Nov 6, 2020

Using Scholarly Genealogical Journals

November 6, 2020

Last week I discussed the use of periodicals to advance genealogical research, but this week I want to focus specifically on one type of genealogical journal not often used by the average, hobbyist genealogist. These are the more scholarly quarterlies such as the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, The American Genealogist, the New England Historical Society Register and The Record published by the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. These journals are some of the oldest genealogical periodicals published in the United States and represent the epitome of genealogical research. They typically focus on case studies, problem solving articles, compiled genealogies and publication of newfound source materials. All of them except The American Genealogist are available for free via a membership in the publishing entity.


These scholarly journals are an acquired taste for many new and intermediate genealogists. While I look forward to receiving my copies of these periodicals, they are certainly not light reading. I often jokingly refer to them as my “sleeping pills” because tackling an article right before bedtime usually results in instant lights out for me. Although all of these journals are available in digital format, and their publishers gently push you toward that version, for me, at least, these journals are much easier to absorb in old-fashioned paper and print because of the number of footnotes and referrals back to the beginning that each article requires for me to be able to understand what I’ve read. I’ve been reading these journals for several years now, and as you get accustomed to their style and read more of them, reading them becomes easier.


There are other genealogical periodicals, such as Internet Genealogy or Family Tree Magazine, which are generally simpler to read and contain “how to” articles that can help you use a specific resource in your genealogical research. The scholarly quarterlies do not generally contain instructions on how to find genealogical information, although they do contain thorough source information in footnotes. Although you may sometimes find an article that refers to your own family history, most of them will not. The best way to find an article about one of your ancestors in them is simply to check on PERSI as I described last week and obtain a copy of that article either digitally or on paper.


You may be asking yourself “If these journals are so tough to read and absorb and don’t really answer nuts and bolts genealogical questions, why bother?” The real reason to read the journals is to improve your own research and writing skills and to see how serious, professional genealogists approach genealogical problems. For example, reading an article about finding the parents of a specific man in 1700s Connecticut probably won’t tell you exactly how to proceed in the quest for a missing ancestor in your own family, but it will show you how a serious genealogist lays out a specific problem and then proceeds to attempt to solve that problem by using sources to find the answers, then evaluates the information and sources and eventually draws a conclusion.


In addition, reading the scholarly journals can help improve your writing skills by showing you how other genealogists write up their conclusions and include source information in footnotes to support those conclusions. If you have any inclination to write about a genealogical problem you have encountered and have solved, these journals can give you a good template to follow, whether or not you ever intend to publish your work.


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large