BOOK REVIEW

“Genealogy for Beginners” by Katherine Pennavaria. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020. 241 pages, $34 (hardbound).

Genealogy has increased dramatically in public interest in recent decades, particularly since so many source documents have been digitized and made more easily available online. Computer research will never completely replace the need to visit county courthouses and cemeteries, but it has accounted for a growth spurt in the number of people pursuing it.

Katherine Pennavaria has published an excellent genealogical guide for beginners in the field, but the title should not mislead advanced and even expert genealogists into ignoring this book because they too can find a lot of material to spark their interest.

Pennavaria is professor and coordinator of the visual and performing arts library at Western Kentucky University and the author of “Genealogy: A Practical Guide for Librarians” and “Providing Reference Services: A Practical Guide for Librarians.” The author makes it clear throughout her book that genealogists perform actual historical research and therefore need to be skeptical about statements they may hear or read about their families that are not supported by records and other named sources.

She gives an accurate description of the massive difficulties faced by most immigrants, the vast majority of whom sailed in steerage on ships under challenging health conditions. In addition, Pennavaria provides practical and systematic advice on how to start a research project into family history and into how to organize, preserve and share results with others.

In her Appendix, the author includes a list of questions the researcher can use to interview family members about specific aspects of their relatives’ lives. In her chapter on “Genealogy Record Types” she suggests that instead of asking “When did Aunt Rose and Uncle Fred get married?” it is better to ask “Do you remember Aunt Rose’s wedding” and “How old were you at the time and where were you living?”

One of the great tragedies in genealogy is the loss of most of the 1890 U.S. census results during a fire at the Commerce Department in 1921. Pennavaria points out that the results were tabulated on a machine. To see a picture of this machine, she suggests that readers go to Columbia University’s site on computing history. One of the most significant losses from this census were detailed answers on Civil War service and ethnic self-identification.

The author includes examples of types of records illustrated throughout the book, including Babe Ruth’s draft registration, and these are helpful in explaining to the beginner the variety of records one should seek and what to look for on each of various forms. Pennavaria says that the Ellis Island station processed more than 1 million immigrants in 1907 and that on the biggest day that year, April 17, 11,747 people passed through its Great Hall and examination rooms.

The most recent addition to the field of genealogy has come with the explosion of interest in studies of individuals’ DNA. The author has written an excellent introduction to Mitochondrial, Y Chromosome and Autosomal DNA tests and the relevance of these to family research. She also provides links for further study of these subjects, as well as suggestions for determining which testing company to use if one wants to have such a test and how to share the results with other potential relatives. The book also includes links to various search engines for records as well as genealogical blogs and chat rooms and hints on selecting which ones to try first, which ones provide data without charge, and which ones are well worth the costs involved.

In her chapter titled “Final Thoughts,” Pennavaria offers this insight into the value of genealogical research for those who pursue it: “Whatever facts you discover are useful only when they connect with the narrative of someone’s life. Use the information in the records to piece together the stories and do your best to tell them. Family history research is about connecting the land of the living with the land of the dead, making sure that the people behind those names and dates don’t get lost. Each family-connected record you fish out of the ocean of paperwork pins a once-living person to a time and place and connects that person to the still-living world. All those people long ago could not imagine you, of course, but you can imagine them. Do the research for them. For yourself, and for the generations to come.” Very well stated!

I do have a few suggestions for improvement: In her discussion of Castle Garden, New York City’s immigration processing center before Ellis Island replaced it, I would add the interesting historical facts that this was where the famous Swedish Nightingale, soprano Jenny Lind, performed two concerts and that the site also later served as the City Aquarium. Although the author makes it very clear at one point that not all census records are available to the public, in other places she says something such as: “You now have access to every federal census …” (p. 112). Census returns from 1950 on, those for which 72 years have not passed since the survey, may only be accessed by the individual or his or her heirs or legal representative, upon application. In her section on Obituaries and Cemetery Records, I would add that the latter can often clarify relationships between members of extended families as well as provide dates of interment. In her discussion of the information added by the 1880 census, the author lists “how residents of a household were connected.” I can attest from my first genealogical research trip that the 1850 census provided me with information that my great-great-grandfather and his brother were living with their uncle in Manhattan.

These are minor points, however, and I can recommend “Genealogy for Beginners” very highly not only as a beginner’s handbook, but as a work that will benefit all readers who are interested in discovering their families’ history, no matter how many years they have already invested or how advanced their research skills are.

This is, quite simply, an excellent genealogical guidebook.

– Reviewed by Richard Weigel, WKU Department of History.

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