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Inherited Address Books


I've been thinking about items that were commonplace 10+ years ago that are not so common now. These items will soon be considered antiques, worthy of nostalgia and collecting but not used in an ever-changing world.

You know these items and have used them, things like phone booths come to mind. Once in a while, I'll see one at a public place, but largely, depending on where you are, you might be hard-pressed to find one or one that works. In a world where the vast majority of people always have a phone with them, phone booths are a relic.

Another relic that is used by some but most likely not seen as a modern-day necessity is the personal address book. No, not the address book in your cell phone but the actual printed handwritten address book that we use to jot down our family and friends' contact information. These books have evolved with the times, such as including a space for a fax number or, later, an email address, but today they are not as convenient as information easily stored in an electronic mobile device. 

As these personal items, such as address books, disappear, it makes me consider their importance as a genealogist. Having inherited a few address books from family members that have passed, I can attest to their genealogical relevance. Still, these small personal books also may be one of those things that are quickly discarded. After all, you may have to choose what inherited items deserve space in an overcrowded house and which don't.

What makes a source have genealogical value? Many sources we use are "names lists," meaning they are a list of names, perhaps all names in a community or a select, curated list. Think of the census (which tracks almost everyone) or a tax list (which includes only those who pay taxes). From there, genealogical records can contain other biographical information, such as a residential address. It may collect information about an occupation, participation in an event (such as a school graduation), or religious affiliation, to name a few.

How is an address book a genealogically relevant record? What can an old address book hold, especially one that isn't yours? My mom has a fabulous address book given to her as a young bride. It includes family contact information and a place to mark who sent you a Christmas card. For a genealogist, this address book provides family member names that may include those she was in touch with but that I wasn't acquainted with. Notations about Christmas cards can include information about a death or a move. Address books are personal manuscripts. Although, like a form, it specifies what to add and where, owners may annotate other details such as relationship, marriage or death dates, and subsequent residential addresses. They are akin to a diary or journal in that the owner adds information that is relevant to them but, in turn, may have historical relevance to descendants.

As family historians, we need to consider the history we document or are curators of and the information we leave behind about ourselves and our immediate family. What can we add to our old written address books that might help the next generation of researchers? How can we annotate it to make it something that our children and family can read? As we inherit items such as the personal writings of family, we need to take a second look at what may seem like "trash" and see if, instead, they lead us to information not available elsewhere.


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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I was also lucky enough to inherit a birthday book from my grandmother. Each day of the year is printed with a blank line or two. And on those lines are the actual signatures of many of her relatives!

You've reminded me that these should probably be scanned & saved since I'm sure they would get tossed after I'm gone! I have both grandmothers' many address books, along with my mother's and admittedly mine too. I've noticed that when a person gets a new address book, they don't discard the old one. So much info in all of these!

I've also saved my mother's wall calendars, 22 years worth! Not sure why she didn't just toss the old when beginning the new year but thankful she kept them. She had written almost every notable family event on the day it happened. She didn't write anything in the family bible since it wasn't used much, but the monthly wall calendar was essentially her (& family) diary! Another scanning project!

Thank you for a wonderful article!

I am now 81 yrs old and have been doing genealogy since the 1980's when my great Aunt Irene Averill left me a box full of "family history notes". I also inherited my granny's "Little Book". Full of everything from sizes of mens sox and ladies hose sizes to Birth dates and weddings etc. A treasure trove! Then when my father in law passed I also inherited a "little Black Book" not as comprehensive as Granny's but still full of information. Both books are so small about 2x3 inches that they easily could have been tossed away. Now am trying to garner all info I can and pass on to another generation that can pick up where I leave off. I figure I will be doing this till I pass on- literally.

I started my genealogical journey more than thirty years ago with my mom's personal address book. She hadn't been in touch with people from her home town (Chicago) in decades, and the addresses didn't even have zip codes or the phone numbers area codes, but I was able to track down a dozen and a half people with whom to do oral history interviews, all of whom were delighted to hear from me. Genealogical gold!

Gena - I have my mother's seven page, two columned phone list of family and friends. I also Have my grandfather's three generation (his & his siblings and then three generations down.
I also have an address book that I started when I moved from NYC to northeast Ohio. The address book was given to me by my mother, purchased at a store she frequented to buy me gifts. It is a left-handed address book!

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