One of the most valuable reference books for American genealogists is Black's Law Dictionary. This thick reference manual contains the legal definitions found in many records of genealogical interest: wills, probate court actions, deeds, old court cases, and more. Anyone who reads old documents and encounters unfamiliar legal terminology needs to turn to Black's Law Dictionary for the explanation. This week I had a chance to use a newly-released CD-ROM version of this valuable reference book.
First written by Henry Campbell Black in 1891, the dictionary has been updated several times. The eighth edition is now available in print for prices exceeding sixty dollars. For years, Black's Law Dictionary has been a staple at law firms, law schools, courts, and businesses, serving as an invaluable reference when one needs a universally accepted and respected definition of a legal term.
Surprisingly, the newer versions are not as useful for genealogists or historians as the older ones. In order to make room in the printed version's 1,000+ pages, many of the archaic and obsolete terms that haven't been used for a century or more have been dropped from the later versions. Yet these are the exact words and phrases that a genealogist or historian needs the most: the legal terms found on old documents.
While the latest edition of Black's Law Dictionary is useful, the first and second editions are far more valuable to genealogists and historians. These old reference books are now expensive and difficult to find. I have seen them sell on eBay for more than $100. As I write these words, one original copy is available for sale on eBay. Described as having "wear and tear," the bid price is $96.00 with three days left to go on the online auction. I suspect the final price will be much higher.
Luckily, there is a new solution. This solution is easier to find, easier to use, and also much cheaper. Archive CD Books USA recently released a CD-ROM containing not only the 1891 first edition of Black's Law Dictionary, but also a complete electronic copy of the second edition published in 1910. Both editions are contained on one CD-ROM disk.
I found the CD-ROM version of Black's Law Dictionary to be very easy to use. I inserted the CD disk into a Windows computer. A few seconds later, the opening screen automatically appeared. I did not need to click on any icons or load any software as I already had Adobe Acrobat's free viewer installed on my computer.
The use of Adobe Acrobat is a good one, in my opinion. The CD can be used on Windows, Macintosh, Linux, and other computers. For those who do not have Adobe Acrobat already installed, the latest version is available at no charge from http://www.adobe.com.
The CD includes a small "how to" text that explains how to navigate the disk. Anyone who is already familiar with Adobe Acrobat Reader can skip this text since the commands will already be familiar.
Each volume of Black's Law Dictionary also contains a preface that gives a lot of background information and a table of abbreviations. The abbreviations fill many pages.
Within seconds after inserting the CD, I was searching the first edition of Black's Law Dictionary. I first did a search for "stirpes," a legal term that caused me some difficulty a few years ago. (That's "stirpes," not stripes.) I clicked on EDIT and then on FIND. I entered the word "stirpes" into the search box. The CD found several occurrences of the word used in examples. Eventually, it also found the legal definition of IN STIRPES and PER STIRPES.
NOTE: Per Stirpes (meaning "per branch") is the opposite of per capita and is a term often found in nineteenth century wills, describing how property is to be divided. In a per capita distribution of property, the property is divided equally with each heir receiving a share equal to that of every other heir. In a per stirpes distribution, each heir receives a proportional share based upon his "right of inheritance."
If the grandfather had two sons, each would be entitled to half. If both of the sons died before the will was probated, the property would go to the grandchildren. In a per stirpes distribution, if the first son had only one child, that grandchild would inherit 50% (all of his father's share). However, if the second son had five children, each of those five would inherit 10% of their grandfather's property (one fifth of their father's share).
In a per capita distribution, each grandchild would inherit 16.67% (one-sixth) of their grandfather's property since there were six grandchildren.
Of course, Black's Law Dictionary is arranged in alphabetical order, like any dictionary. However, the capability to search by every word allows the user to do something that is impossible with the printed version: search for words within the definitions. I did a search on the word "genealogy" and found it used in several definitions throughout the dictionary. Trying to do the same with a printed version of the same book would take hours, if not days.
Searching on the Black's Law Dictionary CD is simple: click on EDIT and then on FIND. An even faster method is to use the keyboard shortcut of Control-F. Enter the word or phrase you seek, and the software will find the first occurrence within a second or two. Clicking on NEXT (or Control-G) moves quickly to the next occurrence.
I found that I could search either the 1891 edition or the 1910 edition, but could not search both at the same time. I would recommend that genealogists start first by searching the 1891 edition unless you are working on a legal document written after 1900. Generally speaking, the 1891 edition will be more useful for older documents.
Printing a page from the CD is simple: with the page displayed on the screen, click on the printer icon and follow the menus. The page is printed on your local inkjet or laser printer a few seconds later. You might note that the default is to print the entire manual! However, with one mouseclick you can specify to print only the current page or to print a range of pages.
Copying-and-pasting text from the CD-ROM's data to other Windows or Macintosh programs was also easy. I was able to copy text and paste it into the notes field in my favorite genealogy program simply by using the EDIT->COPY and EDIT->PASTE commands on the pulldown menu or by using the keyboard shortcuts of Control-C and Control-V.
Perhaps the best part is the price of this CD-ROM: $29.95.
I might add that CD copies of Black's Law Dictionary are available from other CD-ROM producers. However, the ones I have seen do not have the capability to search on every word within the text. To my knowledge, this feature only exists in the version sold by Archive CD Books USA. This is a valuable feature, and I would hate to use a version of Black's Law Dictionary without it.
In short, Archive CD Books USA has a winner here. The company is producing a small and easy to use version of a rare and valuable book. The first edition of Black's Law Dictionary in print costs more than $100, but you can get it on CD for $29.95. The CD version is easier to use and can find text within the descriptions.
For more information about Black's Law Dictionary on CD-ROM, or to order the disk from Archive CD Books USA's safe and secure online order system, click here.