Most of us consult online family trees on sites such as Ancestry and FamilySearch, but there are other places to find family trees too – in family histories that have been deposited in libraries and archives.
Compiled family histories are a great resource, because they don’t just contain family trees. They may also have associated materials such as letters and original documents. This extra information provides context – the histories behind the trees. It may also provide extra evidence to support or refute your conclusions and extra details to enrich your stories.
Where do you find compiled family histories?
Libraries that specialise in family history tend to have the largest collections of compiled family histories. In Australia, for example, the Society of Australian Genealogists’ library contains close to 5000 published family histories and the Genealogical Society of Victoria holds over 2000. Local libraries and large generalist libraries may also contain some, but their family history collections tend to focus on ‘how-to’ books and registers, rather than the end result of research.
Archives may also hold compiled family histories and family history collections that contain family trees, but it depends on the purpose of the archives. Again, the archives of family history organisations are your best bet for finding compiled family histories.
Online collections of books, such as the Internet Archive, the Hathi Trust and Google Books, are also good places to search for family histories. The relevance of these books to your research will vary depending on which countries you are researching. For example, I haven’t found much relating to my Australian research but I have found some great resources for my Jamaican research.
FamilySearch has been digitising family histories in its own collection and collections of major libraries and research partners. They have over 375,000 digitised publications in their Digital Library.
The FamilySearch wiki also provides information about compiled family histories for some locations. See for example, United States Compiled Genealogies.
Accessing compiled family histories
The biggest challenge in accessing compiled family histories is identifying them in the catalogue. It is pointless searching for ‘family history’ or ‘genealogy’ as that search will bring up all books in the field, including guides and indexes.
Family history libraries do tend to make clearer distinctions in their catalogues between different types of family history books and may even give compiled family histories a separate classification to help you find them.
Archives tend to allow you to search their catalogues for your ancestors by name, which may help you find compiled family histories; and some libraries (such as the Genealogical Society of Victoria) have an online name index that achieves the same outcome.
Accessing digital copies of compiled family histories can present a challenge, due to copyright restrictions. Older publications are easier, as they are out of copyright. I find that visiting a family history library in person is usually the best way to access compiled family histories.
Family history indexes provide bibliographies of published family histories. Some countries have published indexes and some have online indexes. In Australia, for example, Family History Connections has an online index of over 10,000 titles. Indexes are great tools and may help you overcome the deficiencies in library catalogues.
Using compiled family histories
Compiled family histories are derivative sources and their contents need to be treated as research leads, not as ‘truth’ or ‘fact’.
If you use the stories in compiled family histories in your own work, don’t forget to include an appropriate source citation.