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Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History by Mark D. Herber. 1997. Published in the USA by Genealogical Publishing Company, 1001 N. Calvert Street, Baltimore MD 21202. ix, 674 pages. Illustrations, index, photographs. Hardcover. $34.95 plus $3.50 p&h.

The face of English research has changed with the publication of this superb book. English researchers typically produce short monographs dealing with a particular topic. Researchers thus build a collection of these booklets as their research progresses. Herber’s book changed that picture. In this single and formidable volume, he has collected a wealth of information unparalleled in English research.

In the introduction Herber recognized that English research had “no sufficiently detailed and up-to-date general work available that describes genealogical records and guides researchers to the many published sources or the hundreds of detailed books dealing with specific aspects of genealogical research...” Herber hopes “that this book fills that gap by guiding researchers to the sources and the vast range of reference works and finding aids.” Herber has taken ten years to write this book and, in doing so, meets these goals.

The early chapters in the book provide an introduction to family history, the gathering and organization of information and memorabilia, with a discussion of some general problems. American readers will find the emphasis on family history strong. The book is not designed to help people gather just names, dates and places, but rather to put the ancestors into their historical setting. The resources in the book do this well.

The book continues with chapters on the commonly-used sources such as civil registration, census returns and parish registers. Even experienced researchers will benefit from a read of these practical chapters.

The book then progresses into more advanced topics such as: Catholic, non-conformist and Jewish records; marriage and divorce; newspapers and elections; records of the army, Royal Marines, and Royal Air Force; records of shipping and seamen; oaths, taxation and insurance records; criminal courts and criminals; immigration, emigration and investigation abroad; and many more topics. The book contains 94 very-clear, easy-to-read examples of documents that will be used by the researcher. The ten appendices provide valuable listings of addresses, regnal dates and summaries of finding aids such as titles of all PRO information leaflets.

Throughout the chapters, reference books and finding aids are cited with a number. The details of the citation are at the back of the book in numerical order. Thus if a source is repeatedly cited in different chapters it will be found once in the 978-item citation list. All researchers thus have good citations for further in-depth research and access to finding aids. Unfortunately, however, this book is written in association with the Society of Genealogists in London. It assumes that researchers will have access to this excellent library. Most American researchers do not, and therefore, finding many of the references could be problematic. Herber’s reference numbers at least provide us with specific information about what we are looking for.

This book is about English research, not, as the title states, British genealogy. The records of Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands are found in one thirty-page chapter. In a book this size, it’s a small section for a large topic. It should be stated however, that what the chapter does contain is a good introduction to research in these localities with citations that will guide the researcher.

For Americans, England is a great country in which to research because of the wealth of resources available through the Family History Library (FHL) and its centers. This is one point the book does not make clear. There are occasional examples throughout the text to resources available through the FHL. Herber mentions the 1881 census index and even the 1861 census index for people on merchant or naval ships in port or at sea, both of which are resources available through the FHL. He gives other examples of FHL citations occasionally throughout the book. However, the overall impression is that only the materials cited are available through the FHL. This might give the genealogist new to English research the totally wrong picture. The FHL has a wealth or material readily available, including the majority of parish registers, wills and administrations, plus large collections of trade and city directories, military and naval records, records for the gentry and heraldry, and more. It’s a large collection with very poor representation in this book.

Despite these drawbacks, which are minor, this reviewer highly recommends this book for anyone interested in getting beyond the basics in English research. For non-England based readers the limitations of access to cited materials and the poor mention of material available through the FHL need to be recognized.

Note: This book is now in its second edition (2000).

Reviewed by Paul Milner
BIGWILL v.5 no.5, 1998