You can learn how to research genealogy without the overwhelm
You’re reading this because you either (1) want to get started with your genealogy research OR (2) you have been doing it for a while now. You may already know exactly what it feels like to get frustrated and bogged down. There is a lot to organize!
Whether you are a beginner or a veteran at genealogy, there are some problems we will all face.
Here are some frustrations along with practical tips and encouragement on how to research genealogy without the overwhelm!
1. I don’t have enough time!
Allot a small (and doable) amount of time for genealogy on a weekly basis. Put it on your schedule. If this seems daunting because of other commitments, schedule only 10-30 minutes. Examples of things you can get done in a short amount of time are:
- login to Ancestry and merge any duplicates
- date and label a few photos
- backup photos from your phone to your cloud or hard drive
- add one memory to your grandparent’s bio on your online tree
- find a document that you are missing and order and download it
- call one relative and ask a question about a memory they have of another relative no longer living
2. I don’t remember where I left off!
So you did some genealogy research and then put it down for a few weeks, months, or last year. I understand. I’m really not one to preach – but I know the key here is to keep well-organized. If you need to find a place to start, try some super helpful organizing advice from Amy Johnson Crow.
One thing I like to do is to keep a PAPER LOG of my ongoing work. I write questions as they enter my thoughts and then I add a box after the question. Once I answer that question, I check the box and add the date that I answered the question. I also add details and a note or two about the info that I found.
Even if I don’t find the answer to my question, I document where I looked, on which date, and what I did or didn’t find. My preference is paper, but you could use an electronic system, like Google Docs and create a spreadsheet. You could also use Trello to organize your work. (I love Trello for everything and highly recommend you try it!)
3. I can’t read the handwriting!
If you haven’t come across illegible handwriting in your research yet, lucky you. The reality is that you eventually will. This is the most frustrating on census forms and also on the backs of photos (where my ancestors tried to identify people) but their handwriting is illegible. A few places you can look for assistance are:
- Libraries. Library workers have always been very helpful to me when I need a second eye. Research librarians are especially helpful in this regard and have always seemed more than happy to help.
- Historical societies. These people are very good at assisting people every day with these types of questions. They are pros!
- Online. Google or Pinterest are great search engines for the topic of “deciphering old handwriting”.
- Facebook groups. As an example, I reached out to a Facebook page in Scotland and asked the group administrator if he could help me with some old handwriting on a document I found on Scotland’s People. He graciously helped me and also gave me some historical background as to the words and their meaning. Try to search for a group that is interested in your type of question. Here’s a helpful CHART from Family Search to help get you started on deciphering old handwriting.
- Tracing. Try and retrace or re-write in your own handwriting what you can’t read.
- Read it out loud. Like the game Watch Ya Mouth, you might “hear” what is written.
- Compare it to other writings by same person. For example, census takers didn’t always have great handwriting. But they usually have pages and pages of handwriting where you can compare many examples of the same letter to the one you can’t read. It really helps a lot. The same technique is helpful for a family member. Use other handwriting examples by the same person to compare a word you can’t decipher.
4. My information is all wrong!
It’s best to have RULES AND STANDARDS and abide by them when you’re researching your family tree. The best way to make sure you’re “doing it right” is to follow the standards provided by the National Genealogical Society.
Cite your sources, record them well, and get into the habit of documenting your research accurately. If something in your work doesn’t seem right, you can fix it or find the issue by double checking the standards and see where you’ve made a mistake.
5. Common or repeated names in the same family!
Are all the men are named John, James, Robert, William? Sons named after fathers are so much fun! (Not!) My husband’s family not only has that, but also nephews and great-nephews with that same name and they all lived in the same town. How is it possible to keep them straight?
Make sure the correct date of birth is attached to each person. Find out and know all the other fine details, like place of birth, where they lived and keep these things well-documented. Another important thing to make note of is their profession. Basically, build up from their birth and don’t miss the details.
6. Something’s missing!
When you get STUCK or hit a BRICK WALL with a person or a whole branch of a tree, ask yourself if any of these things are part of the problem:
- A DNA MATCH that doesn’t “add up”. Was there an adoption you are unaware of? It’s happened in one branch of my family tree. I’m still trying to figure out how I’m related to this match and the matches the mystery person and I have in common. Have patience and respect the other person’s privacy. If you message them and they don’t want to talk, you may just have to wait for a different opportunity.
- GAPS OF TIME in your tree: You may have places where information is wrong, or incomplete. This can be the case with census documents, birth certificates, military records, etc. Keep track of your questions and tackle them one at a time, in logical order. Build from the earliest time and on up.
- HIRE HELP! Through Ancestry.com, you can get a free estimate on what it would cost to hire a professional genealogist. You can also search for a pro at The Association of Professional Genealogists.
7. I have too much information!
Get back to the BASICS! Take time to look at your tree from the beginning and work your way up. Read through your information once again. See where that leads you.
Do some basic searches and use the resources you used when you first started out – like Ancestry, Family Search and newspaper sites. You’ll find a concise list of all these old trusty resources in one handy place at THE SHORT LIST OF GENEALOGY RESOURCES.
How to NOT get overwhelmed – in a nutshell:
- KEEP A LOG for your genealogy TO DO LIST. Keep track of WHEN you searched and WHAT you discovered.
- When one thing frustrates you, MOVE ON and come back to it later.
- REMEMBER that it takes a LONG TIME to find some answers.
- THINK about what you’ve accomplished and THANK yourself for everything you’re doing and all that you’ve already accomplished!
There are many ideas here on how to research genealogy without getting overwhelmed. What other things get you frustrated with family history research? Did I miss any of your particular problems? Send me an email or comment here!