Many family historians can tell you that once you start drawing up your family tree, you quickly become addicted to the thrill of genealogy. If you want to find out more about family history, a natural place to start is reading some books on the topic. From practical how-to guides to moving family memoirs, there are lots of great family history books out there. Here are five of the best.


1. Tracing Your Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians by Simon Fowler

This family history guide is a great one-stop introduction to the subject. Simon Fowler takes the reader through the practical first steps to starting your family history and (for UK family historians) the key record sets to use. The book is published by Yorkshire-based publisher Pen & Sword, who are a great resource for family, local and military history titles and family memoirs. In particular, their Tracing Your Ancestors series of books is a crucial source for detailed family history guides. With books on topics including tracing ancestors from different regions and countries, different occupations, different types of record and military ancestors in various conflicts including both World Wars, they’re definitely worth looking at to see which books can help you with your family history research.

2. Introducing Family History 2nd Edition by Stuart Raymond

This book is another great beginners’ guide to family history, covering what family history sources are available, where to find them, how to use them, and how to understand your ancestors’ lives against the background of the society where they lived. The book was published by the Family History Federation, which represents family history societies and other family history groups in England and Wales. Their other specialised family history books are also worth checking out.

3. The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal

Winner of the 2010 Costa Biography Award and chosen as one of the Guardian’s 100 best books of the 21st century, this memoir by ceramic artist Edmund de Waal proves that family history can be the stuff of great literature. Inspired by a collection of netsuke – ornate Japanese mini sculptures – passed down to him by his great uncle, de Waal’s book traces the history of his family, the Ephrussi, a Jewish family of merchants and bankers who became very wealthy in fin de siècle Europe before losing everything in the Nazi annexation of Austria. The book is an unforgettable story and a moving reflection on the legacy we leave behind. There are many other great memoirs by family historians about their research into the story of their families, and many books by the descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors in particular about the awful legacy of the Nazis, so it’s worth reading around the subject.

4. The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland

In the past decade, DNA testing has transformed family history, making it possible for family historians to understand our genetic heritage and match with relatives we never knew existed. But for many people, DNA testing leads to ethical dilemmas and family secrets uncovered. This book by journalist Libby Copeland investigates the scope of the DNA industry and the stories of the people involved.

5. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain by Harry Parkin

The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names of Britain and Ireland was published to great acclaim in November 2016. It was the result of a 4-year funded research project into surnames in the British Isles, but at £400 for a four-volume edition, it was out of reach for most family historians. This concise edition costs a relatively modest £80 and offers almost all of the 45,600 names from the original text. Each entry includes: variant names, 1881 British frequencies for each name, main locations, and etymological explanations, including multiple senses, language/culture, and name type. It's a fascinating way of tracing your own surname and those of your ancestors.


Rosemary Collins is the features editor of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine