Southern California Genealogical Society

Back to Basics: What's on Your Desk?
By Barbara McKinlay

Genealogy reference books, that's what's probably on your desk.

In order to be successful with family research, it is necessary to have helpful books at arm's length. There are, of course, excellent sources at a genealogical library, but having a few well-chosen books that you can pour over at home will enable you to make giant genealogical strides.

I will suggest books for you to consider, but I also suggest that you take considerable time looking at other books that are available, so that you choose things that seem to you to be the best.

First and foremost, you need a good general genealogy book. I cut my teeth on Ethel Williams' "Know Your Ancestors" and Val Greenwood's "Guide to American Genealogy," along with Gilbert Doane's "Know Your Ancestors." These are still excellent books, but there are many more than have been published since.

Along with those, Everton's "Handy Book" is a great help. Arranged in alphabetical list by state, it provides the names of the counties, when they were formed, what counties they may have been made from, what census is available and the county seat and zip code. It also has a brief breakdown of information about countries outside the United States.

"The Source" is a book that I have found to be invaluable. It will lead you to all kinds of other references, and at the same time, give you valuable information about almost anything that you encounter in your research.

I recently acquired Pfeiffer's "Hidden Sources." I found it when I was in Burbank at the SCGS Library, and have already found it to be useful.

The National Archives and Records Service has published "A Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives." If you have American ancestry, it is a great help.

Along with these books, there are references that will be peculiar to the research that you are doing. Certainly, if there is a county history of the county you are working on, it is worth your while to have a copy. Along with that, a guide to the area of your work is a must. For example, my copy of "The History of Summers County, West Virginia" by Miller, is well worn and has been worth its weight in gold, as has my copy of "Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry," by Cory.

Your private library should also contain any genealogies of the family you are working on, as well as allied lines. True, they may have mistakes, but they will still be a help to you.

There are other sources that you may already have that you can't do without. One is a good dictionary. I am currently using Webster's "New World College Dictionary." Legal terms, words used in land records, words no longer used very much, place names, etc., are all examples of the need for such a reference.

A good atlas is an absolute necessity. It doesn't have to be huge or expensive, just one that shows the states and their counties and cities, and other countries of the world. The one I use the most is a small Hammond that I got as a prize in some kind of contest!

An encyclopedia is a must. If you don't have one that is many volumes, there is an excellent one-volume Columbia that is great. An encyclopedia provides an excellent place to look up general historical and geographical information, and will usually refer you to other books on the subject. An inexpensive world almanac is helpful, too.

For years, I have subscribed to Everton's Genealogical Helper. The yearly issues that deal with libraries, societies and local periodicals have been great, along with the articles and the reviews of new genealogical books. I usually keep back issues for at least a year and am always glad that I have. Other periodicals that have to do with the area of your research will also be essential, as well as family publications, if they are good.

Yes, of course, some of these books are expensive, so select them wisely. Many of them are on sale at SCGS. And don't forget: If you are a member, you can get a discount.

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