Renick, Barbara. Genealogy 101: How to Trace Your Family’s History and Heritage.

Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 2003. 241p., softcover. Index, illus. $19.99. ISBN 1-4016-0019-0.

Because genealogy is possibly the most popular hobby or avocation in the U.S. today, there is no shortage of how-to books aimed at the novice — though very few of them are really useful. Still, anyone publishing a new basic textbook faces stiff competition. The more expert and experienced the author, the more accurate the information presented is going to be, and Renick is certainly a widely-known and respected author and lecturer, as well as an experienced teacher. Moreover, she combines attention to the most essential lessons in fundamental genealogical instruction with an easy, informal style, successfully walking the narrow line between textbookishness and superficial offhandedness. She expects her audience to include not only complete novices, but those who attempted unsuccessfully to carry out family research without foreknowledge of methods and sources, and also those who have picked up bits of information on the Internet and don’t quite know what to do with them. Of course, any well-written text can also serve as a refresher for the experienced family researcher.

For all these classes of reader, the author makes her key points early and often: Start with yourself. Record everything you find, and everything you don’t find. Cite your sources for all of it. Don’t throw anything out or disregard information that might be useful later, or to someone else. Don’t make assumptions about names or dates or places, or anything else. There are excellent chapters on basic method (including answers to such beginners’ questions as “How far back can I go?”), interviewing relatives (because Renick assumes you’re interested primarily in researching your own family first, not someone else’s), assembling your results in a logical way that identifies your next set of questions (organization is everything), and why and how to profitably use computers in keeping track of your research (without taking sides over the question of “best” software, though she uses Legacy for examples). She tends to spend less time on the best genealogical use of Internet resources, referring the reader instead to Online Roots, another volume in this series which is reviewed below. She’ll show you in detail how to begin what she calls the Survey Phase and how to progress through it to the Research Phase, including how to document your search, how genealogists prefer to handle dates and abbreviations (and why), and goal-setting as a research tool. She covers libraries of all types, writing and reading queries, commercial electronic databases (though I wish she hadn’t mentioned Brøderbund’s World Family Tree series so uncritically), and the evaluation of compiled sources and published family histories. Then comes the Evaluation Phase, including how to properly evaluate data and construct hypotheses for testing, and how to recognize success when you experience it. (It’s not always obvious.)

Finally, she addresses the questions of publishing what you’ve discovered (not just to stroke egos but to preserve your labors for future researchers), preserving photographs and fragile documents, whether or not you should consider joining lineage societies, and the role of serendipity, which genealogists learn early never to underestimate. You may need to consult a professional at some point, perhaps to carry out research for you overseas, and she provides excellent advice on all aspects of this complex subject. You may even want to become a “professional” of some kind yourself. And throughout all of this, Renick strews carefully targeted, tightly drawn anecdotes, taken mostly from her own diverse family, as illustrations of what she’s saying.

So: Is this the “best book available”? It may well be. It’s certainly a very strong contender. Anyone teaching a basic genealogy class could do far worse than to adopt this as their textbook. If you have a younger relative you’re trying to interest in taking up the family’s history, give them a copy. If you think you’re too experienced to need a book with “101” in the title, read it anyway. You won’t regret it.

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Published in: on 20 February 2010 at 3:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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