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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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Genealogy Brick Wall Help : Next Steps for Finding More Records

Family History Month 2022

You’ve been building your family tree for awhile. Maybe it’s been months, maybe even years. Now you don’t know what else you can do. There are several ways to identify sources that can help you.

First, you need to make sure you're ready to learn about new sources. You might have some other next steps you should do first (BTW, the alternative next steps are often easier than identifying new sources so you really want to make sure you try them if they're appropriate for you!).

Ways to Keep Researching When You Hit a Genealogy Brick Wall

There are several topics I need to cover before we get to learning about new sources. Let's start with a simple overview, though. I've spent almost two years talking about The Brick Wall Solution Roadmap which is the process for busting a brick wall. This overview of next steps is a process, too. Having a birds-eye-view of a process makes it easier to remember and follow. The following process isn't the genealogy research process. It's a very high-level overview of the four broad actions you need to take when you think your research is stuck.

Hint: I haven't listed it as part of this process but you should have a problem you're trying to solve. If you don't, all of these actions are huge tasks for "your family tree." Refining your problem to increase your chance of success is part of the genealogy research process. I discuss it as part of the Roadmap so I haven't covered it here as it's not a high-level action but a specific step in research.

"I'm Stuck" Process Overview

#1 Understanding "Answers"

First, every genealogist needs to understand the difference between finding an answer and creating an answer. There are some genealogy definitions you want to learn to help with this and also some genealogically undefined words you need to recognize.

#2 Education Check

Next, you want to double check your genealogical education. This is a vital step you don't want to skip. If you already have a baseline of education, all you're doing is checking to make sure you've got enough education, you realize you do, and you move on to the next step.

If you don't have that baseline, it's like trying to build on quicksand. Getting the extra education may not be the easiest thing you could do, but it's the NEXT thing you need to do if you're missing it. I'm talking about a baseline of education so foundational it would prevent you from learning about new sources if you're missing it. There'd be no point in attempting to find new sources because you'd fail without the background education you need.

If you're reading this post but missing part of this baseline, it's probably not that hard to learn whatever you need to learn. It might be hard for someone that hasn't even realized they should or can read genealogy posts but nor for you.

#3 Rinse and Repeat

Once you've got the basic knowledge you need, we really get into the repeatable process aspect of "what do I do next?" There are two core actions you should constantly do.

Core Action #1: Capture Information, Not Just Data

As you work on your brick wall, you want to make sure you're capturing information, not just answers or bare data (bare data would be just a date, a date and place, etc. It's the bare bones information you usually attach to an online tree. I've got some more info about this for you, later). 

Core Action #2: Review, Review, Review

You want to repeatedly check your information for clues or evidence you missed. Reviewing what you've previously found is something you do after almost every other "step." If you learn something new, review your previous information to see if your new knowledge changes your understanding of what you found. Found a new source? Does the information you found change your understanding or use of your previous findings? Just realized your new knowledge did change your understanding of something? Does that affect other information you already have? 

It's almost like a spiral of building knowledge. New knowledge or information of any type can change how you understand or use your previously identified information. Even as you're reviewing, putting two clues together might mean you should re-review what you just looked at. This is actually a great thing and really exciting. This is when you discover solutions!

But even if you aren't in a tight spiral of building knowledge, reviewing your past work can lead to identifying sources you hadn't thought of or knowledge you need to gain.

Let me make sure you see this process...

You've got your base knowledge and the repeatable core actions for genealogy. This means you know what you need to know (for this specific problem) and you know there aren't clues hidden in your past work because you've reviewed it.

Remember, you first made sure you had sufficient knowledge about your current problem to fully use the sources you already used. No, you might not be an expert but you've updated your knowledge as much as you're currently capable of. That means the today-you knows more than past-you who did the previous research. Make sure past-you didn't miss anything before going through the hard work of identifying new sources. Once that's done...

#4 Learning About Sources

Now we're to the point of learning about new sources. Keep in mind, this is your next step in the process because you're stuck and don't know of other sources to use. You might also be unable to access the other sources you do know of. When you review, you might realize there are sources indicated in your past work (or that you learn about while updating your knowledge). You just learned about new sources without explicitly trying. You want to use those sources, if possible, before needing to learn about new sources as your next step.

Lots of genealogists get very focused on finding new sources but they skip capturing information and constantly rechecking it for clues. It's much easier to reuse a source rather than have to learn about a new source and go get it. So make sure you're not "stuck" because you're only focused on finding new sources which can be hard. You also want to suck every useable clue from the sources you already know about and/or have already used. Don't skip using a source you know about if you can access it. Even if a source doesn't have an answer, it might point to another source. That's the much more efficient way to find new sources versus "learning about sources."

That's the overview:

  • Understand you can create an answer in genealogy, you rarely find "the answer."
  • Double-check you have the appropriate base of education for your problem.
  • Capture information, not just answers or bare data.
  • Review your past work (the information, not just data) regularly.
  • When you really are stuck, you're out of clues or aren't aware of education you need, it's time to learn about sources.

