from Michael John Neill
Obtaining more sources is not necessarily the answer to every brick wall problem. There are times where the sledgehammer to break them down comes in two pieces: one in our head and the other in our files of data we have already obtained. When I’m stuck on a problem, I find it helpful to completely transcribe all the documents I have already obtained, paying close attention to every word and making certain to learn the definition of any words with which I am not familiar.
Writing up my problem as if I were explaining it to a fellow researcher is an excellent way to determine if there are gaps in our own research that we have inadvertently continued to overlook.
If we put our information together so that someone unfamiliar with the family could understand it, we find gaps in our research (either in our sources or in our methods) that are the real root of our brick wall.
Finally, talking about our problem may be just the ticket to getting past those obstacles. At a recent conference I was using my Irish family as an example of how to document a migration chain, tracking the family from Ireland to Canada to Illinois to Kansas over a thirty-year period. As I was giving the lecture it dawned on me that the family member who went to Kansas died without any children and without any nieces or nephews (his siblings all had no children of their own). The census indicates he owned real estate. His estate (which I never bothered to locate) might mention the descendants of his grandparents’ siblings which could potentially break my Irish brick wall. In this case, talking about my problem caused an idea to pop into my head.
When we transcribe documents, write up our problems, or talk about our brick walls, we increase the chance that something “clicks” that was not evident when we silently read our materials.
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