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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.

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Top Way to Find New Genealogy Sources for your Brick Wall

Genealogists need to find new sources. This post will give you a strategy to help you focus, find new evidence, and become a better genealogist.

This is the third post in a series. Most genealogists, when they get stuck, think they need to find new sources to use. At some point that is where you are, but there are some things you need to know and at least one thing you need to do, first. That's what was covered in the previous two posts.

Learning about and finding new sources can be a lot of work. I wrote two previous posts because the knowledge they provide is pretty basic but crucial before you start looking for new sources. Take the easier route and read those two posts, first.

Finding New Sources

It's time! You need to identify new sources. There are always tons of potential sources out there. Remember, you're now focused on gathering information, not just finding the answer. That opens up the potential for many more sources that can help you. But you want to focus on sources you can access. Ideally these are sources you can access soon but you may have to identify sources you can access in the near future (or with a bit of planning or budgeting).

Why sources you can access? Why put in all that effort and still not be able to use a source you've identified? I said "focus on" not "only consider" sources you can access. We have to narrow down the huge number of sources. First we consider sources related to our project. We prioritize sources we think will provide an answer or evidence. This is just a consideration, you aren't using the sources, yet, so you further narrow the field by focusing on sources you can access. So you want to go looking for sources for your project that are likely to provide and answer or evidence and that you can access. You want all three.

If you've been working on a problem for awhile, you'll give even higher priority to sources you can access over those likely to provide an answer (you've probably run out of those). You might even be to the point of considering sources you can access that might be related to your problem. You're hoping they'll contain evidence, no matter how minor.

You may get to the point you're not concerned about a sources accessibility. You're willing to wait to use the source you're so desparate. But that's a far more severe brick wall than most of us are working on.

There are a few approaches to learning about sources besides just “learning about genealogy sources” (i.e. seeking out educational material about the types of genealogy sources---this will not present the sources you can most easily access although learning about sources in general is a good idea to help you keep from being stuck in future). This is my top suggestion because access is so important.

Strategies for Finding More Sources

#1 Source Research Strategy : Repositories

The best way to learn about sources you can access soon is focusing on “repositories.” A repository is any place that holds sources. That can be a library or archive. It can be a website. It can be your house or a relative’s house. A repository holds sources and sources hold information. A person can be a source (you can think of them as a repository, too). An embroidered sampler can be a source. The family Bible is a source. A birth certificate is a source. A written family history is a source. Educational records can be a source. Court records can be a source. You can find these sources in all kinds of places and those places are a “repository.”

So, what repositories can you access?

If you have an Internet connection, FamilySearch.org is the largest free online genealogy website. Most of its sources (i.e. the digitized records) are NOT searchable. You “browse” them which is the digital equivalent of using microfilm or an unindexed book (you have to go image by image to find the information you need).

If you are paying for a subscription, like Ancestry.com, that is a repository you can use. You should always assume there are additional sources that are not searchable on a website. There may be sites, like a state database of deaths, that might only have searchable records. Sites like Ancestry.com, that hold many sources, usually have many records that won’t come up in a search. But even if the result you need does come up in a search, the result might be the 3,282nd search result so you won’t see it. You can find unsearchable results or results that end up way down the results list by looking for a source, not searching a repository.

Don’t forget to consider physical reporistories you can visit like your local library, a relative's attic or storage unit, a nearby courthouse or archive, etc. At a physical repository, you need to decide what sources MIGHT contain information that can help you (remember, you want clues, not just answers. You presumably already looked for an answer and didn’t find it, that’s why you’re stuck).

Try approaching online repositories the same way you'd use a physical library or archive. If you remember learning to do research in a physical library, you didn't have an option to just search for what you needed. You had to identify books and then use each one to see if they would help. Some helped, some didn't. You didn't know which until you used that source. That's how genealogy is meant to work!

Tip: You should be tracking ALL research you do, even if you don't find any information to record. See this post to learn more.

It can be helpful to start thinking of websites like you'd think of a 20th century library where you want to use books. You don’t try and search everything in one go at the library. That's just a bonus option online. In a 20th century type library, you identify specific books and use them. Treat online repositories the same way and you’ll find a LOT more clues!

FYI: most genealogy websites have something like a card catalog. That means you can start with the repository strategy and then use the card catalog (or equivalent). I have three more strategies for approaching learning about new source. You do want to learn these other strategies eventually as they help you think of more sources but you can get started with just the repository strategy.

Top Strategies for Finding More Genealogy Sources

Here are the most common ways to identify helpful genealogy sources:

  • By repository
  • By location
  • By record type
  • By time period

You can learn more about these options in this post.

Tough Research Calls for New Evidence

To wrap this up, whether you're stuck finding a parent, the surname of an ancestor, a date, place, or other information, you need evidence. Evidence is information relevant to your question. The first place to find new evidence is in your old information. But once you're done going over sources you already used, you want to find new sources to use.

Most genealogy sources are not online.

Got it?

There are plenty of sources out there. The problem is, not all sources are accessible enough for us to use. Some sources might require a good bit of money to access so we need to create a budget in addition to a research plan.

For most genealogists, there are actually still TONS of accessible sources they haven't used, they just aren't as easy to use as popping a name in a search form while sipping coffee in your bunny slippers.

If you want to be a successful genealogist, you need to learn about the types of sources that exist. The best way to get started doing this, for a specific brick wall, is to start by thinking about what repositories you can access and then investigating what sources they hold.

Don't focus on searching online websites, focus on identifying sources in the way you would have identified a book in a library. If you have a brick wall, you should have already tried searching. You need to up your genealogy game and try a different strategy!

A final reminder, a website like FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, GenealogyBank, MyHeritage, etc. should be thought of as a repository that contains many sources. No longer thinking of these as "a source" can make a difference. You need to identify specific sources in a repository website. Try using the sources individually, even if they have to be browsed instead of searched (even if they can be searched, sometimes that won't give you useful results. Always consider browsing when you are really stuck).

It only makes sense to start with low hanging fruit. Search these repository websites. But once you're done harvesting what you can find with a search, identify sources. When you can, search the source. When you're done harvesting the information in a specific source via a search, if you're still stuck, move on to browsing to make sure nothing was left behind.

Some sources you'll need to browse, even when they are searchable, and many sources won't be online so they aren't searchable at all. You don't need to try the hardest approach first (browsing) but just because you get stuck searching a website, that doesn't mean the information you need isn't there.

Learning about genealogy sources is on-going. Each brick wall has different needs, after all. Starting with repositories you can access is a great way to focus, find new evidence, and become a better genealogist.

Read the other three strategies for learning about new sources in this post.