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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.


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.

About Local History & Genealogy Reference Services

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.