Tuesday, September 29, 2015


The last two blog posts covered the standards you should be measuring your research against.  Here are the links to those posts.

Benchmarks – Part I
Benchmarks – Part II

Now we are going to talk about how to get the education you need to get your research up to the above standards.  I am going to concentrate on educational opportunities available to you from the comfort of your own home.  There are also great programs out there at universities and at genealogical conferences but those are a lot harder for the average person to take advantage of. I will do a separate post detailing a few of these later on. We are also going to talk about the importance of joining genealogical societies that offer great educational opportunities as well as how to build a good reference library.

This first post is aimed at the absolute beginner. There are three things you need to think about:

  • Education
  • Building a reference library
  • Networking with other researchers via genealogy societies

We will talk about education first. My #1 favorite source for beginner material is FamilySearch. FamilySearch’s Learning Center has an entire section for beginners as well as sections for intermediates and advanced. If you scroll to the bottom of the page you will see a special section for beginners—5 Minute Genealogy Episodes 1-21. These short videos break down the topics in easy to digest bites.  Once you have completed those you can click the Beginner link under Skill Level on the left.  There you will find 260 videos.  These lessons are taught by accredited genealogists, certified genealogist and professional genealogists. Many of them also have handouts.  All are 100% free and you can’t beat that.  Once you access the beginner section you will see that you can further filter the list by country and by subject.  I suggest you focus on the subject categories before you start looking at country-specific lessons.

Starting a reference library is essential but it can be a bit daunting because there is a lot of great books out there.  So what books to do you get first?

  • Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. Third Edition. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2000.

This is an oldie but a goodie.  Greenwood discusses all of the major record groups you need to be familiar with in detail.  This is the first book I recommend to people. 


  • Eichholz, Alice, editor. RedBook, American State, County, and Town Sources. Third Edition. Provo, UT: 2004.

  • The Handybook for Genealogists. Eleventh Edition. Draper, UT: Everton Publishers, 2006. (I have the 10th edition)

These two books are similar in format but different enough that if you owned both it wouldn’t be a bad thing. These books are divided by state and give you an overview of what records are available for that state as well as a concise history of the state and a listing of all of the counties/parishes and their formation information. 


  • Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained, Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. 3rd Ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2015.

I was a little hesitant to recommend this one as a beginner book because this book is usually VERY daunting to beginners.  However, learning how to cite your sources properly is a foundational skill.  The best advice I have is to read the first two chapters before you start looking at the examples in the rest of the book.  The first two chapters explain evidence analysis and the why and how of citing your sources.  If you understand the basic principles the rest of the book won’t be quite as scary.


Since census records are probably the most popular record group that beginners work with then you might want to take a look at this book.

  • Hinckley, Kathleen W. Your Guide to the Federal Census. Cincinnati: Betterway Books, 2002.


Networking with other genealogists is very important.  The best way to do that is to join societies.  There are all different kinds of genealogical societies but I think beginner’s should start by joining their local, state and national societies.  What additional societies you join will depend on the type of research you do and what special interests you have.  I wrote a blog post on Why should I join a genealogical society?  To give you an idea of what sorts of societies you can join here is the list of the groups I belong to.

One of the things genealogical societies do is provide quality learning opportunities. 

There is one more thing that beginners need to consider and that is how they are going to document their research.  This really doesn’t fall under education per se and I will probably do another blog post just about this but I thought I would at least mention it. 

  • You need to decide on a computer genealogy database program
  • You need to decide on how you are going to file your paper documents
  • You need to decide on how you are going to file your electronic documents

(Hint – your electronic and paper filing systems need to be set up using the same organizational structure so that everything is uniform.  If you set them both up the same way you will have no problem finding things).


Copyright © 2015 Michèle Simmons Lewis


  1. One book I would add is the bible of British research:
    Mark Herber, Ancestral Trails: Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History, 2nd edition, Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton Publishing Ltd., 2004

    1. Ah! I guess I should have stated that I was focusing on American research. Branching out to other countries is more of an intermediate skill, at least for people living in the US and researching in the US. I am not familiar with the book you listed since I do very little UK research (mine is all central Europe) so I will just take your word that it is a good book :)

    2. Ancestral Trails was the textbook for the British research class that I took through Brigham Young University. I highly recommend it (& a magnifying glass for the fine print!!).

  2. I am mentioning, with Michele's permission, a wonderful way to create an online catalogue for your books that can be shared with others: www.librarything.com Although there is a small fee ($10 per year of $25 lifetime membership), this is a wonderful and easy way to get your library organized. You can enter books by title or isbn number then the software grabs lots of pertinent information from online descriptions to be added to your personal listings.

    You can add keyword tags that make searching easy. I did my personal genealogy library so that I could create sub-lists for donations and for "keepers," then went on to do my crochet/knit books in another category.

    Lots of fun and quite satisfying to be able to tell folks "here is my list of books, let me know if you want a look-up!"

    My personal library is at: http://www.librarything.com/catalog/judyrus

    if you want to take a look.

  3. Thank you Michelle for all of your book recommendations. I am doing African American research od my family and it has been tough! I sometimes just want to call it quits bur I have an aging Uncle who started this research but could do it no longer. What books do you recommend for me. I would appreciate all the help I can get.
    Thank you so much. Shea

    1. Here is an article I wrote with the resources you need :)