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  • The Importance of Scholarly Journals: What They Are and Why We Should Use Them

    David L. Green

    I cut my genealogical teeth -- to conjure a strange image -- on genealogical journals. From 1966 to 1970 I lived in Philadelphia, where I attended graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. Whenever I got tired of course work and my doctoral dissertation (which occurred more frequently than I like to admit), I’d go down to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which has one of the outstanding genealogical collections in the mid-Atlantic states, and search for my ancestors. When I ran out of things to look for, I’d read the genealogical journals. From them, I learned how to evaluate evidence and what sources to seek out, as well as early terminology: e.g., that “Jr.” and “Sr.,” “cousin,” and “brother” and “sister” had meanings three hundred years ago that are foreign to us today. And I learned from the frequent problem-solving articles that if the contributors could find correct answers to vexing questions, so could I.

    I had long before read Gilbert Doane’s classic Searching for Your Ancestors and remembered his comments on the genealogical journals, but my undergraduate and graduate libraries carried only The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and their runs of this famous journal were scattered and incomplete. At the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, I first saw copies of the other journals described by Doane: The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record and Donald Lines Jacobus’s independently published journal, The American Genealogist. And I also found the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, The Virginia Genealogist, The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine (published by the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania, which was then housed at the Historical Society), and The Genealogical Magazine of New Jersey. When I was no longer an impecunious graduate student and was instead a slightly less impecunious college professor, I started to subscribe to all of them.

    Since that time, the major genealogical journals have been vital to my life as a genealogist. Recently, as coeditor of TAG, I received a letter from a professional genealogist, who wrote that he had seen TAG in libraries, but didn’t read it or any of the other journals because they never had material of significance in his own work -- how he knew this if he didn’t read them, I hesitate to speculate -- and besides, he didn’t have time. It was hard to know how to respond (so I’m afraid that thus far I haven’t), but the letter made me focus my own thoughts on the importance of these journals, which would never have survived for so long -- the Register is now 153 years old -- if they were not essential to many people other than me. Why then should all serious genealogists read the major journals?

    They should read the journals for the new information published. All the major journals publish articles that cover families not discussed reliably before or that solve vexing problems in their genealogies. Not to remain current with the periodicals is to miss major discoveries in our own ancestries. It is almost impossible for any one who descends from 17th-century New England families not to find material about them in the Register or TAG. Likewise, descendants of early New York families will undoubtedly find pertinent information in The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and descendants of early Virginia families will find significant material in The Virginia Genealogist.

    The various periodical indexes -- especially PERSI, Genealogical Periodical Annual Index, and Jacobus’s Index to Genealogical Periodicals -- make it relatively simple to find whether anything about your families has appeared in print; we are especially fortunate that PERSI is now available in a cumulative edition on CD- ROM.

    Recently, there was a striking example of why it is so important to subscribe to the journals and not to depend on finding copies when an article on one of your families appears in it. The lead in the July 1998 TAG was Caleb Johnson’s article revealing the correct English origin of Stephen1 Hopkins of the Mayflower. The article was mentioned prominently in The Mayflower Quarterly and on the Internet, so the issue sold out very quickly. Since then we have continued to receive inquiries about the issue and must disappoint those seeking either a copy of the journal or an offprint of the article -- as a 78-year-old cottage industry, TAG does not have facilities to make copies of articles from out-of-print issues. Some people have been most offended after receiving what we thought was a very tactful response, even to the point of telling us that, as descendants of Stephen Hopkins, they had a right to the article and we were obligated to give it to them! I’m sure that Jane Fiske could offer similar examples from her experience as editor of the Register.
    They should read the journals for examples of how to solve genealogical problems and to prove genealogical connections. The standards of the major journals are very high, and none will publish articles that reach ill-considered conclusions, though all will publish occasional speculation, if it appears probable and is clearly labeled as unproven. TAG specializes in problem-solving articles, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, under Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills, has featured articles that demonstrate new techniques, especially for groups that have not been studied widely, including frontier families and recent immigrant groups. Problem-solving articles are also found in the Register, the New York Record, and The Genealogist, all three of which specialize in carefully documented compiled genealogies.

