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6 Surprises for Newcomers to Genealogy


Families in ND
Families in ND, Image ID 490795


Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States. Genealogy hobbyists may be introduced to the field through popular television programs such as Finding Your Roots or Who Do You Think You Are? or are enticed by family stories or other genealogy hobbyists. But once they get hooked, they often encounter a few surprises along the way.

The reference librarians of the Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy regularly work with visitors who are just getting started and have found genealogy researchers are often astonished by the following revelations:

Everyone gets stumped and it is no reason to stop researching.

That’s right. In genealogy research, it’s often called the dreaded “brick wall.” It really is no reason to stop your research or to become discouraged. Instead, think about new ways to approach your research or to concentrate on another individual in the family tree.

See : Genealogy Research Tips: Breaking Through Brick Walls and Getting Past Dead Ends.

Your ancestors often appeared in the news.

People are often happily amazed to find their regular ol’ ancestor in the newspaper. But there they are indeed, published in obituaries, birth announcements, business dealings, marriage announcements, community reporting, and even criminal accounts.

See : Conducting Genealogical Research Using Newspapers

There is more information in the census than they thought would be there.

Population schedules, which are currently available up to 1940, can contain such genealogical gems as birthplace, year of immigration, language spoken at home, profession, information about neighbors and the neighborhood, and whether or not one was naturalized. Researchers are often pleasantly shocked about how much data they can gather from a census record.

 See : Everyone Counts: Using the Census in Genealogy Research

Their family name(s) are spelled in a variety of ways and their names have meaning.

After laboriously spelling out your own surname for consistency, you might be surprised when you discover that an ancestor or relative spelled it differently than you do. Similarly, finding the origin and meaning behind a name can be a revelation in itself.

See : Names Have Meaning: A Research Guide for Baby Names and Family Names

Family names were not changed at Ellis Island.

This popular myth is frequently dispelled as researchers learn more about the immigration processes of the past.

See : Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island (and One That Was)


There is more information in city directories than they thought would be there.

Like the census, there is more genealogical data in the humble city directory than researchers may have initially known. City directories help researchers ascertain addresses, professions, local churches and schools, and indicate when someone may have moved or passed away.

See : Direct Me NYC 1786: A History of City Directories in the United States and New York City and New York Public Library Digitizes 137 Years of New York City Directories.


Patents Room now the Irma & Paul Milstein Division of LHG
The former Patents Room of the New York Public Library is now the Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy. Image ID 1153333

Curious about the surprises in your own family history research? Take a free genealogy research class at the library or contact us with your research questions.



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Great article!

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