Perhaps a couple of examples will illustrate the reason for my recent posts on brick walls. I have the opportunity to talk to many people every week about their genealogy and for that reason, I frequently have comments about difficulties in finding one certain individual, sometimes a direct line relative but often a collateral relation. Often, these researchers become so consumed with finding the information about the difficult individual, they spend most of their research time going over and over the same sources, trying to find another piece of information that will unlock the puzzle and let them move on to other parts of the their family. Partially, I believe, because the situation is called a "brick wall" people become obsessed with finding the information. Many times the person becomes so involved with one or a few individuals, that they put the rest of their family research on hold until that one issue is resolved. In my own case, for lack of a birth place for a great-grandfather, the publication of a whole family history has been delayed.
I am likely writing this analysis as much to see why I feel it is so important to find that one missing piece of information, when I have so many other lines to investigate. I see my own issues, reflected in so many of the researchers I help at the Mesa Regional Family History Center. Sometimes the people become so obsessive, that they reject any and all suggestions that there may be some other explanation or alternative time or location. Frequently, researchers are looking for records that really do not exist. From time to time, I find people who are ignorant of the local history and are looking in the wrong county or even the wrong country. Other times I find people who find someone of the same name and immediately assume they have found the right person and then spend years trying to justify the assumption.
The concept of a "brick wall" does not allow for the elimination of negative information, because the concept focuses on finding positive facts, not in eliminating all possible sources. Because they are trying to break through a brick wall, they think that they are wasting their time if they look through a record source and do not find any information. They do not realize that eliminating one record source is progress. For example, the fact that a person does not appear in a certain U.S. Census year, may have significance for future research, if you can actually assume you haven't somehow overlooked the record due to spelling issues or some other factor.
Genealogical research is a complex process of setting goals, identifying sources, searching and evaluating information and then comparing the information to existing information for consistency. After recording the information and citing sources, you start all over again. The idea of focusing on finding one individual or one fact is contrary to the whole concept of research. Historical research efforts should not be focused on one fact but on the whole picture. Before you can address finding one individual or one date, you need to understand the bigger picture and have the perspective to know whether or not the specific information you are searching for is even possible to obtain.
You can still see the whole picture of a giant puzzle, even if one piece of information is missing. Don't confuse "end of lines" with "brick walls."