Thursday, 19 March 2015

Brick Walls

When you say that you have "hit a brick wall", what has really happened? Does it mean that there is no more information to be found on that particular ancestor, or could it be that you have (temporarily) burned yourself out on the hunt?

A few times in the past I have declared that a particular ancestor's trail ends in a brick wall. I may have spent days or weeks trawling through different archives and repositories looking for clues only to come up empty handed. Usually I toss my hands in the air and walk away. (Often vowing never to return to genealogy again - it is a thankless task!) However some time later curiosity will get the better of me and I will be sucked back in to this obsession. With a renewed vigour I attack the recalcitrant ancestor(s) again and usually I will find some new clue to help track them down. Back on the right path I find I can blaze through several more ancestors/relatives before once more getting stuck.

But was I really stuck because of a lack of (readily available) resources? Or was I simply burnt out and just needed to step away for a while to clear my head? More often than not I suspect burn-out may be the real brick wall I faced.

I am a teaching assistant for a number of online IT courses. Many students will find themselves going around and around in circles trying to solve a problem. They will post to the class forums that they are ready to give up and quit the course - no matter how many times they read the assignment, or how many times they try to write the code, it just isn't working for them. One of the things I say to the students in these courses is that sometimes you just need to step away from the computer and take a walk outside to clear your head. Even a five or ten minute break - making a cup of coffee, read a newspaper, take a walk around the block - can help settle your mind and you will return to the problem with a refreshed outlook. As a professional software developer, I often found that putting a troublesome project aside while I worked on something trivial could be enough of a circuit-breaker that when I returned to the initial project I could look at the problem from a different angle.

The more I thing about this subject, the more I realise that what I really mean when I say I've hit a brick wall with a particular ancestor is that *I've* hit a brick wall - not that the information isn't there, I'm just not seeing it right now.

So when you think you've hit a brick wall, don't be afraid to put that line of research aside of a while and move on to something else. Come back to it later when your mind is clear and you can look at the information with a fresh outlook.


  1. I whole heartedly agree with your analysis. I have felt exactly how you do sometimes when it comes to hitting a wall. Thanks for sharing. Also. I see in another post that you have found the Chatham society publications. I am so very thankful for the person that painstakingly read and transcribed the information from the handwritten records. I recently located a scan of the original bishop records in ancestry for the marriage of two ancestors and the handwriting and faded ink is weary on the eyes, so seeing this original document made me all the more grateful for typed documents!

    1. Hi Carol,

      Transcriptions of old records are a very useful resource, but I do like to try to see the original source to verify that the transcription has been done correctly. (And yes, that does mean that when I finish transcribing Old Stretford I should scan and upload a copy.) As you've seen however, some of the original documents are in a very poor state these days, which makes deciphering them difficult, if not impossible in some cases. I am thankful that so far I have had good fortune with the parish records for my ancestors - has full scans of the old parish records for Stretford and for the most part they are very clear and easy to read. Once I push back further and leave the relative safety of Stretford for other, more remote towns I expect to find some less well-kept records...

      Amos Bannister