Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Too narrow a focus

Yesterday, I spent considerable time answering questions. I usually start a class where a number of people show up before the scheduled start time by asking for questions. I use the phrase, "about anything in the known or unknown universe." I can take that position because the questions I get are predictable and very, very repetitive. Yesterday, I did get one question about copyright which was a breath of fresh air, I might add.

Over the years, there has been a plethora of writing by genealogists about overcoming the so-called "brickwall" problem. Part of understanding the solution is refusing to label any one research goal as a "problem." Invariably, most of the questions I receive both in and out of the classroom involve a focus on a specific individual. It is this focus that is the main contributor to the whole issue of finding genealogical information. John Donne coined a phrase that says "no man is an island." Genealogists should remember this more than attaching any sentimental or philosophical implications to the concept. Truly, in genealogy every person is connected to every other person in their social network.

Almost without exception, those researchers with a brickwall, have that condition because they have failed to put the narrow fact they are seeking into a political, social or religious context and then asked the question in a more general way, including the entire family and social, political and religious structure in the process.

One researcher yesterday had a very credible list of records she had searched looking for the death date and place of an ancestor. But when I asked what religion he had, she did not know. The ancestor was a German immigrant and she did not know if he was a Lutheran or a Catholic or some other religion. She was not very receptive when I suggested that looking at the person's children might help. In addition, her ancestor lived in the western United States in the mid- to late 1800s and she was looking for a death certificate. When that type of issue comes up, I immediately understand the problem, this person does not know the context. Death certificates were not common in most far western U.S. states until the 1900s. In addition, many of the states she mentioned were not even states at the times she was searching.

By focusing on one problem, i.e. a death date and place, she and many, many other or her fellow researchers spend an inordinate amount of time fishing in a bucket. Instead of spending more time searching for a death record, she might step back and read a little western history. Another example, from what she said, it is was apparent to me that the person she sought was following various mining activities. The locations she listed for residence in different years were mining towns. Why not look in the next chronologically important mining town for the ancestor? In the late 1800s he may have ended up in Arizona or Alaska.

Not to criticize, but to demonstrate a fundamental issue. You will always reach a point of frustration if you are looking in the wrong place, at the wrong time or even for the wrong person.


  1. Or, he might have jumped ship, left his family, and tried for the big gold finds in Western Australia. In the very late 1800's the "Golden Mile" around Kalgoorlie was very attractive to miners, my grandfather among them.

  2. My new quote will now be (and attributed to James Tanner): "You will always reach a point of frustration if you are looking in the wrong place, at the wrong time or even for the wrong person."
    Thanks for the insight.