10 Tips for Troubleshooting Ancestry Research

  • Written by Jennifer Brown

Part of the fun of conducting genealogy research and investigating personal ancestry is the challenge of finding clues, interpreting them, and problem-solving to reach the next step, or fill in a branch on the old family tree.

There are many reasons why amateur and expert family sleuths reach obstacles that require out-of-the-box thinking to move forward in the research. It is difficult to find information about living people. It is a matter of privacy, but there are respectful ways to obtain the necessary information. Reaching a roadblock does not have to mean your family discoveries are finished, it means it is time to roll-up your sleeves and get creative.

Step 1: Get Organized!

There is a lot of information to keep track of when conducting genealogical research. It is super easy to get overwhelmed and confused if you are not methodically managing all your data.

Start by writing out your family tree again. Divide them into separate groups. You will need binders and folders where you will separate the branches of the family tree. For example, your mother’s side of the family will be separated from your fathers. As you go further and further back in your ancestry you will need more binders for separate branches.

A word to the wise researcher – back up your research! Make copies of vital documents and older items. Scan these into a computer and save them on a flash drive. This database should be used only for ancestry-related materials.

Step 2: Keep a Log

Do you know what historians, scientists, and social researchers have in common? Research logs!

Before every search, you should consult your log to see where you finished the last inquiry.

How to Format Ancestry Logbooks

Many people don’t use log books because they are repetitive and tedious to complete. However, if you are serious about genealogy it will make research easier in the future. A quality logbook can save precious time and keep you from repeating the same searches when you’ve been away from your research for a significant amount of time. Also, logs can be passed down to the next generation of family sleuths.

Here’s what to include:

  • Sources-Names, location, date, and the name of the researcher.

  • List missing data. What haven’t you found?

  • Sort and backup documents.

  • Summarize available facts and list possible leads.

  • State search strategy, questions, materials.

  • Cite any relevant information to prevent repetitive searches.

Remember Good research documents that you do not prove. It leaves tracks so you don’t dig in the same place twice. Family Search offers in-depth advice about what to include before, during, and after your research session with links to MLA formatting guidelines and completed examples.

Step 3: Review Your Research

Matching information with vital records is an ideal place to begin. Write down the source of each document, don’t forget to cite what type of document it is and where you got it.

Periodically review the documents together and as individual puzzle pieces. Often over time, answers will develop, or new leads are presented to you.

Identify which records negate one another but keep them in your folders. Try resolving the contradicting information and record your findings in your logbook.

Step 4: Consult Genealogical Case Studies

Case studies are a great way to drum up new leads in your historical family investigation. Look for similar cases with similar circumstances.

The case studies are often organized by the type of roadblock the researcher experienced while completing their research. The groups can be name changes, assimilated identities, cluster research, illegitimacy, or missing records.

The National Genealogical Society Quarterly magazine provides a clear guideline on how to interpret and process case studies.

Often, genealogical case studies will mirror social science studies that feature qualitative research like stories, memories, photos, and vital records.

Some case studies are warnings not to change people’s names, identities, or marry them to a person who they have never met. These errors can slow down an investigation to a halt. Do your best not to contribute to faulty genealogy! Be thorough, be skeptical, and always have evidence!

Step 5: Get Off the Internet

Websites like Ancestry and Family Search are immensely helpful databases with tons of information. However, not all great clues will be so easy to obtain. Emily Anne Croom was an expert genealogist who wrote several books: ‘Unpuzzling Your Past,’’ The Genealogist’s Companion and Sourcebook,’ and ‘The Sleuth Book for Genealogists. Each title will help you get a little bit closer to knowing your ancestors.

Step 6: Plan a Visit to the National Archives

Many nations have their own National Archive. The U.S. National Archive is in Washington, D.C. and there are digitized resources available for use over the internet. However, these items can be viewed in-person. It’s best to have several items you want to inspect before making the journey and familiarize yourself with how the Archives are organized. Generally speaking, there are two main categories: research topics and vital records.

Step 7: Take a DNA Test

Modern technology has taken a lot of the guesswork out of deep ancestry. It can show which haplogroup your family belongs to and trace thousands of years of movements across the world.

For orphans, Holocaust Survivors, and others without family input, genetic genealogy can be a boon for useful information when traditional methods hit dead ends. DNA Weekly offers a free comparison tool and tutorials about how to get started with a DNA test.

Step 8: Collaborate with Fellow Family Researchers

The genealogy community depends on one another for tips and break-throughs. Family Search has a vast network of resources and a social media component which is great for easy collaboration. You will be surprised how helpful fellow genealogists can be. A top tip is to look for people who share your surname!

Step 9: Bring in a Professional

Genealogist professionals range from home-based offices with a knack for finding clues to enormous corporations that have access to databases, documents, and other resources that most people can’t get their hands on. Before hiring any genealogical service read their reviews and consult with other amateurs before opening your wallet.

Step 10: Take a Break

This might not be the advice you want to hear, but sometimes roadblocks in genealogy research are part frustration and part overthinking the problem.

Step away from the investigation and reconnect with older family members to see if that jogs anything loose. It pays off to step back and view the issue from a relaxed position.

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