Recognize that part of this process means you may naturally learn about other sources. The point isn't you only identify new sources last. The point is, just trying to learn about sources, when you're stuck, is not easy. Learning about sources when you improve your knowledge about your type of problem is easier. Identify sources or clues to sources when you capture information or review past work is easier. You're missing important actions if you skip some or all of the process.

How do I start?

I'm going to cover all the areas I listed above in this series of posts. This post will cover the vital difference in an answer vs. evidence and how that relates to getting stuck or building your own brick walls. I'll break the rest of the topics up into separate posts.

For some genealogists, you'll read through the posts and be able to implement one of the suggestions for finding new sources once you're done reading. Other genealogists might need to pause and let the educational content sink in, first. Others will need to get a bit of additional education. The point is, I'm going to do my best to give you the necessary baseline of education through these posts. That won't be enough for everyone but at least it'll get you started.

Start Here

We're going to finish up this post making sure you understand what a source is and what evidence is. Those are words we use very intentionally in genealogy. We'll also touch on making sure you aren't tossing the word "answer" around carelessly or worse, treating it like the holy grail.

In case you’re unsure, a “source” is anything that provides genealogical information. In genealogy, we specifically define a few related words and learning these definitions can really super-charge your research! "Source" is one of those words but evidence is equally important.

Source: anything that provides genealogical information.

Evidence: information that is related to the question we are trying to answer.

There are different kinds of evidence and you need to learn about them but that isn’t necessary for the posts in this series. You usually have to learn about different types of evidence a few times before it really makes sense so it’s not something to just toss out here when that’s not the point.

You do want to recognize that if you read genealogical material that mentions one of the following evidence phrases, that phrase has specific meaning. Sometimes these phrases are misused but in general they are only used by genealogists that have learned what they mean (they aren't phrases you use casually in non-genealogy conversation leading to confusion when you are talking about family history).

  • direct evidence
  • in-direct evidence
  • negative evidence

In genealogy we don't have a defined "hard evidence" or "soft evidence." Pretty much, you've only got the three options listed above. Any other adjective + "evidence" is not a formally defined type of evidence in genealogy. Genealogists that have a background in another field that uses "evidence" might use the words they are familiar with. 

Realize if you want to keep doing genealogy, at some point you need to learn the definitions of the three types of evidence (and understand them, not just memorize the meanings). But that doesn't have to be today.

Let's talk answers

Important! Notice that a source is anything that provides information, not something that provides an answer or that provides evidence (i.e. relevant information). This is why there is "information" and "evidence." They are two different words that are specifically defined. "Information" is not the same as "evidence." An answer is an answer, as in a solution. There's lots more evidence in existence than "answers." If all you will accept is "the answer" to a problem, it is like searching for the holy grail. Most people will fail.

Experienced genealogists talk a lot more about evidence than answers. Evidence is much more readily available and can be used to create a solution. It takes skill, but it's easier than hunting for an answer that does not exist. If you’ve only focused on finding answers, you might have missed lots of helpful information. You might have skipped a lot of sources you could use.

This gets back to the point I briefly mentioned in the overview about reviewing your existing information or using sources you already know about before putting in the effort to learn about and find new sources. Genealogists build their own brick wall by only focusing on finding "the answer."

To fix this problem, you simply need to make a mindset shift. Start thinking about finding and keeping information. Once you've captured information, then identify and use evidence for the question you are trying to answer.

This strategy captures information and as your evidence recognition skills grow, your genealogy will improve. The biggest advantage is, when you have a new question, you have information you can use to see if there's evidence in it. You probably already have evidence without doing any new research!

Compare this to only capturing answers, not information. If all you capture is answers, as your skills grow, you won't have information that contains potential evidence. You only have the same answers you had before.

That's a HUGE difference!

There's more to solving a genealogy problem than just finding "the answer." You might be looking for a birthdate and find it. But that doesn't mean that date is correct.

This gets into the Genealogical Proof Standard and understanding those three kinds of evidence. In other words, more than I intended this post series to cover.

The point is only gathering a date, or even a date and place, and ignoring other information in that same source, leaves you with a date and place. When you're working on a different problem, or even dealing with why that date is problematic, you're missing information you need that was available. You just didn't capture it.

Take-away: Focus on capturing information, not answers. Information isn't always evidence but it can often be reused as evidence for a different problem if it isn't evidence for the current problem. Some information doesn't appear helpful until you gather other information from another source. Then you realize you've got evidence. It all starts with capturing information from the sources you use.

Don't skip a source because you don't think it'll give you the answer. Use sources because they can provide information on the subject you are researching. Prioritize sources that might provide an answer and then sources likely to provide evidence for the specific question you are trying to answer. Prioritizing sources doesn't mean skipping sources It just approaches them in a sensible order.

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