Family Histories Books Research Tips | Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

Books of Family Histories Research Tips

A family history book is an essential resource. Also known as a genealogy, it is usually a published book or document of facts and information about one or more generations of a family. It shows what previous research has already been done on your family, adds contextual information for your own research and, in some cases, gives clues to new directions for research.

Search for Books of Family Histories Online

To find items, use the University of Wisconsin-Madison Library Catalog to do a keyword search by surname and location.

Many family history books have been digitized by the Google Books Library Project. Check the Google Books website to see if the family name you are interested in is listed.

A family history's full text may be available if the book is out of copyright, or if the publishers or authors have asked to make the book fully viewable. A "full view" option allows you to view any page from a book.  If a family history is in the public domain, you can download, save and print a PDF version to read at your own pace.

Look for Various Surname Spellings

Do not be too attached to the spelling of your family surname. A compiler from another branch of your family may have decided to use a variant of the surname. Be sure to check under all variant forms.

Many surnames, especially the more common ones, have numerous unrelated branches. There is no guarantee that any published genealogy is connected to your family simply because the surname is the same.

Research In-Laws

Research the family histories of in-laws and other collateral lines. Many families have extensive compiled genealogies buried within the genealogies of related families.

Check the Genealogical Society of Utah Online Catalog

The Genealogical Society of Utah (GSU) has millions of surnames in the GSU online catalog. See if you can find a family history in the GSU catalog by surname and then check the University of Wisconsin-Madison Library Catalog to see if we own the same book.

Once you find a family history that you think pertains to your relative, note its call number and location.

View Books of Family Histories at the Society

Family histories must be used at the Society's Library. They do not circulate. A librarian can help you locate the books you are interested in seeing.

Assess the Quality of a Published Genealogy

Family histories vary in scope and quality. It's best to take any published genealogy with a grain of salt. One important skill to learn is how to assess the quality of a published genealogy. A well researched, high-quality genealogy should meet the following criteria:

  1. The work is supported by citations to primary and secondary sources.
  2. These sources are cited in such a way that you can re-trace the researcher's steps.
  3. The author makes logical, well supported arguments and does not jump to conclusions. This is especially important if the author is claiming connections to famous or royal persons.
  4. The author is explicit in delineating between connections for which they have good evidence and those that they suspect but cannot support.

Genealogies that do not meet these criteria may still provide you with correct information. They are equally likely to provide you with worthless and incorrect information.

Always consider compiled genealogies as secondary sources which need double checking with primary documents (the ones the author used and, if necessary, additional documents) and your own common sense. In general, the older the family history, the fewer sources were used or referred to by the author.

Information That May Be Included in Family Histories

  • Journals, memoirs, firsthand narratives
  • Full names
  • Dates
  • Places
  • Photographs, Maps
  • Personal details
  • Tax records, wills
  • Church records
  • Court records

About our Books of Family Histories Collection

The Wisconsin Historical Society has one of the largest collections of published family histories in North America, numbering over 40,000 and representing families from across the United States and Canada. Family histories provide stories along with names, dates and places of our ancestors over many generations. The Society has been collecting family histories since the 1850s.

We also have a small collection of unpublished family histories. Items in the collection include diaries, journals, documents and manuscripts of families connected to Wisconsin history.

Learn More

See more articles about researching your family history.

Have Questions?

Contact our Library and Archives staff by email.

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