Top positive review
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Good, fun to read, beginning guide
on May 24, 2010
Although promoted as a "companion" to the popular TV series, this good and enjoyable guide to beginning genealogy really has little to do with the show, except for a color section in the middle covering each of the participants. Instead it's a nuts-and-bolts guide to 1) getting started on your family-history quest, and 2) the most commonly-used (and some not-so-common) records.
Smolenyak writes enthusiastically and well. She is passionate about her subject and it shows.
In some ways, the book suffers for the same reasons that the TV show suffers: it makes it look too easy. This is probably unavoidable in a beginning guide or a popular TV show since covering all the caveats might turn off the audience. That said, I wish there had been at least some emphasis on how one might go about developing skills, such as taking classes (which are often free or inexpensive), attending conferences, etc. Also lacking is any meaningful discussion of evaluation of and analysis of all of the various pieces of evidence one finds; obviously this can't be done thoroughly in a book like this, but it should at least be addressed.
The author works for [...], the giant online genealogical service; although it is noted on the jacket blurb, in the interest of full disclosure she could have been a little more forthcoming about that relationship throughout the book when one of ancestry's features or databases takes center stage. Her recommendation of [...]'s member tree feature (as her first suggestion for software to use for your data) is ludicrous; I would be very surprised if that is her own database software of choice. (Save the comments: I'm a whole-world subscriber to ancestry.com and think it's a fabulous and essential resource.)
What I especially like about this book, in addition to the writing, is its begin-at-the-beginning approach (start with yourself and work back); this may seem obvious, but it's not obvious to many beginners. There is a good section on home sources, talking to relatives, etc. The record examples and illustrations are great: generally from the famous or infamous (Chef Boyardee and Al Capone, to name a couple). Smolenyak's chapter about her search for President Obama's Irish ancestors is one of the best parts of the book because it illustrates difficult aspects to resolving a genealogical problem and, in this case, doesn't make it look easy.
I recommend this book for anyone who wants to begin researching their family and to more experienced researchers who will probably find, as I did, some new (particularly online) resources.