International Institute of Genealogical Studies


International Institute of Genealogical Studies - LEADERS IN ONLINE GENEALOGY EDUCATION

Research and Collaboration

Collaboration and Brick Walls

Many of us tend to work on our genealogy research alone. It is an independent activity where we can lose ourselves for hours on end. In some cases, family members actually work together to solve a common research problem. It is these situations that can benefit us the most.

Photo by Gena Philibert-Ortega. Used with permission.

But what can we do if we do not have someone in our family that shares our passion? There are several different options available.

  • Society Meetings & Conferences

Folks who attend these meetings and conferences are just as interested in genealogy and are probably willing to listen to the story about great-aunt Elsie, of which your children and cousins have grown tired.

  • Social Networking Websites

There are many popular websites that allow you to “friend” or “follow” other people, from family, friends, coworkers, etc. to others who share similar interests (such as genealogy!).

  • Message Boards & Mailing Lists

Although these tools have been around for ages, they are still popular among genealogists and are a great place to ask brick wall questions.

  • Online Family Trees

Having your tree online makes it possible for cousins or others researching your family to get in touch with you.

  • Blogs

Blogging also lends itself to reaching a broader audience than a genealogical publication, and, because it is online and searchable, you stand a good chance of attracting others.

Remember, it may take multiple strategies to find the answer to your research question. Sometimes you just need to step away from a research problem. With our Skill-Building: Breaking Down Brick Walls course we will give you the tools and techniques needed to break down that brick wall.

Friends, Associates and Neighbors

Your FAN Club 

FAN is an acronym that stands for Friends, Associates, and Neighbors. The “FAN Club,” coined by Elizabeth Shown Mills, represents a person’s network of people to whom they connect. You may also hear the term “cluster research,” which is essentially the same thing.


The idea behind using the FAN principle or cluster research is to identify and research the people involved with your ancestors, as those other people may have left a trail or clues that your ancestor did not. For example, you could be looking for the maiden name (and perhaps the parents and/or siblings) of a female ancestor. Studying the people in her FAN Club, as well as those in her husband’s, may provide clues or may even reveal the answer.

Oftentimes, the FAN methodology is implemented when all resources have been exhausted and there is still no answer to our research question. Instead of throwing in the towel, we turn to the people around our ancestor and explore their lives.  

Keep in mind that studying an ancestor’s associates will add more work to your plate, but the benefits are usually well worth your time and energy. With our Skill-Building: Breaking Down Brick Walls course you will learn more about applying the FAN principle to your research.  

Timelines are Important

Why Use Timelines 

A timeline is a visual representation of events in sequential order. Timelines are often used in genealogy to place an ancestor in a historical context giving us a better understanding of their lives and how they fit into the world around them. Timelines can help break down brick walls allowing us to see: 

  • Where a person was and when. 
  • Gaps in time where information is missing. 
  • Instances where two people of the same name might be combined. 
  • Possible scenarios (for example, finding a large gap in the birth of children during the Civil War period). 

But also keep in mind timelines are a great basis for writing biographies and genealogies, as well as a visual component to share with others.


Timelines are great tools to help us put our research in a different perspective. The visual nature of a timeline often reveals clues for additional research. There are three general types of timelines: basic, comparative, and historical.  

With our Skill-Building: Breaking Down Brick Walls course you will learn more about building your own timelines and how to use them in your research.  


Ancestors Associates

Tracking Your Ancestors Associates  

So how do you keep track of all your ancestor’s associates? First, you will want to create a list that represents each of the three categories of the FAN Club (Friends, Associates, and Neighbors). You should incorporate connection details and research notes and maintain this list as a master. Keeping this master list will pay dividends in the future when the same associates become a recurring theme in your ancestor’s life.


While a list is great (and a highly-recommended starting point), you may also want to create a visual representation of your ancestor’s network. Many people like to use the idea of a mind map when dealing with cluster research. The possibilities are endless, so experiment and find something that works for you.

It is also important to show connections between associates. When you see the same person involved in the life of your ancestor and his other associates, this could be a person high on your priority list to investigate. With our Skill-Building: Breaking Down Brick Walls course you will learn even more on the methods for tracking your ancestors’ associates.