Meet the Author
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.
Let's bust your brick wall!
Do you keep going off-track while researching your brick wall? Do you need to find more sources to continue your research? The Brick Wall Solution Roadmap can help.

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Genealogy Brick Wall Help : Next Steps for Finding More Records

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. Here are several ways to identify sources that can help you.

Ways to Keep Researching When You Hit a Genealogy Brick Wall

First, just 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 this post. 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 of this post.

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 these are two different words that are specifically defined and why "information" is not the same as "evidence." If you’ve only focused on finding answers, you might have missed lots of helpful information and therefore skipped a lot of sources you could use.

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 from 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. That means you may 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!

This post is going to help with a harder task than simply deciding you'll capture information instead of only answers. We're going to look at finding more records to provide that information. You might be completely unfamiliar with types of genealogy sources so you have to learn what kinds of sources exist. But this isn't actually that hard so let's get started!

Why Brick Walls are So Common for 21st Century Genealogists

Not knowing what kinds of sources exist is one of the problems with so many 21st century genealogists getting started by following advice from a T.V. commercial. They think doing genealogy involves getting online and following shaky hints to build a tree. Before this was an option, you had to learn how to do genealogy research. That meant when you got stuck, you had some genealogical education as a foundation.

When you run out of online hints, you might not have learned any genealogy basics and you don’t know what to do. If you’ve read this far, you’ve already gotten a small foundation, though. You’ve learned sources provide information and some information is evidence (i.e. relevant to the question we need to answer---plus you learned you should be asking a question, not just growing a tree). We’re going to build on this critical foundation.

Genealogy Basics to Bust a Brick Wall

I want to also introduce some other key words and concepts because the rest of this post can be used by complete beginners or genealogists which a bit more experience. You need to embrace these additional concepts to get unstuck and help prevent yourself from getting stuck (in genealogy, there will always be times when you get stuck, you just want to minimize how often that happens, you can’t prevent it completely).

I’ve mentioned there are different types of evidence. I’m not going to go deep into that concept because it might be too overwhelming. Instead, we’ll look at a simpler version.

Most genealogy problems are not solved by finding “the answer.” (“The answer” is finding “direct evidence”---it directly answers your question). Most genealogy problems are solved by assembling clues (“clues” is not a formally defined genealogy term, instead, it is an easier to understand word that includes various types of evidence---those types of evidence I’m not going to try and define in this post). Just as in a mystery novel where the detective puts clues together to solve the case, you need to put genealogy clues together to find the answer you’re seeking.

Here’s how all these words work together when we’re talking about being stuck and what to do next.

If you’re stuck, you should start by reviewing what you’ve already learned---if you captured information, not just answers, you might realize you missed some evidence in that information. You'll find new evidence without doing research (new or repeated research).

If you only captured answers, not information, you may need to repeat research so you can capture new information. Next, you should try and find new information through new research. 

This post will focus on finding new information from new research.


Our (free) Brick Wall Solution Roadmap talks about reviewing and what else to do as part of that option, you can also read this post to learn more about clues.

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How to Start Busting a Brick Wall

In the Background

New information is found in sources. They might be sources you’ve already used (you might review what you’ve already learned and realize you should reuse a source because there might be new information). Of course, we can also use new sources.

In the back of your mind you always want to remember you need to gather information from sources. Then you need to determine what information is evidence for your current question. This is why you gather information FIRST. Some information will be evidence for multiple questions, some for one question. But all information is potentially reusable and you don’t know when it will suddenly be evidence so you want to keep it.

Don’t just gather potential answers!

Gather clues but also just gather information. When you’re getting started, it’s hard to know what is information you’ll likely need versus what will always be “useless.” That’s why you should take notes, not just attach facts to your family tree. Those “facts” are also answers, not clues, so you’ve not only missed information you don’t need right now, you’ve missed clues you do need right now, and potential future clues. If you take notes, you might still miss capturing information that is a future clue but your notes are more likely to give you a hint to recheck that source for new information.

So that’s what’s happening in the background. You’re always on the lookout for clues and doing your best to record genealogical information from sources.

But if you’re stuck and don’t know what to do next, here’s what should be actively happening after you review what you’ve already done and have rechecked any already used sources for new information…

Finding New Sources

Now you need to identify new sources. There are always tons of potential sources out there. But you want to focus on sources you can access. Ideally these are sources you can access soon but you may have to identify sources you can access in the near future (or with a bit of planning or budgeting).

If you don’t know what to do next, that means you don’t know what other sources exist (FYI, I'd say "waiting" is knowing what to do next, if you know of a source you can't access for whatever reason). If you don't know what to do next, you need to learn about genealogy sources. (Once again, you might know you need to learn about a topic which is knowing what to do next. "I don't know what to do next" is not the same as "I know of things I need to do but can't or don't want to.")

