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08 April 2016

Why Most People Get Stuck After Researching Online

This post is inspired by one I previously wrote for my professional blog. The original post was titled "Why Can't I Find Any New Information?" and is included at the end of this post.

At the time, I was in the midst of a lot of small projects from mostly novice researchers and I wanted to address an issue I was seeing over and over again.

I wasn't surprised most people had done some research on (almost exclusively on, really). Mixed in with that information was information that came from relatives or personal knowledge.

This is very common and there's nothing wrong with it. Every genealogist has to start with some information and then start researching based on that information.

Today, research often starts online. The problem was, I often couldn't tell the two apart. If you see the problem without reading further, you probably are at least attempting to solve the problem. If you don't see a problem, you need to learn to see it or you will be asking "why can't I find any new information?"

What's the Problem?

What is the problem with having "knowledge" or oral history, mixed up with "research?"

The problem is not all information is created equal. This wouldn't matter except not all information is correct, either.

If all information was correct, it would agree and there wouldn't be a problem. The only problem would be caused by genealogists themselves when they were careless and mixed up information from two different people.

If all information was correct, that wouldn't be too bad because you could just sort it into neat little piles and remove the information for the wrong person. But lots of information is "off," or incomplete, or absolutely wrong.

When you accidentally add information from the wrong person (let's call that person the "evil twin"), some information for the evil twin may match the correct information for your person, and some of your person's information may not match.

If you manage to make two neat piles of data, you might keep some information from the evil twin and throw out some from the correct person. What a mess!

Clean Up Your Mess, Before You Even Know You've Made One

My preschooler loves to sort. You'd think that would keep things from becoming a mess, but it doesn't. Sorting won't keep your genealogy from becoming a mess, either.

Citing your sources won't file your papers but it will keep your information tidy in a more important way. It's like putting a barcode on every fact so you know where it goes and what to do with it. The great thing is, with a citation, you don't need a fancy scanner. Unfortunately, you have to "create" a scanner. How?

Your "barcode"---your citation---has to be interpreted correctly by you. When you get started, your interpretation skills will be awful. Still, keep the barcode (citation) stuck on there, your skills will improve and you'll start to get really good at "scanning" your citation and extracting all the amazing information it contains.

Recently, I posted several articles about correlating (comparing) census records (here and here). You need to learn to do the same technique with other types of records. This means comparing apples to oranges, a census record -> to a birth record -> to a draft record.

If you need to determine which of those items is "correct," you'll need to "evaluate the evidence" and scan your barcode (interpret your citation).

[to learn more, Google "evaluating evidence genealogy"]

You may find one of the pieces of evidence is not for your person. This brings us back to why having your "information" and "research" all mixed up is a problem.

Why You Need It

As a professional, I have lots of "interpretation" experience. At a glance, my scanner told me some of the mixed up information in those small projects appeared to be for different people.

There are certain scenarios you know (from research experience) are possible but unlikely. When I'd come across these scenarios, and they weren't cited, I had no idea if the information came from several records found on, or if the information came from personal knowledge or oral history.

You will find the same situation in your own research.

RELATED POSTAutomated Searches: Shortcut or Cheat?
RELATED POSTAutomated Searches: Dealing with the Wrong Person

Inexperienced genealogists often combine multiple suggested records from (or any site that makes hints or automated searches). It's common for these records to be for different people (see the suggested posts above). Sometimes, a person does have an unusual situation that looks like online records were jumbled up. If it's clear this information was known by family, not coming from any kind of research, it's most likely correct, especially was supported by online records. Online records aren't "supported" by finding the same records a second time (once again, see the related posts above for more about this).

Research Prep for OGs

As an OG, you may find it easier to review what you've done before, rather than doing new research. A little review and prep work can have you ready to go next time you do get to research. You'll have tidied up your existing research and hopefully uncovered some new clues in the process. If you make sure you've cited everything, you will save yourself trouble farther down the road.

Below is the original post which briefly describes the steps for reviewing your existing research. It originally focused on hiring a professional. Just imagine your future, more experienced self is the professional if you'll be doing the research.

10 February 2012 Post from J.P. Dondero Genealogy Blog

If you're asking why you can't find more information on your family history, or even wondering if a professional can find more, consider using this technique critical to all professional genealogists. A research plan helps you determine where you're going, but it starts with knowing where you've been. If you're doing research yourself, you'll want to create a complete research plan for your problem. If you're hiring a professional genealogist, you should start with collecting not only information (names, dates, and places) but the sources you've used. If you don't provide sources along with the information, it is guaranteed your professional will repeat some of the work you've already done. Since you pay for the genealogist's time, you're wasting money.

Even if your research consists only of talking to relatives or looking through keepsakes from the family, you won't get as much value from a professional's time if you don't let them know what information came from these sources. If you can tie specific information to a specific source, it's even better, but at least indicating what came from talking to family versus what you found online is critical. This often answers questions raised by the professional during research.

Recently, the Barefoot Genealogist posted a nice quick article about this on the Blog.
There is also a link to her recent webinar on the topic. This is a good place to start if you've never heard of a research plan before. Before you submit your information to a professional, you'll need to answer number one above and then repeat steps two and three for each piece of information you have related to what you want to know. The more specific you are, the better research your professional can do. This is true for both what you want to know, what you already know, and how you know it.


  1. Thank you for this article it is helpful. I had fun clicking the leaves on ancestry and watching my tree grow, but all the misinformation on the site has led me to hacking away large branches trying to get things in order. It is disappointing and I'm discouraged. I read your great article Sight My What, and it would be really helpful to see examples of citations and notes. I see that it is important but I don't know where to start.

  2. You've hit the nail on the head, Kiki. It is fun to click the shaky leaf hints and quickly grow a tree but then... I'm working on some citation-related posts, now. You're not the only one with questions! This post,, includes some images of a note taking form and gives an idea of one way genealogy notes can be taken. Don't get discouraged! We all have to start somewhere and you're experiencing some very common issues.