Ten Books Essential for Genealogists: Some “Different” Thinking

Everyone, I expect, can agree on some of the books by the top authors in this field, and everyone can agree that every genealogist should have read them and have ready access to them. But I see genealogy as informed by many other disciplines and I think that genealogists need to inform themselves about these disciplines.   Not only will our perspectives be broadened, but the search for relatives will be enhanced by our knowledge of the social, historical, and cultural environments in which they lived.

This, then, is my list of ten books essential for genealogists:

  1. A good history of the United States (or of wherever your primary research is done). It used to be easy to recommend sone of these, but now that’s all fraught with political implications. Look at several and get one or two that do the job for your purposes.

  2. The Oxford Companion to United States History: This is an encyclopedic overview of U.S. history; Scholarly, yet easy to read and use. (There are also Oxford Companions to British, Black British, Irish, Scottish, and Australian History).

  3. An historical atlas of the United States (or wherever your primary research is). Such an atlas should describe migration routes, changes in jurisdictional boundaries and other historical information in a cartographic format.

  4. A good cultural geography book covering the region of your primary research. This will help you understand the context of your ancestors’ lives.

  5. Some Family: The Mormons and How Humanity Keeps Track of itself by Donald Harman Akenson:  Said a reviewer at Amazon.com: “. . . it will be difficult to find an introduction to genealogical arcana as accessible and engaging to read as this. “

  6. Cane River by Lalita Tademy: This is a fiction work (or is it creative non-fiction?). Lalita Tademy quit her job as a vice president at Sun Microsystems and spent the next seven years researching her family’s history. In Cane River, she relates that history through the experiences of women in her family going back to about 1700. The events she describes are apparently true–Tademy fills in the presumed dialogue and settings. Good history; good genealogy; good reading.

  7. The Power of Babel–A Natural History of Language by John McWhorter: If you’re researching ancestors who spoke a language different from your own (say, 17th Century English vs. 21 st Century English!) you’ll want this book. If you have any interest in languages at all, you’ll want this book.

  8. A cultural or social anthropology book–This type of book will also add context to your ancestors’ lives.

  9. United States Official Postal Guide: Published from the 1870’s to the mid-1950’s, this guide contained the name of every post office and every postmaster (and their salaries)  in the United States.

  10. A current United States road atlas (or similar atlas for the area of yor primary research).


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9 Responses to “Ten Books Essential for Genealogists: Some “Different” Thinking”

  • George Geder says:

    Hi Craig,

    Excellent post (we’re not worthy!)LOL
    Well, here’s some more link love:

    I have nominated you for the “I Love Your Blog Award.” (See the details on my blog).

    “Guided by the Ancestors”

  • Diane says:

    Hi, Craig,
    The Genealogy Insider Blog gave you an “I Heart Your Blog” award! Should you choose to accept, see our post at http://blog.familytreemagazine.com/insider/I+Heart+Awards.aspx for the award button and rules.

  • Bill West says:

    Hi Craig,
    Interesting list. I would have included
    my old college US History textbook in my
    own list had I thought of it when I
    made it.

    I’m afraid I have to disagree with Bill
    Harshaw on one point.Wikipedia is fine
    for a quick reference on something but
    it can’t match a book as far as going in depth into something. Of course,
    I have to say I am a bookseller and
    a history major so both those facts
    influence my view. *grin*

  • Craig, Wonderful suggestions. THANKS.

    Terry Thornton
    Fulton, Mississippi

  • This was without a doubt the best post in the COG. I loved it and your thought process.

    The purpose of this COG was to name books, not websites or databases. I’m sure we’ll get around to those one day.

    Until then, and once again, you made us think. Have Cane River and love it!


  • Craig says:

    Point taken, Bill! I’m actually a great fan of Wikipedia; have even written and edited articles there. And thanks for mentioning the USGS stuff. It’s very useful–and frankly, easier to use than than Postal Guide. I like the Postal Guide, though, because each edition, if you get several, is history in itself.

  • Bill Harshaw says:

    No quarrel with the idea of genealogists knowing the context, but IMHO some of your books are not necessary. Wikipedia covers history as well as a textbook, and in much more depth. Google maps is better than a road atlas, at least for deskbound research. The USGS names database is more useful than the postal guide. The USGS maps are indispensable for those with ancestors in rural areas.

  • What a great list, Craig. Thanks for a wonderful blog; it’s one I enjoy reading often. “I Heart Your Blog” and have posted it on my site http://www.familycurator.blogspot.com

  • Donna says:


    I like the way you think!


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