Genealogists Should Abandon the “Brick Wall” Metaphor

Have you ever built a brick wall? Me neither, but I know a little about the process. A brick wall is solid. Creating one takes a lot of skill. It’s not just slapping some bricks and mortar together and hoping for the best. It’s not some Neanderthal tossing bricks on top of each other and expecting them to stick. There is both skill and planning involved to build a brick wall that’s solid and long-lasting. Doesn’t this sound more like the process by which we actually accomplish our research, not something that suddenly stops it?

For a mason, one of the first steps is to lay a level foundation so that everything you put on top of that initial course is also level and square. Having laid that first course, a plumb line and level ensure that each successive course is also level. A skilled mason knows how to both mix and apply the mortar that binds those bricks together. When does a brick wall end? In practice, it ends when the wall meets the blueprint specifications. In theory, if you were building a wall with the only specification being that you build a wall as high as possible, the wall ends whenever you run out of bricks, run out of mortar, or the don’t have the knowledge of the techniques to make a really tall wall secure. (Can you say “GPS”?)

The commonly accepted genealogical definition of brick wall is something impenetrable that stands in our way– something that keeps us from continuing our research. In reality, a “brick wall, or at least the process of building one, better describes the  research process than it does something we run into . In genealogy, we are working with that theoretical mandate that we continue building as high as we can. We want to start with as solid a foundation as we can, and we proceed from there. Continuing the analogy, when we get stuck, it’s not because we’ve physically hit something– it’s because we’ve either run out of bricks, we’ve run out of mortar, or our wall is so high that we don’t know how to keep it from wobbling.

In this analogy, the bricks are either the sources or information we get from those sources; the mortar is the analysis that connects them; and the knowledge of construction techniques is the methodology we use to tackle the issue of stability or reliability. Therefore, “brick walls” should be something we actually try and create as genealogists, not something that gets in our way.

When we can’t reach anymore conclusions about our research subject, we haven’t hit a “brick wall,” we’ve simply run out of an ingredient required to build a solid structure. We need more bricks, mortar, or technique. If there’s no more to be had, then there’s no more to be had. We haven’t RUN into a wall– we’ve run OUT of stuff with which to continue building. Sometimes. we can find an alternative way to construct a solid wall, sometimes we just haven’t looked far and wide enough for more material, but other times we just don’t have what we need.

Now I don’t expect everyone in genealogy land to suddenly change their vocabulary, but it just struck me that the whole “brick wall” idea as we perceive it is a bad metaphor. When we’re stuck. we’re stuck — but there’s no wall in our way, it’s just that we can no longer build a solid one. Thoughts?

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4 Responses to Genealogists Should Abandon the “Brick Wall” Metaphor

  1. avatar Patti says:

    Hmmm, interesting. Tom gives some variations on how cases are built that this reminds me of. And even though I think your metaphors are good individually, I’m not sure that I like the idea of building something. We’re actually trying to reconstruct a picture of something that already existed (like Tom’s puzzle metaphor). But I like how you make the bricks the information/sources and the mortar our analysis and correlation. No matter how good the information is, if we don’t put them together in an effective way, we aren’t constructing a good picture.

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    • avatar Chris Staats says:

      I agree we are reconstructing the past, but reconstruction is still construction– physically connecting the pieces, analyzing each one to make sure that it is in the right place, and connected in the right way. I would argue that anytime we write a proof argument, or even a proof summary, we are building something – something that can only be as strong as the material and connectors that we choose to use.
      As Michael pointed out, the metaphor is not perfect. We are not really building a wall, but I think the actual process of building a wall more accurately reflects how we go about our research than it represents a research problem we have not been able to solve. The “brick wall” idea, as it is usually used, implies that there is something that blocks our path. If we can somehow move it, knock it down, jump over it, or go around it, we can connect with what’s on the other side. But in those cases where we are unable to get any further in our research, it’s more likely that we’ve run out of bricks (sources/information), or we’re not putting them together correctly (in the wrong place, or with bad mortar). In those cases, we either need to find more bricks or mix better mortar to connect the fragments of bricks we do find. Our construction isn’t necessarily forever incomplete, it’s just at a stand-still until we can find more building materials.

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  2. I like the metaphor of building. As genealogists, we definitely build something. I just don’t think it’s a wall.

    The purpose of a wall is to keep something in or out, or to separate things. The current usage of “brick wall” is more apt–it separates us from the knowledge of our ancestors. It keeps us “out.”

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    • avatar Chris Staats says:

      I agree it’s not a perfect metaphor. It just struck me as interesting that the “brick wall” idea is usually used to indicate a perceived end to our research, but the actual step-by-step process of building a brick wall is much more in line with how we do (or should be doing) thorough, accurate research.

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