One of the most important tools in genealogical research is the reference shelf. Looking up names in online databases is wonderful, but if you don’t understand the records, the time and place in which they were created, the words used, etc., you will have difficulty determining your actual ancestors from others who have the same name. This is where reference works come in. They help you to understand what you are dealing with. Here are some tips for what to include as you build your genealogy reference shelf.
I have several dictionaries in my reference area, including two that my father used in high school and college. Some I use to translate between French and English. Some of them are from the 19th century. Online dictionaries often contain only modern definitions. This is especially true of online translation tools, which can make their use for genealogical purposes very dangerous. One mistranslated word can cause major problems for your research.
Online sources can help with modern geography, but it can be difficult to find historical information from them. I have numerous gazetteers and geographical dictionaries from the 19th and 20th centuries. I also have a number of atlases, such as the 1994 edition of the Historical Atlas of the United States from the National Geographic Society. Atlases like this provide a huge amount of information besides maps. For example, there are maps that show what crops were grown in the different areas of the United States, what livestock were raised, migration routes, and more.
General methodology works are important, especially when you are getting started. Val Greenwood’s The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy has helped many Americans get started with their research. Although dated, it is still very helpful in understanding the basics of research. I purchased a copy of Ancestral Trails, a detailed guide to researching British ancestors, for expanding my knowledge of British research. For example, when I first started researching, I got a copy of Guide to Genealogical research in the National Archives of the United States. Now there is a new version, called the Genealogy Tool Kit: Getting Started on Your Family History at the National Archives. I also obtained copies of books on researching ancestors in the British Army and the Royal Navy, to help with the complex system of records available there.
Understanding the social and legal environments around records is important. I have a number of legal and social histories to help with this. Among these are Inheritance in America From Colonial Times to the Present, which delves into the history of probate. Another is Women and the Law of Property in Early America, showing what, exactly, women’s rights were in respect to owning property.
General methodology books are good, but guides that apply to your area of research are even better. For example, those who have research in the northeast will find the Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research from the New England Historic Genealogical Society and the New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer from the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society to be indispensible. [note: I am the editor of the New England book, and helped with the production of the New York book, but I receive no royalties, payment, or any other benefit from sales of the books. And many others will be happy to tell you how indispensible these books are.]