History Books & Locality Guides Flesh Out Your Geny Library

Welcome back to my series here at GeneaJourneys on “Building your Own Personal Genealogy Library.”

I kicked off this topic last month with an introduction entitled: “What’s on Your Bookshelf?”  That  post focused on why you’d want your own library. In short: to have the basics at your fingertips as you research.

My last post covered “Shopping for those Bookshelf Basics” which offered tips on how and where to find those staples. It also included a sampling of popular general introductory guides for those just getting started in this increasingly popular pastime.


Today’s focus is two categories of bookshelf basics no budding genealogist should be without: local and national histories of the areas you research; and general “how to” guides that can help you research in particular places of interest.

My bookshelves happen to be laden with books related to U.S., Irish, and Chicago history since those are the locales I’m currently researching.  I expect to be adding volumes on Germany, as well, once I get a little further along in researching my husband’s side of the family.

History Books

When I suggest having history books in your library I’m NOT talking about college textbooks or those that focus on deep, political or niche areas of a particular historical topic. Nope. I’m just talking about plain old easy-to-read, easy-to-understand, basic textbooks like the ones you used as a kid in school.

I have two in my genealogy library. The first is The Americans: Reconstruction to the 21st Century   published by McDougal Littell.  I swiped it from my daughter’s “sell back” pile when she was a high school junior, well before I had any interest in genealogy. I just knew in my heart I’d refer to it some day and I was right.  What a goldmine it’s turned out to be!

The second history-related book in my collection is actually an encyclopedia entitled The Children’s Encyclopedia of American History published by Dorling Kindersley and the Smithsonian Institution. Geared toward late elementary students this volume is heavy on illustrations including sketches, photos, maps, and charts, and classic artworks related to American history.

The high school text is ideal for a comprehensive, yet not overwhelming, presentation of historical content. The children’s encyclopedia, on the other hand, presents a feast for the eyes while capsulizing historical events.  Both will provide a basic understanding of any topic in American history you choose to look up.

Thus far, my family research has only taken me back to the mid 1800s, so I’m not yet using the first several chapters in either book, which cover explorers, the colonies, and the American Revolution.  If your ancestors can be traced to those times though, you’d certainly benefit from perusing those sections for an understanding of the times that they lived in.

Since most of my family came over from Ireland around the time of the Great Famine (1845-1849) I’ve found the chapters from the mid 19th century to the present to be the most beneficial to me.  When doing military research on two great-grandfathers who served in the Civil War, I found the chapters in my high school book to be especially useful. I fully expect to return to that book again when I pursue ancestors who fought in the Spanish-American War, and the World Wars of the 20th century.

That’s the beauty of having a book like this on your genealogy bookshelf. It’s all there at the flip of a page. Hit the index or table of contents, find your era or topic of interest, and voila—instant info about the life and times your ancestors lived through.  In addition to the above topics, a basic high school American history book will also provide you with summaries of other eras in American history: the Western Frontier, the Industrial Age, the Progressive Era, the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression, the Cold War, Civil Rights, etc.  The book I have even has sidebars in each section on immigration, migration, daily life, geography, politics, and economics—real finds for the genealogist researching particular time periods.

Where to find such basic American history books?  Cruise your child’s or grandchild’s cast-offs or hit your local used bookstore—you’re bound to find one among the other gems offered in the general history section.

Locality Reference Books

While basic history books can present broad outlines of eras your ancestors lived through,  local history books and research guides can provide pertinent details related to local research.

I happen to live in suburban Chicago, a city that’s especially rich in history as well as in the number and variety of repositories that aid genealogical research. I’m blessed and I know it, so I’ve definitely taken advantage of what’s available to me.  But how did I know where to start?  By picking up copies of two classic Chicago research guides for local genealogists, both of which are now heavily highlighted and dog-eared from use.

My first purchase was Finding Your Chicago Ancestors: A Beginner’s Guide to Family History in the City and Cook County. This easy-to follow, fact-filled guide by the Newberry Library’s Grace DuMelle, has been my “go to” guide since I began ancestor hunting four years ago.

Only in the past year did I realize there’s another book on the market that’s also ideal for the Chicago area researcher: Chicago & Cook County: A Guide to Research”  by Loretto Dennis Szucs, prolific author of a multitude of publications related to genealogy research.

Between the two, I have no excuse for not breaking down a few local brick walls. If nothing else, one or the other is sure to point me in the right direction as I seek that next local property record or determine which repository will have the historical newspaper I need to find an ancestor’s obituary. Check with your library, bookstore or historical society to see if guides like these are available for locales you are researching.

Fortunately for me, there are a variety of other local guides I turn to from time to time that have proven helpful in my Chicago research as well. The first is the Encyclopedia of Chicago, a massive tome edited by James R. Grossman, Ann Durkin Keating and Janice L. Reiff and published by the Newberry Library and the Chicago Historical Society. This 1,100-page wonder literally covers Chicago from A to Z: it’s history, neighborhoods, politics, people, culture and more.

Another local reference on my bookshelf that points to my heritage is “Finding Your Chicago Irish” by Sharon Shea Bossard. This slim little volume covers everything from local Irish pubs, clubs and festivals to shopping, tourism and genealogy resources.

There’s a plethora of publications available to add to your personal genealogy collection.  The trick is to start with the basics and branch out from there.  Just check your library or neighborhood bookstore for offerings that relate to your heritage in your locale. You never know what you may discover that will help you in your research.

Happy browsing!


Copyright © 2013 Patricia Desmond Biallas


This entry was posted in American History, Chicago History, Ireland, Research, Research Tips, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to History Books & Locality Guides Flesh Out Your Geny Library

  1. tdv31@aol.com says:

    Pat: So helpful and easy for your readers. I may have already told you that when I was a guide for tours of Detroit, I used the Children’s Encyclopedia for my facts. Made it very easy to cut to the chase on info, and the “class” (tourists) found it just enough info. Another winner! Dorothy

  2. I really like your emphasis on basic. I think I have a problem being patient — I tend to leap over basic and go for the juicy stuff, but I’m sure that leaves me “basically” uninformed in some areas. After all my research on South Carolina, I haven’t read through basic books such as (if I recall correctly) “History of the Old Cheraws.” Alas, my neighborhood bookstores have books about CT. But I am visiting the University of SC library on my vacation next week. I’m going to ask them for recommendations — they ought to know!

    Thanks for these tips, Pat!

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