Hit a Brick Wall? 4 Genealogy Tips to Break Through

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega provides four tips to help solve a problem every genealogist runs into: the dreaded “brick wall,” when you don’t know where to turn or what to do to find information on an elusive ancestor. Gena  is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

Do you ever find yourself frustrated by your genealogy research? Maybe you feel like you’ve looked everywhere and will never find that missing ancestor. Family history research is a careful process and it takes a lot longer than we would often like. Genealogical records are incomplete, transcriptions have errors, not everything is found online, and your ancestor had no control over how others spelled or misspelled their name.

photo of a brick wall in English cross bon pattern
Photo: brick wall in English cross bon pattern. Credit: Oula Lehtinen; Wikimedia Commons.

So yes, you will hit that genealogy brick wall, multiple times. How can you get over that persistent obstacle?

1) Take a Genealogy Research Break

You may be scratching your head and wondering why I’m suggesting that you take a break from your family history research before trying to break through your brick wall. It’s really very simple. We all benefit from stepping away from a problem for a time, whether momentarily or for a longer stretch. Putting your genealogy research away allows you time to ponder, as well as learn about new resources and methodologies.

How do you make the most out of your research break? Take some time to enhance your genealogy research skills by reading books that teach methodology or expose you to record sets you’ve never used. Some of my favorite genealogy books are The Family Tree Guidebook to Europe, The Genealogists’ Google Toolbox and The Family Tree Problem Solver.

Also during your research break, take advantage of webinars and other genealogy learning opportunities. Explore your local library or a nearby archival collection. By exploring different library and archival catalogs you can learn more about what family history resources exist for the place and time period you are researching.

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To get started, conduct some searches on the FamilySearch catalog. Search on the name of the place you are researching, and continue your hunt by conducting a keyword search – for example, utilizing words that describe an ancestor’s religion or occupation.

2) Strategize Your Next Research Step

Where do you look for ancestral records now? What do you do if you can’t find an ancestor in records where you think they should be, like a census record? What do you do then?

Take some time to plan out your next genealogy research steps. One way to do this is to put together a Research Plan. A Genealogy Research Plan allows you to clarify what you are looking for, what you currently know, and where you go from there. To learn more about creating a research plan, see the article Think Like a Detective – Developing a Genealogy Research Plan by Association of Professional Genealogists president Kimberly Powell.

One question I get asked in regards to my genealogy research is: “How did you find that?” There’s no magical answer except that I use some basic tried and true research techniques, such as searching on different variations of an ancestor’s name (see Name Research Tip: Search Variations of Family First & Last Names). In addition to standard genealogy record sets, I also use resources like digitized books (see Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 2: Google Books & Internet Archive).

One of my favorite genealogy tools is to create a timeline for the ancestor’s life I’m researching, and then populate that timeline with dates, events, comments and sources. By creating that timeline, I can keep track of my research and see what gaps need to be filled. It also helps me to focus on what family history resources I may be missing (see Genealogy Timelines: Helpful Research Tools).

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3) Try Something New

What resources do you use for your research? Instead of doing the same old thing, try using your favorite websites in a different way. For example, GenealogyBank is a great resource for newspapers – but did you know the site offers historical books and documents as well?

Now’s the time to go beyond just searching the same old way and instead try searching differently or utilizing a new collection. You can get some new ideas by checking out the GenealogyBank Learning Center.

Once you’ve explored a new way to use your favorite websites, start searching for genealogy websites you’ve never used before. Need some ideas? You can find website links specific to a topic or a place by checking out Cyndi’s List or Linkpendium. Explore online catalogs by searching on WorldCat or ArchiveGrid, or the catalog for the state archive or library you are researching.

4) Get Help from Professionals, Family & More

Ask a research professional (professional genealogist, reference librarian or archivist) for some assistance searching an online catalog or looking for new resources. There are so many opportunities to ask questions and get assistance with your genealogy searches; one of my favorite ways is to use the “Ask a Librarian” feature found on many library websites. This allows me to email or use a chat room to ask a question about a resource or collection.

In addition, GenealogyBank offers a toll-free phone number for free help from a Family History Consultant. Call 1-866-641-3297 (Hours: Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. ET) for help. Also, try looking for more strategies to break through genealogy brick walls in GenealogyBank’s Genealogist Q&A and brick wall blog articles.

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Even problem-solving with a non-genealogist friend or relative can be useful. The non-genealogists around us will approach the problem from a different angle since they do not have preconceived notions of where to find information. Talk about your family history research problem with the non-genealogists around you and you may get a few new ideas.

How are you going to get over your genealogy brick wall? We all come to a point where we feel “stuck.” The key is to take a break, regroup, and plan out your future genealogy research. Genealogy is a pursuit that involves continuing education, so take some time to learn something new every day – it will benefit your research and perhaps even your stress level!

How have you overcome your genealogy brick walls? Share your brick wall experiences with us in the comments section.

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