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Are Genealogy Books a Good Source?

Are you using genealogy books as one of your sources? If you're not, you're probably making your genealogy research harder than it has to be. Books are an easy starting place to learn the vital skill of "evidence evaluation" and an often overlooked starting place in this digital world.

When you get to the point in your genealogy journey when you start to ask "is this a good source?" things can get kinda treacherous. That's because you've come a long way and are starting to understand some of the advanced research concepts. BUT, we don't ask (in genealogy, at least) "is this a good source?" So if that's what you're asking, you've also got some advanced concepts you need to learn. This is the perfect time to talk specifically about books as a genealogy source.

I'm going to start by explaining why you should be using books in genealogy research.

Why Use Books in Genealogy?

So many people begin genealogy today with a site like Ancestry.com that they don't realize how many other sources are available for their genealogical research.

Before online genealogy was possible, many beginners relied on books. 

  • Books are easier to read than documents, and
  • Many books are indexed. 
  • In many cases, books were available locally or at a major repository. 
Originals, and sometimes even microfilm, usually were not as accessible as books. Even advanced researchers and professionals had to rely on books in the past because of how different it was to access image copies ("image copies" are any copy of the record such as microfilm, photocopies, digital images, photographs, etc. This excludes transcriptions and abstracts which copy the information but aren't like looking at the original. An image copy is some type of photographic copy but the exact format doesn't matter.)

For more advanced researchers, online research with digital images is a huge improvement because now there is access to images of the original records at home or at many more repositories. That means books of the abstracted records aren't as necessary as they were in the past, particularly for the experienced researcher.

Books are still a great option, though!

A quality book of abstracted records will help:

  • avoid issues reading old and unfamiliar handwriting. 
  • It will help by correctly spelling unfamiliar words (making it easier to look them up). 
  • A quality book might also include a glossary and 
  • most include some explanation of the records.

Basically, if you're newer to genealogy research or at the stage where you've learned enough to ask "is this a good source" (but haven't learned the question you should be asking instead), start with a quality book of abstracted records before getting an image. 

A quality book will help you learn much faster than just using the original record (you still want to get the original, I'm just saying an experienced researcher can skip the book, a beginner gets advantages from starting with a book even if they don't have to use it to find the record they want).

More and more books are being digitized and made available online. They still have the same advantages as a starting source but with the bonus of being accessible from home or at a local repository.

Ebooks represent a small portion of the genealogy books available, but they may be different books than you would find in your local library or the repositories you are able to visit. Take advantage of both what's online and what's "in print" at a local repository.

If you're looking for access to more genealogy "books," check out the Book Bonanza subscription from Genealogical.com. This gives you access to Genealogical Publishing Company's ePubs (ebooks) from home. If they have lots of titles that could help your research, this is a great option instead of buying more and more and more books or having to wait to make a trip to a repository that has what you need. Depending on what kind of repositories you have easy access to, the online book subscription might really benefit your research.

Genealogical.com is a major, long-time genealogy publisher of both how-to titles and abstracted records. I have quite a few titles on my personal bookshelves and have used many of their titles at repositories.

I know this is one more genealogy subscription but I've already written about a great way to save money while still accessing "more" online records. You can use my advice about saving money with a newspaper subscription for the Book Bonanza subscription, too. This advice is basically how to get the most from a short-term subscription instead of having a never-ending subscription that adds up, fast. The post discusses the considerations you need to make before paying for a subscription. They are similar for newspapers or ebooks.

Using Books as a Genealogy Source

Most books are "derivative" sources. This means they are usually abstracts of the records (transcriptions are also a derivative but most books are abstracts, not transcriptions). 

Derivative sources are not the original source. As a general rule, in genealogy, we treat image copies like the original, with the caveat that a part could be missing but what you see is the same as the original. You should always use common sense with genealogy, not just follow "rules" about evidence evaluation, though. If you are using an image copy and it appears there is a problem with the image, it's a problem. It is not the same as using the original in that case. 

Genealogists prefer originals over derivatives. There are several main issues with books that are derivative sources.

Because books of abstracted/transcribed records had to be copied, usually by hand, there is a greater chance they contain errors (think typos) than an image copy such as a photocopy, microfilm copy, or digitized copy. 

Errors are actually even more likely if the abstract was created automatically by a computer reading a source. The technology that does this has come really far but still makes mistakes a human wouldn't make (just this week I was using city directories and the surname was misspelled so it didn't come up when I searched. This was because the computer read an "i" as an "l" which dramatically affected the way the search feature worked for this particular surname. No person would have transcribed that surname that way).

Errors of the "typo" variety are just a way of life for genealogists using abstracted records, regardless if we're talking about a book created by a person or a database created by a computer. We don't skip using these sources, we just learn to use them appropriately.

Another pitfall related to derivative sources is completeness. You need to understand what the book includes. You may need to search the original for the information you want if the book only included certain information, certain years, or certain sections.

