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How To Read


I know you read the title of this blog article and probably rolled your eyes. After all, most likely, you know how to read, and you might do a lot of reading. I know that, but much of what we need to read for genealogy requires more than a mere skim. It requires an in-depth study of the materials.

Maybe the better question for me to ask is, “how do you read?”


Now I know this subject might seem odd for me to write about. However, I think we have all faced times when we let our minds wander while reading or where we just couldn’t understand the point of the text. I think this often happens because we treat reading as a “passive” pursuit instead of actively engaging with what we are reading. When we actively read, we engage with the text and ask questions, make notes, and maybe even look up facts or sources. When reading non-fiction for genealogy (books, journal articles, thesis, dissertations), you must do more than just “read” the text.

Gather your Tools

Yes, reading requires tools besides your reading glasses and the material you are reading. When I read, I have a highlighter, a pencil or pen (I prefer those pens with five different colored inks), and post-it notes (tabs or notes, whichever you prefer).

True confession time. Yes, I write in my books.


Now, obviously, I don’t do this to library books or books I borrow from friends. But if it’s my book and I own it, it’s fair game. After all, it’s MY book. Since childhood, we are taught “don’t write in books” “don’t dog-ear pages in books.” All good advice for borrowed books or the family heirloom book in your home, but it doesn’t matter for others.

If you can’t bring yourself to do this, they sell clear post-it notes that you can write or highlight. That might be an option. Other types of bookmarks (such as metal book darts) might be an answer for “marking” what you read. You can also choose to take notes in a notebook or via a computer program. 


You Don't Always Have to Read from the Begining to the End 

Aside from not writing in our books, we are also taught to read consecutively from page one to the end. Some readers find sections of a book optional, such as the introduction, acknowledgments, or index. When in reality, depending on the work, you may be better off skipping around a bit. You may be able to skip around to chapters that have more to do with what you’re interested in.

I recommended that if you’re reading a journal article such as NGSQ or the NEHGS Register, don’t read the article from start to finish. Instead, read the introduction and the conclusion. This tells you what the author sought to do and what they did. Now read the author bio. What is their background? This tells you something about where they’re coming from, their experience, or their take on things. An author who worked as a scientist will address a problem slightly differently than one who spent a career as an artist. Now, finally, read the footnotes or endnotes. Why? Read more about this below.

Study the Footnotes/Endnotes

I admit it, one of my favorite parts of a non-fiction narrative is the footnotes/endnotes. These are the part of the text that tells you the extra. It’s like frosting on a cake. Cake is good, but frosting makes it better.

Footnotes/endnotes provide additional information that may not go into the body of the text but are an important aside. They tell you about the quality of the research. From these source citations, you can see what the author looked at and, even more importantly, what they missed. These sources are additional resources for you to discover that might inform your research.

Related to the footnotes/endnotes is a bibliography. I go through the bibliography, highlight the books I need, and place a checkmark to the left of those I already own. When I was in graduate school, we loved bibliographies because they help us identify what scholarship is already out there on a topic. The same is true for genealogy. A good bibliography can help me learn more about a family, a place, or an ancestor’s life.


One of the techniques my high school-age kids learned in their English class was to annotate what they were reading. They were to take notes in the margins of their books, with the end goal being that when they later flipped through the book and read their notes, they would remember what the book was about. It’s sort of like your own personal Cliff Notes of the book.

So as you read, take time to annotate. Highlight text, underline words or sentences and make notes in the margins. Interact with the text, don’t just passively read it. Active reading will help you learn and retain more.

How Do You Read?

You’ve now heard what I think about reading. There are articles and books about how to be a better reader than you may want to explore. The article Getting the Most from Case Studies in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly by Thomas W. Jones helps to break down how to read a peer-reviewed journal article which is very different than a popular magazine article. You might also be interested in the blog post, Eight Tips for Deconstructing an NGSQ Case Study by Melissa Johnson. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J Adler and Charles Van Doren explains strategies for reading various types of books.

Let me know in the comments how you tackle what you need to read.


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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Excellent article! My approach is to first skim the info. If there is something of interest related to my research, I then go back and read it carefully, paying special attention to details that might have been missed in the first run through. Especially details like dates, places, associated names (always possible relatives or close friends, or local associates of note).

During the detailed review (after the first skim through), I look more carefully at the footnotes and bibliography. Whenever there's something relevant to my research, I want to know all I can about additional resources.

Everyone has a different approach that works best for them. Some great suggestions in this article. Thanks for the tips!

I make notes in a notebook, as a rule. Sometimes, I do underline or highlight in a book. Postnotes are a must!! I just wish I could remember the current notebook I am using to take notes for my genealogy information. I have too many notebooks!! Does anyone else have this problem?

So glad there is someone else who "reads" like me. I admit, I am a book-aholoic! I will never be an online book reader; I love the feel of the book, flipping through pages, highlighting, underlining, and dog-earring pages. I get excited when a new book (or used book ordered through a thrift store) is delivered.

I have a bookcase just dedicated to books about cats. I have another bookcase dedicated to books on genealogy and northern Germany (where my ancestors lived). I love owning books; they're artwork in their own right and I love to admire them as well as read them.

Well Said Kathy and Jo!
I can't skim read, so read slowly with post-its and notebook to hand
My father was a bookbinder so I have grown up surrounded by books as friends - true it is scary marking a book, but as you say unless it is an heirloom it is yours to be well used and wants to be used, not just preserved for an unknown future on a dusty shelf or bin.

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