Talk to Someone


Genealogy is often misunderstood as a solitary pursuit. Sure, many of us spend countless hours at our computers hypnotized by the dizzying amount of websites and resources available with the stroke of a few keys.

But when you’re stuck, there’s no better advice than to step away from the computer and talk with other people.

Why? Because, to quote a popular saying, “you can’t see the forest for the trees.”

CandlestickTelephoneGalSometimes we get so focused on a problem that we can’t see the solution that might be right in front of us, among all of the facts we are staring at. And sometimes, to be honest, we may not know what the solution might even look like.
So take some time right now and:

  1. Write out what you know about your brick wall female ancestor. Use bullet points and keep your sentences short and focused.
  2. Now make a list of where and what you have searched (censuses, Ancestry.com, etc.)

Now ask yourself, who can you talk to that will help you brainstorm possible solutions? Are you a member of a genealogy society? Some societies have meetings specifically to tackle brick walls, or perhaps you can meet a few members prior to a meeting.

No genealogy society? No problem. The person you talk to doesn’t necessarily need to be a genealogist. Sometimes talking to a non-genealogist will help you come up with solutions. One of the best pieces of help I have received was from my non-genealogist mom who looked at a timeline I was using for a family and questioned why certain children were not listed in the census. To be honest, I had totally overlooked that.

Other places to get help? What about talking to a reference librarian who serves the public or academic library where your ancestor lived? Why not ask what sources might exist for the time period your ancestor lived in the area?

Don’t forget that professional genealogists don’t just tackle large family tree projects. Many are available for a short consulting session to help you brainstorm ideas. Find a genealogist near you through the Association for Professional Genealogists website .

What about the web? Social networks are a great place to ask questions. Take to Facebook or the genealogy-specific social networking website GenealogyWise to ask questions. On Facebook you could post the question to your own profile page, but you might get a larger audience by becoming a member of a regional or topic-specific genealogy group. Find a list of these on genealogists Katherine R. Willson’s Genealogy on Facebook List or Gail Dever’s Facebook for Canadian Genealogy.

Finally, a ground rule for your meeting of the minds. You’ve written out where you have looked and what you know. This aids the helper in knowing what you need. Come up with a short sentence, an elevator speech, about the problem that you can convey to the helper.

Now, listen.

Don’t say anything unless asked. And whatever you do, don’t say “I’ve already looked there.” Yes, I realize you might have already looked there, but there’s nothing that shuts down a helper faster than hearing that phrase repeatedly. You may have reviewed that resource, but perhaps the other person has a different spin on that resource. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate the evidence or document? Remember that the person helping is approaching your problem with fresh eyes and needs to cover the basics, which may lead them to something you never even considered.

Your ancestor’s life didn’t happen in a vacuum and neither should your family history research. Step away from the computer and talk to someone about your female ancestor today.


Gena Philibert-Ortega

About Gena Philibert-Ortega

Gena Philibert-Ortega holds Master’s degrees in Interdisciplinary Studies and Religion. She is the author of hundreds of articles published in genealogy newsletters and magazines. Her writings can be found on her blogs, Gena’s Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera . Her latest book is From the Family Kitchen (F + W Media, 2012). Gena is the author of IDG’s monthly column, Remember the Ladies.

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