The Sophomore Slump -- Is Family History Getting You Down?

I've been doing genealogy for about two years now, pretty seriously, and I guess I'm moving from being a brand-new beginner to a category like "experienced beginner" or "thinks she knows her way around but still has a lot to learn."  Along with the elation I've felt when something clicks into place -- I find my great-grandmother's actual birth surname -- I've experienced many other emotions along the way.  Do any seem familiar to you other semi-new researchers?

1)  Frustration:  You know there's got to be a record of your grandfather's mother somewhere.  She existed, why can't you find any kind of record?  Your great-grandfather lived in one city, but died about 130 miles away -- what was he doing there?  Why did he die there, not at home?  Unlike a brand new researcher, you know where to look, you have multiple places to look, and you come up with nothing.  Just one example of the many, many ways you'll feel frustrated.

My mother's birthplace, Bremerhaven, Germany

2)  Disappointment:  You discover the certificate number for your great-grandmother's death record in the New York City online archives and hope it will reveal the names of her parents.  You pay your $15 and wait and wait for that envelope to arrive.  When it does, you can't stop the butterflies as you slit it open -- and under both "father's name" and "mother's name," it says . . . "---------" 

3)  Overwhelm:  Sometimes it can seem like Just. Too. Much. to accomplish everything on your family history list.  As you go back in time, the playing field expands from four to eight to 16 to 32 to 64 people (your 4th great-grandparents), and chasing them all down seems impossible.  How will you ever get there?  How can you reach your genealogical goals?  (And why isn't anyone else in your family interested enough to help you??)

The Hug family in the 1892 New York Census

4)  Boredom:  Plain old boredom.  Paging through records, cranking that microfilm machine over and over and over again, searching for that elusive ancestor one more time on Ancestry and Family Search, just in case they've gotten more records online, trying every spelling variant in a database search (Schulze, Schulz, Schultz, Schultze, Shulte, etc. etc. etc.).  At times, you ask yourself, why was I doing this again???

5)  Sadness:  Two years ago, I went to the spring workshop of the Sacramento German Genealogy Society (always a wonderful day).  Dr. Roger Minert, the master genealogist who's written so many books and helped so many people, was the main speaker and lectured on several fascinating topics during the day.  One thing he said I found impossibly touching; in talking about his ancestors, he said, "I can't wait to get to Heaven to talk with all these people!"  I'm sadly not a believer, but the sentiment was so stunning that I couldn't help but be affected by it.  What a wonderful idea!  For me, there's so much sadness that I didn't spend more time talking with and listening to my elders, that I can't see the faces of ancestors who lived in the 1700s (or 1800s -- I don't have a lot of pictures), that I will never be able to tell their true stories in the way I would wish to.

 The mental institution in Goettingen, Germany, where my great-grandfather died

Wow, this is depressing, right?  We should quit genealogy and take up needlepoint or woodworking, right?  No!  We all have these feelings from time to time and have to just ride them out, but the excitement and joy outweigh any negative feelings that come with doing this important work.  Step back from time to time and look at what you've accomplished.  When I started, I knew this much:

Not a lot, just what I remembered from talking with my parents and grandparents.  Here's a small piece of what I know now:

I know this image is tiny, but there's no way to do it bigger because it expands so hugely.  I've fanned out only two parts, one the ancestors of Joseph Ortmann and the other the ancestors of Sophie Bellmer.  Everywhere you see a little green arrow to the right of a name, that can be expanded too -- even some of the 6th great-grandparents on the far right.  The earliest ancestor I've found is one of Grandma Sophie's -- Gerd von Glaan (1598-1689).  And that is confirmed, because I got the information from an Ortsfamilienbuch (record of the families living in a town over time) from Bremen, Germany.

So I rejoice over these things, and each find spurs me on to do more, despite any negative emotions I might feel -- the payoff is just too great.

The Armchair Genealogist recently published a list of tips to get you going when the work has gotten you down.  You might have a look to see if it will get you out of the sophomore slump.


  1. What a fantastic post, Elise! I can relate to all of it. Despite the frustration, boredom, overwhelm, sadness, it's a wonderful pastime, isn't it? I know you agree!

  2. Yes, it is. Even when I'm terminally frustrated, I keep going back and trying again. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Thanks very much, Dawn -- I guess these are feelings that everyone has, now and then.

  4. I have felt these same feelings too from time to time. Sometimes I just have to slow down and live life a little bit more and then return to my research when the whim hits me. Great post!

  5. That's a great strategy, Andrea. I just keep responding to the little whispers, "Look at me! Find me!" :)

  6. Enjoyed your post, and have experienced much of what you describe. I've learned to have patience with the process, and in addition to stepping back sometimes as Andrea mentioned, I find belonging to several FB genealogy groups keeps me from throwing in the towel. I can celebrate with others when they make a great find, and feel inspired.

  7. Thanks, Dawn -- it's a long haul, but in the end, it's a labor of love. Hope your research is going well :)


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