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Family Histories at the Society


The genealogical record that most people are familiar with is the published or compiled family history, commonly called a "genealogy." A compiled family history is an account of the familial stories and/or relationships of a group of people through time. Family histories generally are found in book form but substantial ones are also published in genealogical journals such as the New England Historic Genealogical and Biographical Register, and on the Web.

Only a small percentage of families have published genealogies. In general, white, well-to-do New England or Atlantic seaboard families who arrived in colonial times from England have the greatest likelihood of having a compiled genealogy. However, this is changing rapidly so it is always worth a look to see if someone has published a genealogy on the family in which you are interested.

Family histories vary in scope and quality; it is 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, however, equally likely to provide you with worthless and incorrect information. The point of documenting research is to give your reader a way to assess your conclusions. 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 used or referred to by the author.

Compiled genealogies also vary a lot in scope and organization. Some follow only the male lines, while others may follow female lines for generations. Few genealogies are indexed. Many rely on the reader knowing through which line they descend. For these reasons and more, it is difficult to request that someone else check for your particular ancestor as this would often require reading the entire book.

Search Strategies

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.

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 of the name.

Research the family histories of in-laws and other collateral lines. Many families have extensive compiled genealogies "buried" within the genealogies of related families. Sources to check to find these buried family histories are:

  • Genealogies in the Library of Congress
  • Supplements to "Genealogies in the Library of Congress"
  • DAR Library Catalog, Volume 1
  • Family History Library Catalog (LDS)
  • American Genealogical-Biographical Index
  • Greenlaw Index

To find these items, go to the Library Catalog (formerly MadCat) and do a title search for each item. Sometimes by using these bibliographies you will identify items the Library does not own, but double check the Library Catalog. When in doubt, please consult the reference staff.

What the Society Owns

The Society Library has more than 40,000 compiled family histories both in the open book stacks and in the pamphlet collection. They can be found in the Library Catalog by searching for the family name and the word "family" (for example "smith family").

Some unpublished family histories are available from the Archives. They can be searched in ArCat using the same search terms as in the Library Catalog.

How to Access These Records at the Society

From the Library:
If you plan to visit the Library, search the Library Catalog for the call numbers and the locations of the compiled genealogies in which you are interested. By preparing in this manner, you will be able to make the most of your time at the Library.

Unfortunately, compiled genealogies do not circulate out of the Library. If you do not have a page number, but would like us to check a particular family history for a person or family and make copies of the information, contact the Reference Staff. We cannot make copies of entire publications. For further information, please visit Library Services.

From the Archives:
If you plan to visit the Archives, search the on-line catalog, ArCat, for the call numbers and the locations of the compiled family histories in which you are interested. By preparing in this manner, you will maximize your time at the Archives.

If you cannot visit the Archives and the material you wish to use is on microfilm, it may be available via interlibrary loan. Please contact the Archives Reference Staff for more information. If the material is not available on microfilm, you will need to make a Reference Request to the Archives.

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