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Seeking Out Biographical Sources

One source of information that's often overlooked by amateur genealogists is biographies.


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One source of information that's often overlooked by amateur genealogists is biographies. While, in themselves, biographies may not hold all the answers, they can fill in facts not available through other sources.

Who's Who in America is perhaps the most reliable biographical source, since the biographee submits the information. But he may also omit important facts. Who Was Who in America doesn't supplant the older Who's Who volumes. There are individuals in the regular volumes who aren't included in the permanent Who Was Who volumes, which are restricted to leaders in government, education, religion, business, and the professions. Many other notable or popular persons such as entertainers, sports figures, and writers, aren't included.

While the Dictionary of American Biography is also highly restrictive in its criteria for inclusion, the National Encyclopedia of American Biography includes many individuals, with more complete biographical sketches. The information in these volumes is mainly provided by the individual biographees or their relatives and being uncritical, contain many valuable clues. It features full-page, steel-plate engravings of the entrants, plus significant clues to careers, offices and events in the life of the individual. If an ancestor served as a director of a corporation or an officer of a society, the best place to look would be the records of that organization.

State biographical volumes issued by various publishers may also be useful. Since these volumes contain only information about the people in a single state, they're able to include a greater number of individuals from the state. It was quite popular at the beginning of the 20th century to issue state histories in multi-volume sets, of which one or more volumes were devoted to biographies.

Though these biographies aren't uniformly accurate, they still provide valuable information and clues for further research. Quite often the state archivist or a leader in the state historical organization lends his name, if not his services, to these publications.

County histories vary in their coverage, historical accuracy, inclusiveness, and format and printing quality. While they should be consulted, their content is dependent upon information

supplied by individual biographees. If an individual paid $50.00 for his book and his biography, it's likely that a flattering biography was written about him. Check the county history with the primary sources, particularly those at the courthouse.

If an ancestor was involved in a business, profession, or a religious organization, a genealogist needs to locate the biographical compendium which relates to that particular business, profession or religion. Though doctors can be traced through county and state histories, the transactions of the medical society of the state in which he or she resided are a better source for biographies.

If an ancestor was a minister, there's a good possibility that he may have been listed in biographical or historical volumes related to his denomination. And don't forget to examine the histories and records of the local Baptist association, Methodist conference, Presbyterian synod, Episcopal diocese, and Lutheran classis.

It's possible that information about an ancestor may be in a biographical work on the graduates of the college he attended. Historical journals should be consulted for possible information, especially if they're indexed.

County directories may contain biographical information and are available for some locations. City directories have been mentioned. In some areas, city directories have existed for many years; in other areas, they have been in existence only a short time. Directories of major cities have been microfilmed and are more widely available than they used to be. A search of these directories may tell a genealogist approximately when an ancestor arrived in the area and approximately when he left it or died. Kinship can often be discerned by residence, even though the individuals don't have the same last names .Occupations are often indicated, and even employers may be named.

Though information in telephone directories is now fairly accurate, they don't contain the data found in city directories. Voter lists–found in court records, newspapers, or poll tax records–may also be helpful. And school records are sometimes available.

One of the main distinctions between professionals and novices in genealogical research is the extent to which the professionals utilize these periodicals. The novice usually confines his or her search to ancestor surnames. The professional searches for information about a certain locale as well as the surnames. The information discovered often leads to other information.

Another distinction is the extent to which the professional knows or searches for the manuscript materials in the libraries, historical societies, and archives. The volumes of the National Union Catalog of Manuscripts are the major tools for finding these sources. They're found in most large libraries. Local newspaper archives are also invaluable sources.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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