Thursday, October 22, 2015

Review: Unofficial Guide to

Unofficial Guide to by Dana McCulloughWhen I first heard about the book, Unofficial Guide to, I expected I wouldn’t like it. That was many weeks ago and I don’t even remember why. As it turns out, I like it. A lot. I consider myself pretty familiar with, but even I learned from this book.

I received a PDF copy for review, which is part of what I really like about this book. I’m converting more and more of my library to digital format so I can carry it with me where ever I go. I’ve marked it up extensively using the annotation features of Adobe Reader. I hope the PDF available to the general public doesn’t require Adobe Digital Editions. Adobe Reader has more natural reading control and has much more sophistical markup capabilities.

One weakness of a book about a website under current development (as is), is the shifting sand upon which it is built. In the short months since the book’s release has changed a dozen or more, mostly minor, features explained in the book. The book’s instructions on deleting a person from FamilySearch Family Tree no longer apply. (FamilySearch no longer allows users to delete persons. They want users to merge instead. Only imaginary persons should be deleted and this must be done for you by a support representative. But I digress…) As another example, the book does not explain user-to-user messaging. I’m hoping the publisher, Family Tree Books, finds a way to offer free updates to purchasers of the eBook editions. I think that is one of the powerful opportunities made possible by eBook publication.

Perhaps the biggest reason I like this book is because author Dana McCullough does more than explain how to use She does so in the context of teaching how to do genealogy. For example, the “Getting Started” chapter briefly introduces the features of, but then immediately launches into genealogy basics. She counsels readers to start by recording what they already know about parents, grandparents, and so forth. She then instructs readers to start looking for documents, beginning in their own home. The first chapter continues with information on organizing your records, creating a research plan and research log, and citing your sources. At that point she returns to the topic of, with specific instructions on establishing a user account.

Dana closes the first chapter, as she does all chapters, with a short “keys to success” list and a helpful checklist to use when applying the principles taught in the chapter.

In the second chapter, “The FamilySearch Family Tree,” I was uncomfortable with her treatment of the one, shared tree concept. In her paragraph introducing Family Tree she states that “whether you’re viewing a family tree you created or one someone else posted, the information you can view on each person remains consistent across all family trees.” Does that sound like one, shared tree to you? She later explains that “you can search for family trees others have posted on the website by going to the Family Tree tab.” Again, this sounds like multiple trees.

She’s eight pages into the chapter before she obliquely addresses the one, shared tree concept. After she says “you can post your family tree for free on” she warns that “as you create your tree, keep in mind that anyone can change anything in any family tree on this website. So if you create an ancestor listing in your tree, someone else researching the same family could go in and update or change the information for each ancestor.” Nowhere did she try to teach the concept that this is a single tree representation of, someday perhaps, all recorded mankind.

Author Dana McCullough really understands the FamilySearch ecosystem. FamilySearch enables other companies to extend the capabilities of FamilySearch Family Tree. On p. 20 she explains the Tree Connect bookmarklet from The bookmarklet automates creation of Family Tree sources. This level of detail shows that Dana has done extensive research so that her book is the best it can be.

As I mentioned, Dana goes beyond teaching about She teaches about genealogy. Starting with chapter 5, she teaches about different, albeit mostly US, record types: census, vitals, immigration, naturalization, military, probate, court, and more. She even suggests some key, databases. As I also mentioned, a challenge of writing about a constantly changing website is currency. Dana provides lists of available record collections, but these are quickly becoming out-dated.

I have a bunch of nitpicks. This is a review, after all.

