Paleography: Interpreting Handwriting in Genealogical Research
The ability to read and understand original, handwritten documents is critical to historical and genealogical research. This guide provides resources, context, and samples of text written in the languages common to early United States history.
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Sheree Budge, Reference Librarian, Local History and Genealogy Section
Andrew Gaudio, Reference Librarian, Humanities & Social Sciences Section
Candice Buchanan, Reference Librarian, Local History and Genealogy Section
Created: May 11, 2020
Last Updated: February 24, 2021
For the genealogist, few thrills rival that of examining a document that was written by or about your ancestor. From the opening title to the closing signatures, a multitude of clues may be gleaned about your ancestor, the places they lived, and the people they associated with. The ability to read and parse original documents immediately takes you back to your ancestors' time.
There are many aids available to help researchers read handwriting. You don't even have to know the language if you can recognize a few important words like birth, baptism, marriage, or death.
Use the resources in this guide to learn how to read different types of handwriting and to interpret the original documents you find in courthouses, churches, correspondence, and family bibles.
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The Library of Congress has one of the world's premier collections of U.S. and foreign genealogical and local historical publications, numbering more than 50,000 compiled family histories and over 100,000 U.S. local histories. The Library's genealogy collection began as early as 1815 with the purchase of Thomas Jefferson's library.
Submit a question through our Ask a Librarian service, call us at (202) 707-3399, or visit us in person in Room LJ-100 (Main Reading Room) of the Thomas Jefferson building in Washington, D.C. Access online research tools and strategies by exploring the research guides created by our subject specialists.