied on oral history rather than written documents
  • Jewish people, many of whose ancestors were murdered in the Holocaust
  • Women, who can be hard to trace because they changed their surnames when married

There are numerous how-to guides for tracing the ancestors of these and other ethnic or religious groups. They discuss strategies and identify records for overcoming these types of unique barriers. Whether your ancestors are Irish, Italian, Mexican, Hispanic, German, Jewish, Quaker, or have some other ethnic or religious identity, the Library holds guidebooks that can help you trace their history.

To locate these types of guidebooks at the Library, try a keyword search of our online catalog with the name of the group you are interested in and the word "genealogy" (i.e. African American genealogy). If you find a title that seems relevant, you can open the record and use the subject headings to find additional material (for example, African Americans -- Genealogy -- Handbooks, manuals, etc.).

Special Topics or Thematic Guidebooks

Other guidebooks focus on topics of special interest to genealogists, including the following:

  • Organizing your research
  • Preserving family documents and photographs
  • Writing your family history
  • Documenting and evaluating genealogical evidence
  • Becoming a professional genealogist
  • Introducing genealogy to children 
  • The Library also holds many guidebooks on genealogy's hottest—and most misunderstood—topic: DNA testing. For a better understanding of this complex subject, try consulting one of the following:

    All these underused genealogy guidebooks provide helpful and expert information on topics of general interest to genealogists.

    No more excuses! Come explore the genealogy guidebooks that can help you solve even the most vexing mysteries your ancestors throw your way.