This issue as relates to books also happens with online research. An online index is like an abstract. Just as with a published book, all the relevant information might not have been abstracted by the human abstractor of the book or the computer indexer.

Not all books are abstracts

There are also books that can be used as a genealogy source that are not derivates. Really popular examples are county, local, or family histories. 

Surprisingly, I've had readers ask the most questions, and be the most skeptical, about using some histories that are some of the best sources to seek out. That's not to say they contain the most correct information. The information in a local or family history, especially old histories, may not be available anywhere else or it might be the most accessible version of the information even if the information can be obtained from another extant source.

Remember, we don't ask "is this a good source?"

Instead, you evaluate the evidence. When it comes to books of the "histories" variety, you want to use them, especially if they are pre-Internet but you want to thoroughly evaluate the information they provide.

The major pitfall with histories is they abound with examples of inaccurate or incorrect information. These may be innocent errors or someone's intentional attempt to cover up a fact or make his/her ancestors sound more important.

Verify the information is correct.

When we're talking about evaluating evidence, a history may contain information from an unobtainable source (a person now deceased, for example). The history may be the only source for that piece of information. If you can find a source to verify the information, you should, but that's not always possible.

The purpose of testing a source (not one piece of evidence) is to help you determine how likely it is that the unverifiable information is correct. It's like tasting your cooking. You take one taste to determine if the whole thing is good.

Unfortunately, a whole book is not as well represented by one or two "bites" as your grandmother's secret sauce. It's more like tasting a bite of chicken ('cause there's white meat and dark meat---just like a source may contain different types of information). Just as with testing chicken, you don't have another option. If you can't test the entire thing (the history or the chicken) you just have to do your best with a "bite."

Realize with evidence evaluation, the first (100) time(s) you test, you are pretty far off (just like you are with food). Guess what...

experience is the only way to get better!

Should you use books as a genealogy source?

Yes! We don't just skip types of sources in genealogy. You must learn to evaluate sources so you can use them appropriately. There are times when information is wrong and it still provides a clue. It would be terrible to miss that clue because you think a source is unworthy.

Are genealogy books a good source?

Hopefully by this point you realize that's not the question to ask.

Sources contain information which we can use as evidence. I've talked about evaluating sources but what you're really doing is evaluating evidence. I have a separate post that goes into more detail about how to get started with evidence evaluation in general (not just for books). It's a large enough topic even getting started needs its own post.

Books are a source you should use, if they are a quality book. Unfortunately, inexpensive self-publishing has made it easier to toss together a poor-quality genealogy book in the 21st century. Thankfully publishing genealogy books isn't that lucrative (it's a labor of love) so this isn't extremely prevalent. In general, if you use a quality published book of abstracted records, some of your evidence evaluation is already done for you as well as having other advantages.

A book of abstracted records is obviously a derivative source. This let's you know you want to try and obtain an image copy of those records, if possible, as soon as you can. If you were using a local history, you wouldn't be sure if there was an extant source to check. You would still look for clues to sources you could use to verify the information but you don't have the advantage of knowing the information was abstracted from another source that existed at the time the abstract was made.

With any published book you know there is a chance for errors of the typo variety. Histories potentially have other types of errors as previously mentioned. This isn't a reason to NOT use books. It's a potential problem you are aware of, unlike that book of county court records from the early 19th century that you did NOT realize was recopied after the courthouse fire in 1852. Be glad part of your evidence evaluation is done with a book, don't use it as an excuse not to use the book.

Part of being able to recognize a quality published book of abstracted records is looking for the information that will also help you learn. This is the forward or introductory material which you should always read. 

Good abstractors want to tell you about any relevant issues or decisions they made about including or excluding information (and often how they picked spellings of names to include or index). They often want to tell you about using the records in general. This means they know how to use the records and recognize what you are concerned about when using their abstract. Someone that is inexperienced or sloppy doesn't know to tell you this information or doesn't know it themselves. Basically, reading this introductory material helps you learn and evaluate the quality of the book. One task, two wins!

Recap

Books are a source you should use. We don't think of sources in genealogy as "good" or "bad." You have to learn to evaluate evidence to decide what to do after using a source (regardless if you found information in that source or not!).

Published histories may be the only version of the information available or they may contain information that is hard to obtain in an original form. Abstracted records, in books, have advantages over their "original" form.

Reasons to use a (quality) book of abstracted records include:

  • avoids issues reading old/unfamiliar handwriting (this only applies if the abstractor was skilled with using the records but that applies to all of these points)
  • provides correct spelling of unusual words so you can easily look them up
  • may include introductory material like a glossary so you learn what the words mean without using a separate source
  • may include information about the records, such as how to use them for genealogy
  • may include information about the original source (condition, location, etc.)
  • may be indexed which makes entries easier to find than an online counterpart (some books have subject or place indexes if these will help the genealogist using this type of record---these words are often NOT easily searchable online if they can be searched at all)
  • may not be a source that is online

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