An Open Book

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack Premium

In the 10 years I’ve been teaching family history classes, there’s always someone on the first day who announces something like, “My family history’s done on my mother’s side. My Aunt Martha wrote it.” Although I’m still amazed by this declaration — since no one’s family history is ever “done” — it’s nice to know that someone in the family took the time to write a piece of the family history.

Maybe someone has written a family history about your ancestors, too. A “genealogy cousin,” related to you by a common ancestor in the sixth generation whom you don’t even know, might have compiled and published a book about your family. Though such a family history book may not include all descendants down to you or your parents or grandparents, it could help you make a connection to another generation. If a published genealogy exists, it can save you countless hours of research. (It could also create countless hours of research if you discover the genealogy has flaws and wasn’t well re-| searched.)

How can you find out whether someone has published a genealogy that might hold answers about your ancestors, and how do you get your hands on a copy? How should you analyze such research and incorporate it into your own?

Let’s take these questions one step at a time.


Finding a family history book that covers part of your family tree starts with knowing where to look. Here are 10 likely sources to locate a published genealogy about your family — if one exists:

The Family History Library
Located in Salt Lake City, the massive Family History Library has more than 70,000 biography and family history volumes. You can search its holdings by several different categories, including by surname. The results will be a list of books that focus specifically on your family of interest as well as books that might contain your surname as an “allied” branch. At <>, follow the links to the Family History Library System, then the Catalog, then Surname Search. You can also search the catalog at your local Family History Center.

If you find a published genealogy at the Family History Library and it’s been microfilmed, you can order a copy of the film through your local Family History Center. If it hasn’t been microfilmed, then you need to visit the library or have someone check the book for you.

Public libraries with genealogy and local history departments

Many public libraries with genealogy and local history collections now make their catalogs available online. (For a guide to finding family history resources in online library catalogs, see the April 2000 Family Tree Magazine or check out <> Also, at <> you’ll find links to libraries listed by state.) For the locality where your ancestors lived, look for an online library catalog, then check to see if it has any published genealogies on your family. One major genealogy department with more than 38,000 published family histories is the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Ind. <>.

Genealogical and Local History Books in Print

A great resource for determining if there’s a genealogy on your family is the four-volume set Genealogical and Local History Books in Print, 5th edition, edited by Marian Hoffman (Genealogical Publishing Co., $25 per volume), which should be available at most libraries with genealogical collections. The four volumes cover family histories, general reference books, US sources Alabama through New York and US sources North Carolina through Wyoming. The family history volume is currently out of print, but a new edition is planned for release later this year. (If you’ve published a family history that’s currently in print and would like it included at no cost in this new edition, contact Marian Hoffman at 1001 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 21202 or e-mail her at by June 15 for a listing form.) Each listing in GLHBIP gives a brief description of the book, price and ordering information.
Remember, if a family history you seek is out of print, it won’t be listed here. To find a genealogy that’s out of print, check online used and rare book search services such as alibris <>, Bibliofind <>, BookFinder <>, Powell’s Books <> and’s rare and used books <>. Cyndi’s List provides many links to online used bookstores at <>.

What’s in a Book?
What makes a good published genealogy? Here are a few examples of quality family histories you can use to compare with the ones you discover:
The Hatch and Brood of Time: Five Phelps Families in the Atlantic World, 1720-1880 by Peter Haring Judd (Newbury Street Press)
The Langhornes of Langhorne Park by D. Brenton Simons (Newbury Street Press)
Twenty Families of Color in Massachusetts, 1742-1998 by Franklin A. Dorman (New England Historic Genealogical Society)

The Ancestry of Emily Jane Angell, 1844-1910 by Dean Crawford Smith (New England Historic Genealogical Society)

Library of Congress

Theoretically, once someone has written a genealogy, the author should register it with the Library of Congress Copyright Office. To register, a writer must send two copies of the work with an application and fee. Once the copyright is approved, the book is donated to the library’s genealogical section. Genealogies in the Library of Congress: A Bibliography and its supplements, by Marion Kaminkow, consists of five massive volumes (Genealogical Publishing Co.). In these volumes (also available at libraries), you’ll find details on more than 50,000 family histories, published and unpublished, held by the Library of Congress. You can also check the library’s online catalog <> for published family histories.

