Writing a State Guidebook from Cover to Cover
Genealogical researchers rely upon state guidebooks. These books list genealogical and historical sources for a jurisdiction and tell how to locate them. The well-thumbed condition of state guides at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City indicates their popularity.
Genealogical society members or professional genealogists are appropriate choices for people to write state guides since they know the records in their area so well.
But what is the best way to write one? To take the potential author from the idea stage to the conclusion, this article gives examples from the experiences of Connie Lenzen, CG in compiling and writing the Oregon Guide to Genealogical Sources.
Genealogists know the steps in genealogical research: form a plan, review published literature, evaluate and design the project accordingly, locate new information, evaluate, and prepare a report. Writing a state guide follows the same procedure. In this case, the report is the book.
Research is often a solitary process–just you and your sources. But when you decide to write a guide, invite associates to assist you with the project. I worked with members of a local genealogical society, the Genealogical Forum of Oregon. We tried out ideas on each other; discarded some, modified others, and kept some.
REVIEW SIMILAR GUIDES
The first step is to review other state guides for format (see References, at end of this paper). This analysis provides an outline of what your book should look like. It also pinpoints areas where you need to locate information. State guides include some, or all, of the following:
- a history of the state
- maps showing counties and their formation
- a bibliography of TITLES, usually arranged by county
- courthouse resources
- Family History Library microfilms
- list of archives and their holdings
- addresses and holdings of genealogical and historical libraries
- addresses of cemetery associations
- vital records sources
- Internet resources
FORMULATE A PLAN
A crucial step is to decide what the book should look like; size, number of pages, and type of binding. The Genealogical Forum of Oregon has an offset press, so this dictated the page size and binding. Access to other types of duplicators might change the product.
The committee felt the easiest arrangement to read was by county. The initial plan for each county listing included a condensed history of the county; genealogical repositories with a summary of their resources; a bibliography arranged by topic; courthouse addresses and holdings; and a list of Oregon State Archives documents.
We know that it is frustrating for researchers to learn about a source but not know where to obtain it. Therefore, the plan also included a citation for each source listed. The format seemed good; we would tell readers what was available for each county and where they could find it. We realized something was missing, however.
In addition to county sources, a number of sources are statewide—such as church records, land records, military records and vital records. A new chapter included these. In addition to the types of statewide records available, it included a description of major genealogical repositories in the state of Oregon.
Then we went on to the information-gathering stage. This is the most time-consuming portion of the process. An on-site survey of the catalogs of the major Oregon genealogical libraries and the Family History Library supplied a list of Oregon references.
Letters directed to the presidents of all Oregon genealogical societies resulted in a list of their local publications. The merged bibliography was then divided into county sections.
Letters sent to courthouses requested information about their holdings. A principle rule of correspondence is to ask short, simple questions. We wanted to know what indexes and records were available and what years they covered. Therefore, those were the questions in the survey.
Letters were directed to “Deed Records,” “Divorce Records,” “Marriage Records,” “Probate Records,” “School Records,” “Tax Records,” and “Voter Records.” The return rate on these surveys was excellent: around 80 percent. Several of the non-responding courts were nearby, so an on-site survey filled in the needed information. The information obtained from Wasco County for naturalization records provides an example of the scope of records:
Office of Circuit Court Wasco County Courthouse 5th & Washington The Dalles, OR 97058
- Declaration of Intent, begins 1855
- Declarations, 1859-1989, in Miscellaneous Papers
- Naturalization of Minors, 1894-1903
- Naturalization of Adults, 1894-1903
- Miscellaneous Record, Citizenship Outside Wasco County, begins 1875
Survey letters sent to historical societies and public libraries requested information on the following collections: diaries, manuscripts, and newspapers. The return rate from this mailing was poor, perhaps 30 per cent. The information that did come back was excellent, however, and unknown genealogical collections were uncovered.
Finally, historical maps were obtained from the Oregon State Archives for reproduction in the book. The Oregon Department of Transportation furnished county maps showing roads, towns, and range and section lines.
PREPARE THE GUIDE
The bibliography was separated into logical categories: biographies and diaries; cemetery records; census records; church records; city and county directories; city and county histories; court records; gazetteers, atlases; maps; land records; mortuary records; naturalization; newspapers; probate records; school records; taxes; vital records; and voters’ records. A code was assigned to repositories. This was added to the bibliographic citation. Exhibit A, below, uses examples from the Lane County section to show arrangement.
Evaluation was a continual process. The committee met once a month to review the progress of the book. As I drafted each county section, a person familiar with records for that county reviewed it. A byproduct of this expert review was that we later received few critical letters from readers.