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Life at the Library

Posted on: October 19, 2018

Our best tips for better genealogy research

two black and white family photos held up

Getting started on the path to mapping your family history can seem daunting. A number of librarians at Washington County Library have dug deep into their own family histories and helped community members start building their own family trees. We talked to two of them to gather their best tips on getting started, getting organized, and getting the answers you’re seeking.

Starting Your Research, a popular and free database used in genealogy research, offers an excellent guide for beginners. Librarian Amy Zeuli has a few other tips she’s learned from her own family research and helping patrons at the library: 

Don’t reinvent the wheel! Find out if anyone else in your family has already done family history research. Ask relatives or go online to sites like or and see if you can find your family’s tree. It may not be complete or totally accurate, but it will give you a starting point.

Talk to your family! Ask your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins etc. Looking through old photos is a great way to inspire discussion – just make sure you have someone to take copious notes. You might even think about recording the interview on audio or video so you have something to pass on in the future. Suggested resources: 

Keep organized! It’s very easy to gather massive amounts of data, but if you don’t create some sort of system to organize your findings, you will run into trouble. There are paper research logs, genealogy software program, and many other ways to organize all of your information. Always remember to cite your sources, and be sure to label all your documents, photos or other images so you remember what they are and to whom they are connected. Suggested resources: 

Searching Better

Once you’re into your research, it can be frustrating to hit what feels like a dead end in constructing your family tree. Librarian Janet Poff has these suggestions for getting better search results through online genealogy resources that might help crack the case wide open. 

  1. Search by middle names as well as first names because some people use them interchangeably. For example, search for “John Nathaniel Smith” by both “John” and “Nathaniel” in the first name field.

  2. Search by nicknames and abbreviations. Search by “Chas” for Charles or “Nathan” for Nathaniel.

  3. If you can’t find someone in the census, search for someone who should be with them. If you can’t find the husband, try searching on the wife’s or a child’s name instead.

  4. Try alternate spellings of the last name. Many names have variations, such as Poff for Pfaff.  Some search engines will catch alternate spellings, but it is always a good idea to also try to come up with some on your own.

  5. Sometimes searching on the first name only with date of birth and location will help you find alternate spellings of the last name.

  6. Try to determine the religious affiliation of your ancestors. Church records have a great deal of information. Death records and obituaries may help you discover religious affiliation.

  7. Be aware of boundary changes and historical events. County borders in the U.S. have changed drastically over time. Countries like Poland have suffered repeated invasions, so you need to look for records in several countries, not just Poland.

  8. If you can’t locate your ancestors in U.S. passenger lists, try looking north. Immigrants often found it easier and less expensive to sail to Canada and travel overland to the United States.

  9. Keep a record of correspondence and research extracts to prevent duplication of research.

  10. Use Google Translate or similar websites to instantly provide translations of foreign language sources.

This month, we’re spotlighting all of the genealogy resources we have here at the library, including Library Edition, materials that help you in your search or fill in the historical gaps, and more. 

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