Directory of family Associations

You might also check Elizabeth P. Bentley’s Directory of Family Associations, 4th edition, due out this spring (Genealogical Publishing Co.). This directory will tell you if the family association has any publications. Even if you don’t discover a family history book, you could uncover an association newsletter or journal containing genealogies of different branches of your family.

Genealogical periodicals

Sometimes there isn’t enough material to fill a book, so a researcher will write the family history information as an article and submit it to a genealogical journal. At the Family History Library, at one of its worldwide Family History Centers or at a large genealogical library, ask for the Periodical Source Index, also known as PERSI (pronounced purr-see). This software lets you search articles by surname. Once you have the title of the article and periodical, ask if the library has that publication.
If not, you can order the article through interlibrary loan from your public library or from the Allen County Public Library, which creates PERSI. Write to the Allen County Public Library Foundation, Box 2270, Fort Wayne, IN 46801, for the current photocopying fee and an order form, or download the form online by following the links at <>. PERSI is also available at on CD-ROM or through online subscription access at < >.

County and local histories

Although not considered published family histories in the true sense of the term, county and local histories might contain biographical or genealogical sketches of the area’s first settlers and contemporary residents — possibly including your ancestors. One way such publications were often funded was inviting people to submit a short narrative and sometimes photographs of themselves or their ancestors, to be included in the history for a fee. Typically little or no research went into these biographies and genealogies; they contain what family members knew about their ancestry from family traditions. Still, some are fairly accurate and reliable, and may hold valuable clues that you might not find elsewhere. Check United States Local Histories in the Library of Congress: A Bibliography edited by Jack Kaminkow (Genealogical Publishing Co.) for the library’s 90,000 local histories up to 1972. The fifth volume contains histories from 1972 to 1976.

Commercial Web sites

Other places to check for published family histories are Web sites such as>. This site has collected nearly 3,000 family history books, concentrating on those published between 1880 and 1920 (works now in the public domain). The site adds three new family histories each day.
Also try <>, a site from Everton Publishers. Plug in your surname or locality here to search 45,000 books related to family history, military, cemetery, county histories and periodicals. A free search will list the books containing that name or place, along with the book’s title, author, publisher and publisher’s address, and the page on which the word appears. For $15.95 per name, Everton’s Genealogical Library will then search its indexes and send you copies of the pages where that name appears.

Family Web pages

You might also find electronically published family histories online. Some researchers find it more cost-effective to publish their genealogies electronically on their own home pages. You can search for family history Web pages at such sites as <> and <> or via Family Tree Magazine‘s SuperSearch of genealogy surname sites <>. You can search the entire Web for your ancestors’ surnames plus keywords such as “genealogy” or “family” at <>. Choose the “Boolean” search under the dropdown menu that defaults to “Simple” and enter a search such as Smith AND “family history” or Smith AND genealogy. See the February 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine for more strategies on finding your roots online or read highlights from this article at <>.

Aunt Tilda’s attic
Just because you don’t find a reference to your surname in any of the above sources doesn’t mean that no written family history exists. When Great-aunt Tilda wrote the family history, she might have made a limited number of copies, and the only place the book might be available is in some obscure research repository or in a trunk in Aunt Tilda’s attic. Sometimes the “book” is no more than photocopied pages bound in a notebook and distributed only among family. Make sure you check with all of your relatives to see if they’re aware of any such family history. Typically, however, authors today who go to the trouble of compiling a family history will make it known and available through at least one of the above avenues.


    Just because you’ve found a family history book that includes a branch of your family tree doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve hit the genealogy jackpot. Remember the old adage: Just because it’s in print (or online) doesn’t make it true. You need to evaluate whether the published information is reliable and accurate. Look for reviews of the work in respected journals and newsletters, such as National Genealogical Society Quarterly and the Federation of Genealogical Societies’ Forum. Reviews usually appear within a year or two of the book’s publication and give insights into the work’s strengths and weaknesses. (These publications are also indexed in PERSI, so your search there, described above, should also turn up relevant reviews.)

