What to do if you get stuck during your genealogy research

Common issues you may face as a beginner genealogist

Genealogy is a rewarding, but often frustrating, journey. That’s the reality of any research project. But that’s OK! Problem-solving is an important part of research and genealogy, and it usually just requires a bit of creativity.

In my experience as a professional genealogist, here are some of the common questions I get from beginners, along with suggested solutions that may help you troubleshoot.

Problem: I can’t read these handwritten documents!

Beautiful cursive is now considered a lost art, but let’s be real: our ancestors didn’t always have impeccable penmanship. And a poorly scanned document, such as a census record, can make handwriting even more difficult to decipher. So what do you do if you can’t properly read a handwritten document?

Solutions:

  • Practice reading through handwritten documents. Much of this problem stems from our modern eyes, used to reading clearly printed letters thanks to typewriters and computers. It takes some practice to get acclimated to handwriting. A great way to do this is by contributing to Smithsonian’s transcription volunteer project. They need help transcribing documents, so you can read through a variety of handwritten documents to help. This can help train your eyes, and you’ll get to see a lot of great history, and contribute to an important archival project.
  • Hire a transcriptionist. You may not want to shell out cash, but it can help to bring in an expert to get you over this hurdle. Ask around at a local writer’s group, or go online and find a service like 1888TypeItUp.
  • Have a friend or family member take a gander. Sometimes you just need another set of eyes on a document, so show it to a friend or family member to see if they’re able to figure it out.

Problem: I don’t read/speak/understand documents in different languages!

Your ancestors may have spoken and written in a language other than your primary language, or you may want to explore archives from other countries.

Solutions:

  • Use a translation app. There have been amazing advances in translation technology, such as Google Translate. If you install the app, just hold your phone over a document, and it will translate for you in real time. It’s incredible, and a great way to see if something you’ve found is on the right track.
  • Hire a translator. Like hiring a transcriptionist, sometimes hiring an expert to help can be less expensive in the long run. Not all languages easily translate via an app; there are nuances in language that an expert can identify.
  • Ask on forums. If you’re researching a family member from a specific city or region, a niche forum for that location may be able to help translate for you or confirm your attempts at translation.
  • Learn a language. I’ve found that learning the languages of my ancestors gives me more appreciation for my own heritage. While this shouldn’t be your first step to addressing this challenge, it can help kickstart some of your research once you have a basic understanding for how a language works. I recommend using a free service like Duolingo, which has a variety of languages to learn and easy, applicable lessons.

Problem: I can’t find anything about [this person/topic]!

I hear this a lot from new genealogists: “I looked, but I couldn’t find anything!” I’m here to say that it’s extremely rare that you’ll find nothing at all about anyone in your family, and it probably just means that you need to take a different approach.

Solutions:

  • Try a different database. If you’ve been plugging away on Ancestry.com for days and aren’t finding anything, try something else! It may be that their databases don’t have what you’re specifically looking for. Branch out and try something different, such as the National Archives.
  • Talk to your family. I really encourage you to use your family as a resource throughout this whole process. You never know which aunt or cousin has a photo album or a file stashed away that could be the golden ticket. And they may be able to provide new ideas or insight, such as a different spelling of a name that you may not have considered.
  • Post in a forum. Put out a call for help by sharing a bit about who you’re looking for and what you’ve tried. It helps to go on region-based genealogy forums (for example, Italian genealogy).
  • Hire an expert. I promise that this is not a shameless plug for my own livelihood. ;) But I do see that many people forget that genealogy is research, and research is a skill that takes a lot of schooling and practice. It’s not that you can’t learn how to do it — you certainly can! — but an expert researcher can at least help get you started, and they may have access to sources and tools that you don’t.

General Troubleshooting

Your obstacle may not be specified above, but that doesn’t mean you should give up! Here are two general suggestions:

Go beyond existing information

Research is a science and an art, which means it requires some creativity. Try to not get stuck with what you may already have documented. An example is to try searching for someone using a nickname. Maybe your great-great grandmother went by Peggy instead of Margaret; this may yield new results, especially if their nickname was used in census records (which happens a lot). The same goes for locations, such as city names. For instance, St. Petersburg, Russia, was once called Petrograd, and then Leningrad, before being changed back into St. Petersburg. The era you’re researching may have an impact on what places or people were named.

Go to a library — especially a university library

Genealogy is a special branch of research, but it overlaps with many skills that librarians already have. Try going to your local library and telling them what you’re looking for. Your local university is especially helpful, as universities typically have access to a huge amount of databases from around the world. A library specialist who focuses on history, humanities or geography can at least provide some suggestions on your searches, as well as some other cultural considerations you may not have known.

Kickstart your genealogy journey with this self-paced ecourse, Genealogy 101!

Creating your family narrative

In honor of my new e-course launch, Genealogy 101, I thought I'd give you a sneak peek into a small part of this course: creating your family narrative. 

People do genealogy research to learn more about their family, their culture, their heritage, and their identity. In the genealogy community, I see a lot of focus on filling in the branches of a family tree. And that's certainly important, but it's not the end-all-be-all of genealogy. It can also cause discouragement when you can't piece together all of the puzzle pieces. Instead, I encourage genealogists to focus on writing a family narrative. 

What is a family narrative?

A family narrative is a creative interpretation of a person's life. This can take the form of a memoir or biography, in which facts are elaborated on with speculation or relevant details. Or this may be more in the realm of historical fiction, where you would use what you know about this person to craft a story. Research is the first step for this: the goal is to contextualize an ancestor, and that still needs to be rooted in real details and facts about their life. Knowing when they were born or where they lived can help you delve into the history of that place and time. 

Why is this important?

To truly understand more about who our family is and was, it's important to think about context. Without talking to the actual person, narrative is a way to think about life from their perspective. The more details you have, the richer your narrative will be. A narrative is also a great teaching tool. Think of parables, fairytales and campfire stories; these types of storytelling continue to be used to pass down stories and information from one generation to another. 

A family narrative doesn't have to be long or complicated. You don't have to be a skilled writer to do it. It's a fun way for you to delve into a moment in history that, in some way, helped shape who you are. To get started, grab a notebook, and use these prompts as a guide. 

Start your family narrative by following along with these writing prompts:

  • Who is your narrative about?
  • When and where were they born?
  • What are some notable world events during this era that may have impacted their life? (Tip: Think about wars, inventions, technological advancements)
  • What are personal challenges this person may have faced because of their identity?
  • What kind of food do you think this person may have cooked or eaten?
  • What kind of music may this person have heard or liked?
  • Who may have been important people in this person’s life?
  • Think about this person at age 16, or age 32, or age 50. What may have changed about the world that impacted their life at different ages?
Want to learn more about your family history? Register now for Genealogy 101.