Four Genealogy Books That Will Improve Your Research

Christmas is coming and I always have a list of genealogy books to pass to Santa’s Little Helper (a.k.a. Mrs Phil). Having spent over a year writing about genealogy methodology and research techniques in this very blog, I wanted to share with you what I believe are the four best books on the subject.

WordPress kindly tells me that approximately 50% of my readers are from North America and the other 50% are from UK, Europe and Australasia, so I have chosen two by American authors which are available on both sides of the Atlantic and two more by British authors which deserve a wider readership. Country of publication aside, all four are books which have had a profound impact on my approach to genealogy research and which I can wholeheartedly recommend.

So, without further ado, here are my four top picks.

Research Like A Pro – A Genealogist’s Guide

by Diana Elder with Nicole Dyer

This book has two main parts. First, an eight chapter section which succinctly guides the reader through a full research methodology, wholly aligned with the best practices espoused by the US Board for Certification of Genealogists (my regular readers will know that this is an approach I heartily approve of); second, comes a lengthy section of templates and worked examples. The templates and examples are entirely US-focussed (which is fair as the authors are American) but still sufficiently informative to non-American readers to illustrate the methods in chapters one through eight.

What I particularly like about this book is that they have successfully laid out the whole research process from start to finish. It isn’t just a book of pick-an-mix techniques, but an overarching approach. This is something which I’d spent significant time looking for and was delighted that these authors provided it.

Mother and daughter team, Diana Elder and Nicole Dyer are both professional genealogists and well-known speakers on the US genealogy conference circuit. They run a successful website (https://familylocket.com/) and a long-standing genealogy podcast, also called Research Like A Pro.

Genealogy – Essential Research Methods

by Helen Osborn

This book systematically unpacks each of the stages in a genealogical investigation, giving techniques, guidelines, checklists, and examples at each point. The case studies are all British in focus (as the author is British), offering a neat corollary to Research Like A Pro.

Shortly after reading this book I studied under Helen Osborn at Pharos Tutors (https://www.pharostutors.com/), the company that Helen founded with Scottish genealogist Sherry Irvine. There was a specific day on that course, while attending an online seminar with Helen as tutor, when I had something of a Damascene conversion from my previous amateur approach to a structured, planned, professional approach. I re-read Helen’s book – it was there in in black and white all along, it just hadn’t quite penetrated until that moment. My genealogical life changed that day, my thinking about genealogical research transformed. And it planted the seeds of this very blog.

Helen, thank you.

Family History Nuts and Bolts – Problem-Solving through Family Reconstitution Techniques

by Andrew Todd

Back in the early 2000s, this was the first book about genealogical techniques that I ever read, and it made a big impression on me. The author’s thesis is that it is only by researching the wider family of our research targets that we can fully understand their lives, AND that the answers to many a research brick wall are provided by those wider family members. He illustrates it throughout with clear, straightforward examples. The examples are all British and refer to British records, but the principles are universal.

Facing the first significant brick wall in my Isherwood research, it was the techniques I learned from Andrew Todd’s book that helped me to solve it, extending my patrilineal line back by a further hundred and thirty years in the process.

Now in its third edition, this is a classic of British genealogy and is widely cited by other British writers on genealogy techniques. It is short, only 100 pages, but jam-packed with useful techniques.

Advanced Genealogy Research Techniques

by George G. Morgan and Drew Smith

Please don’t be intimidated by the word Advanced in the title. This book contains sensible, grounded research techniques to help you attack some of your challenging research problems. Although American in its focus, and certainly in the case studies it presents, the techniques themselves are sufficiently general to be applied in whatever country your research interests lie.

George Morgan and Drew Smith are well known figures in US genealogical circles. Based in Florida, they are the founders and hosts of the longstanding The Genealogy Guys Podcast along with other genealogy-related offerings which you can find at http://genealogyguys.com/. Surprisingly, I find no mention of this book on their website, but it is widely available from good booksellers.

Honourable Mentions

It was a real struggle restricting my selections to just four. There are a bunch more books I would like to give at least an honourable mention to as they are also important, just perhaps not so impactful as my top group. In no particular order they are:

Genealogy Standards
by Board for Certification of Genealogists

I have cited and written about this book before in my article on genealogical proof (https://familyhistory.car.blog/2020/05/27/what-is-proof/). It is tremendously important because it defines the best practice genealogical research process as advocated by the US Board for Certification of Genealogists. However, the definitions are just that, bald textual definitions that are as readable as a dictionary. For explanations of best practices in genealogy, one must read the books I’ve cited above, or my other articles in this blog series.

Solving Genealogy Problems
by Dr Graeme Davis

This is a tremendously accessible book for British research which takes a tour through the main genealogical record types, highlighting tips, and techniques to wring out every scrap of detail and unblock halted research. My edition is well-thumbed and festooned with post-it notes so that I can quickly access Dr Davis’ golden nuggets of wisdom.

Elements of Genealogical Analysis
by Robert Charles Anderson

This book focusses on how to reliably link together two findings so that one can say with confidence that they relate to the same person, which he illustrates through reference to a major migration study he has managed for the New England Historical Genealogical Society.

Evidence linkage is a difficult problem which I have written about here (https://familyhistory.car.blog/2020/02/02/the-art-of-linking-genealogical-evidence/). I was influenced by Robert Charles Anderson, both his book and a lecture of his that I attended at RootsTech London in 2019, in my writings on the subject.

Family History Research Challenges And How To Solve Them
by Ian Waller

Although he makes a glancing mention of the Genealogical Proof Standard, Ian Waller restricts his approach to tips per source type as commonly found in the UK. The tips are all sensible and helpful, but somehow the book fails to shine amongst the company in this article.

Professional Genealogy – Preparation, Practice & Standards
Ed. Elizabeth Shown Mills

This is not really a book about methodology at all – it’s scope if far wider than that – but the chapters on Professional Research Skills, are 130 pages of solid primer and explanation of the US BCG’s best-practices, as good as any I have found. The tone is slightly dry – this is a professional textbook, not a mass-market publication – but the content is profound.

What are your favourite genealogy books?

Post your favourite books in the comments below. Let me know if I’m missing out on a classic of the field – Santa’s Little Helper would love to buy it for me for Christmas!

Published by Phil Isherwood

Phil has studied genealogy with Pharos Tutors and the Society of Genealogists, completing their year-long intermediate programme with a distinction. He is a Family History Advisor for the Oxfordshire Family History Society and enjoys working on the knotty genealogy problems brought to him by the general public. He has a special interest in genealogical methodology, military ancestors and sources for north-west England. Twitter: @isherwood_phil

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3 Comments

  1. Tracing Your Pre-Victorian Ancestors: A Guide to Research Methods for Family Historians by John Wintrip is another excellent guide to research techniques, focusing on the period before 1837.

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  2. I too LOVE Research Like a Pro, but others for me include Ian Macdonald’s Referencing for genealogists, and Simon Fowler’s Family history: digging deeper.

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