    When you have the book in hand, look to see if it is documented — that is, did the author cite a source for each fact? Then, check some of the author’s sources yourself. Are you able to find a document based on the footnotes or endnotes? Reputable genealogists always include references so other researchers can acquire the documents themselves. If you have trouble locating a document from a reference, the author probably wasn’t careful about citing sources.

    Where they overlap, compare the published genealogy’s facts with those from your own research — particularly the information you have that’s most solidly based on primary sources. If the book you’ve found says that a common ancestor was born in 1890, but you have a birth certificate photocopy that clearly says 1905, you might take other “facts” in the book with a grain of salt. How does the published genealogy match what you know from census records? When its information is added to yours, do you get children born before their grandparents or when their parents were several years deceased?

    Let’s look at two examples of evaluating published genealogies:

    The Battaile battle

    In volume two, page 864 of Genealogies of Virginia Families from The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (Genealogical Publishing Co., out of print), there are five children listed for James Madison Fitzhugh and his wife, Mary, who were married in July 1830: John, Frank, Oscar, Catlett and Battaile. Not only did this compilation leave out four children, but the son listed as Battaile either didn’t exist or died young. The name Battaile was part of the Fitzhugh naming patterns (Mary and James’s great-grandmother’s maiden name was Battaile), and it was used consistently in a number of generations. But I could find no evidence of a son named Battaile for this couple, nor did he fit in any of the age categories of the Fitzhughs’ listing in the 1840 US census for Virginia, and no one named Battaile was enumerated with the rest of the family in the 1850 US census for Virginia.
    Since James’ obituary in 1845 said he had nine children, and I’ve only been able to account for seven so far, it could be that one named Battaile died in infancy before the 1840 census. This possible child, however, would not have been the same Battaile named in Genealogies of Virginia Families, as that genealogy showed the child Battaile surviving into adulthood and marrying. Because of the many discrepancies between my research and what this published genealogy offers, I’ll use it with caution.

    Ernst’s escape
    In the History of Elbert County, Colorado by Margee Gabehart (Curtis Media, $45), there is a sketch of the Ernst Wedemeyer family on page 203, which reads in part, Just as when using published family histories, you need to evaluate the information in a county history’s biographical sketch for accuracy. I found a published transcript of the Gilpin County, Colo., naturalization records for 1863 to 1910. Sure enough, I found Ernst Wedemeyer, and he became a citizen on Sept. 13, 1870. I’ll check other information in the sketch, and if those facts prove similarly reliable, I’ll accept the sketch as accurate.

      Here are some points to keep in mind when evaluating your own examples of published genealogies:

      Check the author’s sources. A questionable genealogy perpetuates errors from other published sources or fails to properly cite sources used.

      Is there a heavy reliance on other published sources, databases or Web sites? Or did the author do original research, citing historical documents such as wills, deeds, censuses, vital records, etc.?

      Try to locate all reviews written about the book. Don’t rely on only one reviewer’s opinion.

      Does the published genealogy have conflicting information from what you have learned about your family from other sources?

      Do the dates make sense? For example, a woman born in 1870 can’t give birth in 1875. A man born in 1742 won’t be getting married in 1753.

      Are there a lot of typographical errors? If the author wasn’t concerned with proofreading, was he or she concerned about the accuracy of the genealogy data?

      Remember, finding published genealogies about your family is a starting point, not the end of your research. Even if the book is well-documented and you’re satisfied that the information covered is sound, no family history is comprehensive. Despite what Aunt Martha compiled on your mother’s side, no one’s family history is ever “done.” There are always other lines and surnames to pursue that aren’t covered in one book.

      Look for a published genealogy for all of your lines. Just remember to use them cautiously, not as gospel truth, until you analyze and evaluate for yourself whether the information is accurate.


      Find It on the Web

      Allen County Public Library Catalog

      <>’s Rare and Used books






      Cyndi’s List — Used Book Store Links


      Genealogy Book Search


      Family History Library Catalog



      Library of Congress Catalog


      Powell’s Books


       From the June 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine