We are excitedly researching our grandmother’s family, or our grandfather’s military service, or finding great-aunts and great-uncles we never knew existed. We are bursting with the joy of new discoveries.
That’s when it happens.
We just get stuck.
Don’t know where to go next. Don’t know how to move forward. Can’t find the answers we need.
Some researchers stop and start again over a period of years. Some people go full throttle and simply burn out. Some people never get past surface level records like census records, and eventually just simply give up.
How can we make sure we sustain success and not let our research die an early death? Here are 3 of the most common reasons I’ve seen why some give up on their research.
Over time, genealogy produces an enormous amount of paper, files, folders and data. It doesn’t seem like a lot in the beginning.
But after a few years, the disorganization itself becomes an impediment. Disorganization causes some serious problems.
We can’t easily find information, we don’t know what we’ve already found, and doing any kind of analysis becomes impossible. I know I’m not the only one who has found a record only to discover I already had it.
My organizing process is a work in progress.
About 8 months ago, I started digitizing many of the documents I’d previously stored in binders. As long as I have a document digitized (and backed up), I don’t need to have it printed out. I bought a scanner that is fast and scans double sided documents.
These are my genealogy binders now:
Before you judge me, know that had easily twice as many binders before my digitization began! Some genealogists have figured out how to go entirely digital. I am in awe of them.
Take the time to learn a process for organizing your research. There are numerous lectures and websites to get you started. Janine Adams has an entire blog called Organize Your Family History.
Don’t forget you need to find a way to organize both physical files and digital files. On my computer, I organize folders by surname. Additionally, I have folders by source type such as Obituaries, Vital Records and Newspaper Articles. That is what works best for me.
There are tons of useful You Tube Videos on Organizing Genealogy. I find that I take little useful tidbits from every one. Here are a few:
2. Using Primarily Online Research
If you are exclusively researching online, you will not be able to accurately reflect the lives of your ancestors. Period. You are going to be stuck all the time if that is your research model.
In Never Rely on Just the Census, I provide an example of the kinds of problems that relying on online records can create.
Ancestry and other online platforms, for all their glory, can make us think we’re in the deep waters of research when we’re really treading water in a stream.
To be clear, I am thrilled that so much information has been digitized. In fact, I have found things I might never have found otherwise.
However, if you’re not researching in state archives, in local libraries, in cemeteries, in university libraries, in county courthouses, and in historical and genealogical societies, you will be missing important sources for your family history.
Here’s an image I created to illustrate the concept:
Had I not researched in person at various repositories, I would not have made the discoveries detailed in the posts below:
Voter Registration Records
Who’s Your Daddy? Bastardy Records
Researching Soldiers in World War I
Cluster Research at the Cemetery
John Holt’s Will
Ancestor’s College Records
Slave Research in Community Papers
Thomas S. Sudler Account Book
Maps Lead the Way to Better Understanding
Learn to expand your research skills beyond the computer. Researching your family broadly and expansively cannot be done at a computer alone. You’ve got to go out into actual repositories.
3. Not Growing Your Skills
I began researching my family in 1997. There wasn’t any Ancestry yet. Some of the best books that are now available weren’t available then.
I didn’t know anything about citing sources, or how to evaluate the information I was gathering. In fact, I didn’t know much beyond census and vital records. I didn’t even know how much I didn’t know, if that makes any sense.
I had what most of you have when we start this journey: a burning passion to learn more about my family. That is what we all start with.
I joined a local genealogy group (shout out to AAGHS, James Dent Walker chapter). There, I made friends with other people on the same path. This is important since your family will get sick of you and your endless questions after awhile.
I took classes at the National Archives. I bought and read new genealogy books as they were published. I attended local lectures. This was all good and I learned a lot.
I also made a lot of mistakes, like not understanding the concept of identity. But that’s to be expected and it’s OK. We all have to start somewhere.
Later, I started going to national conferences, and learning from more experienced genealogists. I read case studies in genealogy journals.
My research started to include reading and learning more about American history, and the history of the localities where my families lived. I filled in the gaps in my learning about slavery, reconstruction and the era of segregation.
I learned the importance of sources and how to have an actual research process. I learned how to research in a wider variety of sources, like deeds, court records, and special collections, most of which was not available online.
I learned how to analyze the information I already had. I actually had some answers in the information I already collected, but I didn’t know that.
Growing your genealogy skills takes time, but you can develop the skills you need to be successful in the long term. In fact, that is one of the two main purposes of my blog; you can read the longer post I wrote about growing your genealogical skills.
When researchers tell me they are stuck on a genealogical problem, they will usually hear me ask two questions.
What books have you read about genealogical research?
Where have you done research?
If you never read a book on how to do genealogical research, you’re searching in the blind.
You will waste time. And as we all know, time is the biggest cost of genealogical research.
I hope the three reasons I have discussed above can be used as a tool to assess your own progress. If we can get better organized, develop broader research practices, and commit to growing our skills, we can all have one less reason to be stuck.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.