    Discovering the European origins of American colonists is a difficult field, which requires special knowledge of researchers. All these journals provide articles on origins. Newly discovered English origins of New Englanders appear in practically every issue of the Register and TAG, and Dutch origins of settlers in New Netherland appear frequently in the Record. The Genealogist specializes in medieval families and royal connections, as well as in the type of American compiled genealogy found in the other journals.
    They should read the journals to learn what sources to use and how to interpret them. No matter how intelligent or critical we are, we cannot know the sources for a particular group or era before we have seen them used and used them ourselves. Each period and region has its own classes of records. Those of us used to American land records are often surprised to find that such records are rare in England and that English property laws are generally very different from those in this country. And in England there are entire classes of records that are essential to genealogical research that are not found in America, including the Feet of Fines, Manorial Court Rolls, and Inquisitions post mortem.
    They should read the journals to learn how to arrange their materials and how to structure their discussions. Many genealogies are burdened with elaborate numbering systems that have been invented by their compilers. Through the major genealogical journals, we learn by example to use one of the two systems universally recognized in the field: the “Register System,” invented by The New England Historical and Genealogical Register in 1870, and the very similar “Modified Register System” (or “NGSQ System”) developed about a century ago by The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record and now used, with further modifications, by the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

    The journals also teach us how to structure discussions, particularly of difficult genealogical problems and how to marshal evidence toward a particular solution. Many of the problem-solving articles in the major journals are models of concise, elegant (and sometimes eloquent) argumentation that provide intellectual pleasure to read. Such articles serve as models for our own analyses of problems.
    The importance of reading the major journals in the field cannot be over emphasized. It may be possible to become a good genealogist without doing so -- but it is much more difficult. The next column will be on the misuses of genealogy. I am always interested in receiving comments on my comments; I may be addressed as .

    Following is a list of the “great” genealogical journals, chosen because of their national influence in the field, even though two of them specialize in single states. The list is not intended to be inclusive; there may well be good arguments for the inclusion of other journals. We begin with the Register, the doyen of genealogical journals; the remaining titles are listed alphabetically.

    The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, quarterly, founded 1847, edited by Jane Fletcher Fiske, FASG. Subscriptions, including the magazine, New England Ancestors, are $40.00 a year; membership in the society, which also includes book-loan privileges, is $50.00 a year. Address: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 101 Newbury St., Boston MA 02116-3007.
    The American Genealogist [TAG], quarterly, founded 1922, edited by David L. Greene, CG, FASG, Robert Charles Anderson, FASG, and Joseph C. Anderson II, CG. Subscriptions are $25.00 a year from TAG, P. O. Box 398, Demorest GA 30535-0398.
    The Genealogist [TG], biannual, founded 1980, edited by Charles M. Hansen, FASG, and Gale Ion Harris, FASG, published for the American Society of Genealogists [the “FASGs”] by Picton Press. Subscriptions are $25.00 a year from Picton Press, PO Box 250, Rockport ME 04856-0250.
    National Genealogical Society Quarterly, quarterly, founded 1912, edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, FASG, and Gary B. Mills. Membership in the National Genealogical Society, which includes the Quarterly, the NGS Newsletter, and book-loan privileges, is $50.00 a year from National Genealogical Society, 4527 17th St. N., Arlington VA 22207- 2399.
    The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, quarterly, founded 1870, edited by Harry Macy, Jr., FASG. Subscriptions are $30.00 a year. Membership in the society, which includes The NYGBS Newsletter, is $50.00 a year. Address: The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, 122 E. 58th St., New York NY 10022- 12939.
    The Virginia Genealogist, quarterly, founded 1957, edited by John Frederick Dorman, CG, FASG. Subscriptions are $25.00 a year. Address: The Virginia Genealogist, PO Box 5860, Falmouth VA 22403-5860

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