Friday, March 16, 2012

The Trouble with Literature Searches

Search PERSI by record type
When we start a new project it is wise to do a literature search. Typically a literature search may be done for a specific surname to see what has been previously been published. Or perhaps it's done on a subject such as the French and Indian War. It's very good practice to take a survey of already published materials before you get deep into a research project.

But what about when you want to research a general topic in genealogy? Let's use one of my favorite topics, probate, as an example. What would you do to find publications, whether books or articles, that are going to teach you what probate records are, how to find them and how to interpret them?

Interestingly enough many of the sources I use such as Ancestry's Red Book for specific information at the state level or Ancestry's The Source contain information about probate but aren't easily located by searching for probate books. Likewise another helpful source, Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures by Christine Rose also doesn't generate any hits by searching the keyword probate.

Probate inventories search results
When I do an search using the term "probate records for genealogy", it returns mostly probate transcriptions and abstracts primarily at the county level. "That's nice," I think to myself, "but I really want to learn what probate is not see specific examples."

One general book did come up in the search results, Will & Probate Records: A Guide for Family Historians by Karen Grannum and Nigel Taylor. This looks promising but how come I've never heard of it before? The name Nigel makes me suspicious that it was published in England. A further look shows me it was published by the National Archives of England. Probably a great book but when getting started I'll need to focus on American records.

So then I turn to the Genealogical Publishing Company online. First I do a keyword search on "probate." I have the same problem I had on Most of the hits are again transcriptions or abstracts.  There is one general source listed Probate Jurisdictions: Where to Look for Wills by Jeremy Gibson. It looks excellent (despite being out of print) but ironically enough this book is also British.

Admittedly I am only glancing at the first page of hits. I'm not really willing to search through hundreds of transcriptions to find what I'm looking for.  Maybe I'm approaching this wrong so I decide to drill down through "Browse Our Full Catalog" and then "Browse by Category." At this point I choose "Wills and Probate Records." Here I encounter the same results as the keyword search, heavy on transcriptions with only the Gibson text offering general instruction.

I then move on to the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) which is an index of published genealogy articles. I access PERSI through HeritageQuest using an online database from my local library. PERSI is great because you can actually search for specific record types from the How-To's search option.  The search for probate records turns up 729 results! That's too much for me to sort through but some of the titles look interesting.

I go back and add "inventories" as a key word on my search. That narrows the results to 23 articles. One article called "What estate inventories reveal" was published in the NGS Newsmagazine in 2007. I might actually have that in my stack of old magazines. Two other titles look promising - "Using Probate Inventories" and "Probate Inventories as a source" both published in the Great Migration Newsletter (2000). I know I will have access to both of those at the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Most PERSI searches however, return results for state or county newsletters, many of which are only available through the Allen County Public Library. Their copy service is a great benefit but I want something more easily accessible than that.

Now I already know quite a bit about probate but as you can see finding information about probate would difficult for someone not well versed in genealogy.  What if I want to go beyond basic sources? Say I want to get deep into historical probate records in New England and the laws that impacted them. Where would I turn? I would search the JSTOR academic journal database and specific library catalogs from perhaps the Boston Public Library, the Massachusetts State Archives and the New England Historic Genealogical Society. I could also search through the indexes of the peer reviewed genealogical journals. I may get lucky and find something or I may again hit on transcriptions and abstracts.

Is the problem that most general genealogical books are written to cover many record types rather than taking an in-depth look at just one? I hate to say this but it all seems like so much work. You would think that after someone does extension bibliographic development that they would pull it all together in a how-to article. I suppose that's what speakers do with their syllabi but I can't access their syllabi on the internet. (...which reminds me of the option of Jamb inc conference recordings).

There is at least one example that I know of. If I were to search for literature on 17th century New England I would have to look no further than Martin Hollick's  New Englanders in the 1600s: A Guide to Genealogical Research Published Between 1980 and 2005 (NEHGS, 2006). This book, unfortunately, is a rare find.

I feel like I am whining with this post but I think it should be easier for new genealogists and even more advanced ones to find the resources necessary to learn what they need to know.

Of course, all you really need to do is find one well-sourced book on your topic. That should contain a bibliography sufficient to refer you to all other needed sources. But the trick is finding that book.

Please let me know if you have found an easier solution to literature searches. Maybe I'm going about this all wrong. I think I could take a week long institute course just on how to do proper literature searches.


  1. I think the answer is pretty obvious, Marian. YOU should write the book. Publish it on lulu or something like that, and your blogger friends could help you market it. Start a series.

  2. has a list feature of various topics of books and one of them is the "20 Essential Genealogy Books list which I have bought several books from including some listed in your blog post. Although it doesn't directly help for a search or related subject books, by selecting one of those books pertinent to the subject you wish to learn more about, it will suggest other similar books though as you mentioned, not all on the list really pertain to the subject you are looking for.

  3. No wonder I have difficulty finding something truly helpful for me to understand, genealogically... I don't feel quite such a failure after reading your well-described thoughtful research diving! Thanks for sharing your dearth of useful findings! There does indeed need to be a book or three on several basic genealogy topics such as probate.

  4. Thanks for this timely blog. Somehow I became the Periodicals coordinator at ACGS and I've been trying to figure out how to make our collection better known and easier to access to our members. I wrote an article for their journal directing folks to PERSI, and really only scratched the surface. It's great that folks index the journals and it can be tricky at the same time. I compared the Fall 1983 issue with how the article titles were entered and there was a world of difference. So as you demonstrated, there can be lots of trial and error.

  5. Oh, it is refreshing to see the tables turned! As an English researcher, I have often had to sift through a sea of American publications that are just not particularly relevant.

    You are quite right in thinking "Wills & Probate Records: A Guide for Family Historians" by Karen Grannum and Nigel Taylor is entirey about English records. I would not discount it altogether, however, as colonial American law was based on English law. A search for an appropriate legal book is an alternative strategy.

  6. As a librarian I would suggest using the term Handbooks when searching probate. That will eliminate the abstracts and other probate records when searching library catalogs. If you searched the Library of Congress catalog for probate records--jurisdiction--handbooks, you will get what you want.

    Thanks for the plug and the compliment, BTW.

  7. Chapter 15 of The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy (3rd Edition) by Val Greenwood is called Understanding Probate Records and Basic Legal Terminology (pp 309-330). I guess I'd better read it, because I don't know enough about probate either.