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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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How to Start Busting a Brick Wall: No Research Needed

Are you focused on finding "new sources" for a brick wall problem? That might not be your best next step. There is a point where a genealogist needs to learn about and find new sources, but there's something else you do, first. Good news, it's actually much easier than learning about and finding new sources.

This is the second post in a series. The previous post gave an overview and explained the importance of information over answers. If you don't know why we'd consider information more important than an answer, make sure and read that post.

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 read the previous post, 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 introduce some other key words and concepts. You need to embrace these additional concepts to get unstuck and help prevent yourself from getting stuck, again. 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.

In the previous post I 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. If you do know what the different types of evidence are, this should be a quick read.

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. “Clue” 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. When you're faced with a really tough genealogy problem, you need to understand the different kinds of genealogical evidence. That's why they have separate words. It's why we don't use the word "clues" formally in genealogy. It is too vague when you're dealing with a really tricky brick wall.

For the purpose of this post, the vague "clues" is just right. It saves me from needing to specify what kind of evidence I'm talking about. Clues can also be information that isn't evidence. You can have a clue to another source that exists. That's not evidence for the question you are trying to answer. It's still important.

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.

Before you go looking for new sources...

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. This allows you to find new evidence without doing research.

If you only captured answers, not information, you may need to repeat research so you can capture new information.

Finally, you should try and find new information through 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.

Get the Roadmap

How to Start Busting a Brick Wall: No Research Needed

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 (you may also be reminded of old information you previously found and captured in your notes. This doesn't involve going to a source, it's just a reminder of what you already found. It feels like new informaiton if you forgot about it). Of course, we can also use new sources to find new information.

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 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 plus 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.

You continually want to be on the lookout for clues. Do your best to record genealogical information from sources.

In the previous post in this series, I listed one of the steps before looking for new sources as double checking your knowledge. The absolute most basic knowledge you need is knowing you can create a solution from clues (by compiling your evidence). I just gave you that information. If you don't understand how you could create an answer, that's something else you need to learn.

You may also need to get some specific knowledge related to your brick wall. You might need to learn how to use clues for your specific problem. You might need to learn about sources for the time and place you're researching (this is the first part of learning about new sources). Clearly whether you have the basic knowledge you need depends on your problem, not just your general genealogical knowledge. I always consider that there's education you need to gain as you work on a genealogy problem. It might be a little but it might be enough it warrants double checking you have it sooner rather than later. That's the point of doing a knowledge check.

Read the Next Post in this Series