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Branch out into the family tree

With the growth of genealogy as a popular pastime, Adrian Mourby recommends useful and entertaining guides to help the beginner.

The fastest growing leisure activity in Britain is genealogy. Currently the wish to dig up one's ancestors lies fourth on the list of national recreations but it may not be long before the desire to be a descendant takes over, from visiting garden centres, as our number one pastime.

In response to the ready market in DIY genealogy, publishers have brought out a plethora of books on the subject. For anyone who wants to test that old chestnut that they are descended, down the illegitimate line,from some duke or earl the big problem is knowing where to start. The first thing to decide is whether your interest is romantic or practical. For the person who wants to get stuck in and prise open great dusty ledgers then the cheap little guides are invaluable. For those who prefer to daydream the glossies are a delight.

Dreamers will particularly enjoy books such as The Oxford Guide To Family History (Oxford University Press Pounds 19.99) and Debrett's Tracing Your Ancestors (Headline Pounds 7.99) which are swamped with illustrations and contain such interesting titbits as that Josiah Wedgewood was the ancestor of both Vaughan Williams and Charles Darwin, or that the Indian princess Pocahontas was the ancestress of General George C "Marshall Plan" Marshall.

These books feed our nostalgia with a print on every page but they offer little help with getting started. The Oxford Guide has no useful telephone numbers for record offices and only one address. The Debrett has a useful appendix of addresses but omits to tell you that a pencil and reader's ticket are essential if you want to get into the Record Office at Kew.

There is nothing wrong with coffee table books if you don't intend to stir far from your coffee table, and these glossies are the ideal present for a relative who is always going to start looking into his family history next year but never does. After all browsing is a leisure activity too. An even better fireside book is Anthony Camp's Everyone has Roots (out of print but available in libraries) which, although purporting to be a guide, is a series of anecdotes about ancestor hunts the author undertook while director of research at the Society of Genealogists. This is the man who was asked to find a descendant of Nelson's Hardy (to launch a ship named in his honour) and who clearly enjoyed the job. Terrick FitzHugh's How To Write A Family History (also out of print) is also another such jolly, personal account which sets out to tell us how to write our own family story.

There are now a number of books that purport to be dictionaries and encyclopedias of the subject but personally I'd avoid them: what beginners most need is a step by step introduction. It may be interesting to learn, under H for instance, that a Heriot is a fine payable by a villein to his lord but it doesn't help anyone get back beyond the great grandparents. Similarly Pauline Saul's Tracing Your Ancestors: The A-Z Guide (Countryside Books Pounds 9.95) tells us what a scrivener and lorimer did but do we need to know? Sometimes it seems as if the author has just thrown down all she knows in alphabetical order, instead of keeping such an approach for the index where it properly belongs. Ms Saul does usefully tell us what records are kept where however, which is more than can be said for David Hey's The Oxford Companion To Local amp; Family History (Oxford University Press Pounds 25) which is the ultimate A-Z browse.

Where real value is to be found is at the other end of the market with very cheap pamphlets that can be bought from public record offices. In case you're worried about turning up totally unprepared Jane Cox and Timothy Padfield have brought out Tracing Your Ancestors in the Public Record Office (HMSO Pounds 7.95) which is a guide to all 61 guides that the PRO produces. It has a comprehensive contents section and a very handy appendix which helps the new researcher on a step by step basis depending on what kind of information they already have. "Did the person serve in the Merchant Navy? If Yes read No. 41" Public Record Office leaflets are wonderfully specific. No 5 is devoted to Change of Name, No 13 to Inclosures and 54 to Confiscations, Sales and Restoration of Crown and Royal Lands 1642-1660. No danger of accidentally picking up the wrong one here.

The Buckinghamshire genealogist Eve McLaughlin has brought out her own modestly priced McLaughlin Guides with encouraging titles such as No Time For Family History? and Interviewing Elderly Relatives (Eve Mclaughlin Pounds 1.85, Pounds 2.35).

Countryside Books produce the Gibson Guides and the Raymond Bibliographies all of which are worth looking at if you have a specific problem. If you're not sure what is holding up your researches The Family Tree Detective by Colin D Rogers (Manchester University Press Pounds 9.99) is a manual for solving your genealogical problems. I particularly welcomed the chapter simply, and usefully, headed "Your Failure to Find a Birth Entry".

If there is a general rule it seems to be one of inverse proportion. The more money that has been spent on a book, the higher its production values,the more difficult you'll find it to winkle out necessary information. I would recommend a very modest paperback by Estelle Catlett Track Down Your Ancestors (Right Way Books Pounds 2.99) which tells how to get started and how to avoid the more obvious mistakes and saves a good Pounds 10 on some of the glossies. If after a few hours in Chancery Lane you decide the nation's number four pastime is not for you then at least you won't have wasted much money.

Adrian Mourby investigated gene-alogy for Radio 4's Books amp; Co.

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