There are a few approaches to learning about sources besides just “learning about genealogy sources” (i.e. seeking out educational material about the types of genealogy sources---this will not present the sources you can most easily access although learning about sources in general is a good idea to help you keep from being stuck in future).

Strategies for Finding More Sources

#1 Source Research Strategy : Repositories

The best way to learn about sources you can access soon is focusing on “repositories.” A repository is any place that holds sources. That can be a library or archive. It can be a website. It can be your house or a relative’s house. A repository holds sources and sources hold information. A person can be a source (you can think of them as a repository, too). An embroidered sampler can be a source. The family Bible is a source. A birth certificate is a source. A written family history is a source. Educational records can be a source. Court records can be a source. You can find these sources in all kinds of places and those places are a “repository.”

So, what repositories can you access?

If you have an Internet connection, FamilySearch.org is the largest free online genealogy website. Most of its sources (i.e. the digitized records) are NOT searchable. You “browse” them which is the digital equivalent of using microfilm or an unindexed book (you have to go image by image to find the information you need).

If you are paying for a subscription, like Ancestry.com, that is a repository you can use. You should always assume there are additional sources that are not searchable on a website. There may be sites, like a state database of deaths, that might only have searchable records. Sites like Ancestry.com, that hold many sources, usually have many records that won’t come up in a search. But even if the result you need does come up in a search, the result might be the 3,282nd search result so you won’t see it. You can find unsearchable results or results that end up way down the results list by looking for a source, not searching a repository.

Don’t forget to consider physical reporistories you can visit like your local library, a relative's attic or storage unit, a nearby courthouse or archive, etc. At a physical repository, you need to decide what sources MIGHT contain information that can help you (remember, you want clues, not just answers. You presumably already looked for an answer and didn’t find it, that’s why you’re stuck).

Try approaching online repositories the same way you'd use a physical library or archive. If you remember learning to do research in a physical library, you didn't have an option to just search for what you needed. You had to identify books and then use each one to see if they would help. Some helped, some didn't. You didn't know which until you used that source. That's how genealogy is meant to work!

Tip: You should be tracking ALL research you do, even if you don't find any information to record. See this post to learn more.

It can be helpful to start thinking of websites like you'd think of a 20th century library where you want to use books. You don’t try and search everything in one go at the library. That's just a bonus option online. In a 20th century type library, you identify specific books and use them. Treat online repositories the same way and you’ll find a LOT more clues!

FYI: most genealogy websites have something like a card catalog. That means you can start with the repository strategy and then use the card catalog (or equivalent). I have three more strategies for approaching learning about new source. You do want to learn these other strategies eventually as they help you think of more sources but you can get started with just the repository strategy.

Top Strategies for Finding More Genealogy Sources

Here are the most common ways to identify helpful genealogy sources:

  • By repository
  • By location
  • By record type
  • By time period

You can learn more about these options in this post.

Tough Research Calls for New Evidence

To wrap this up, whether you're stuck finding a parent, the surname of an ancestor, a date, place, or other information, you need evidence. Evidence is information relevant to your question. The first place to find new evidence is in your old information. But once you're done going over sources you already used, you want to find new sources to use.

Most genealogy sources are not online.

Got it?

There are plenty of sources out there. The problem is, not all sources are accessible enough for us to use. Some sources might require a good bit of money to access so we need to create a budget in addition to a research plan.

For most genealogists, there are actually still TONS of accessible sources they haven't used, they just aren't as easy to use as popping a name in a search form while sipping coffee in your bunny slippers.

If you want to be a successful genealogist, you need to learn about the types of sources that exist. The best way to get started doing this, for a specific brick wall, is to start by thinking about what repositories you can access and then investigating what sources they hold.

Don't focus on searching online websites, focus on identifying sources in the way you would have identified a book in a library. If you have a brick wall, you should have already tried searching. You need to up your genealogy game and try a different strategy!

A final reminder, a website like FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, GenealogyBank, MyHeritage, etc. should be thought of as a repository that contains many sources. No longer thinking of these as "a source" can make a difference. You need to identify specific sources in a repository website. Try using the sources individually, even if they have to be browsed instead of searched (even if they can be searched, sometimes that won't give you useful results. Always consider browsing when you are really stuck).

It only makes sense to start with low hanging fruit. Search these repository websites. But once you're done harvesting what you can find with a search, identify sources. When you can, search the source. When you're done harvesting the information in a specific source via a search, if you're still stuck, move on to browsing to make sure nothing was left behind.

Some sources you'll need to browse, even when they are searchable, and many sources won't be online so they aren't searchable at all. You don't need to try the hardest approach first (browsing) but just because you get stuck searching a website, that doesn't mean the information you need isn't there.

Learning about genealogy sources is on-going. Each brick wall has different needs, after all. Starting with repositories you can access is a great way to focus, find new evidence, and become a better genealogist.

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