  • The PDF was a bit wonky in organization. When I opened this book, I looked for publication, copyright, and printing information on the back of the title page, but it wasn’t there. After reading the book for days I happened across it inside the back cover.
  • It also seems from the PDF version that the book begins chapters on left-hand pages. Is that true of the print edition? It feels weird.
  • My “go to” test for polish in a PDF book is page numbers. Has the publisher gone to the extra effort of making the logical page numbers (the ones in the box up on the toolbar), match the page numbers printed on the pages? That’s the kind of finishing touch that a truly professional publisher makes. This book’s publisher did not. If I want to jump to page 100 and I enter 100 in the page number box, I land on another page.
  • I think FamilySearch doesn’t do a good enough job explaining how users could use the Reason Statement field offered whenever users make a change. On p. 44 in the illustration of adding a source, Dana’s answer to the question “Reason this source is attached[?]” is “Listed in record.” I think we’re missing an opportunity to supply a proof statements or short proof summary. I think the question being asked is really “Why do you think this record applies to this person?” This decision is the atomic conclusion upon which all correct genealogies are built. If the source provides direct evidence with no contradictory evidence, the answer may be a simple sentence or two. “The name, birth info, and parents’ names on the record match what is in the tree.” Again, I lay the blame for this shortcoming on FamilySearch, not Dana. She addresses this concept admirably on p. 67.
  • On p. 65 I’d like to have seen more hints on how to find records in unindexed collections.
  • On p. 81 I think she missed the point that the Indexed IGI results are actually regular, old historical records that can be accessed via the normal historical records search.
  • Unfortunately, when acknowledging the contributions of FamilySearch’s Robert Kehrer, she calls him Richard.

Yikes! I’ve run way too long and still have so much I could say about this book.

The author, Dana McCullough (Milwaukee, WI,, is a former assistant editor at Family Tree Magazine. She currently is a freelance writer and editor who frequently writes and edits content on genealogy and higher education topics. She has written or edited content for twenty magazines and has contributed to the editing of eight books. Her writing has been published in Family Tree Magazine, The Artist's Magazine, Family Circle, Brain Child, Better Homes and Gardens' Simply Creative Weddings, My College Guide, The Iowan, Wisconsin Woman, and Scrapbooks, etc., among other national and regional consumer magazines. Dana has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Iowa State University..

This book is available for review on Google Books and for purchase on Google Play.  It is available in paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon. It is available in paperback and PDF formats on ShopFamilyTree, brought to you by Family Tree Magazine.

Unofficial Guide to How to Find Your Family History on the Largest Free Genealogy Website
9.1 x 0.6 x 7 inches, 240 pp., paperback. 2015.
ISBN 1440343284
Family Tree Books
$12.99 Kindle
$15.33 Google eBook
$25.99 Paperback/PDF list price, plus shipping.


  1. Wondering if you have any information on when the SSDI might be updated. Its almost a year behind, and thats creating many problem

  2. Given FamilySearch Family Tree's origins mostly in sourceless user-submitted tree data (much of which is wrong and/or hugely duplicated), and the presently rather limited range and scope of (US) historical records databases, the notion of researching families *on* the site is a bit overblown. One can enter research conclusions in the FS-FT using data mostly acquired elsewhere. How to do this and a guide to finding what is actually on-site are useful.

    1. Is FamilySearch's Family Tree "hugely duplicated"? Where did you hear that? That's news to me (even taking the IOUS problem into account).

      It's interesting that you say that "the notion of researching families *on* the [FamilySearch] site is a bit overblown." I think it instructive to compare the catalogs of the two, sorted by collection size.

      * At the top of Ancestry's list is its sourceless user-submitted tree data. FamilySearch has that as well.
      * Ancestry's U.S. city directory collection is unparalleled.
      * Both have about 800 million sourceless US public records.
      * Ancestry has yearbook and phone book collections, which FamilySearch doesn't.
      * Both have the Federal census records.
      * Both have the SSDI.
      * Both have Find A Grave indexes.
      * Both have the core US passenger lists.
      * Ancestry has military muster rolls that FamilySearch doesn't.
      * Both have the military draft registration databases.
      * Both have massive obituary collections. (Ancestry's is currently larger, but at current growth rates, that won't last for long.)
      * Both have big vital record collections (starting with California, then Texas, then Florda).
      * FamilySearch is the only one of the two with the BillionGraves index.
      * Ancestry has a Kansas city and county census collection that FamilySearch doesn't, but they both have big state census collections.

      At this point you're dropping below the 10 million record mark on database size.

      Ancestry recently released the U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, which is unique to them. And their new probate collection leaves FamilySearch eating their dust. But these are both new collections released since this book was published.

      There is no question that Ancestry bests FamilySearch. But I think the notion that researching families on is not possible is, well, a bit overblown.

    2. Atta boy. Just the kind of detailed info I'd expect to see from the comparison guru. Hope you're doing well.

  3. The Kindle version is $6.00 cheaper. $12.99 vs $18.99


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