Many of us belong to a number of the Rootsweb mailing lists – whether they be locality, surname, or special interest group-based. And all of us have at one time or another cruised the various message boards out there. They are undoubtedly a great resource not only for finding folks who might be researching the same family as you, but also as finding aids for records and resources. Having been subscribed to a number of these lists for close to 10 years, I find myself using them less and less. I also find myself using the “delete” button more and more – usually without having read the post. As I thought about why this is, I have come to the conclusion that the lists are populated primarily by beginning researchers (with a few exceptions of course), and eventually experienced researchers move off on their own.
A typical thread or post begins something like, “I am looking for information on John Doe who married Jane Smith and their descendants. Any info appreciated.” A usual response is along the lines of, “I have John Doe married Jane Smith 12 Dec 1798, at Any County, That State. Their children were….” and the post goes on to give names and dates of the children or other such information. Obviously, there are problems both with the question and the answer in this all-too common example.
First the question: Even if I have the info they are asking for, that question is way too vague. I have no idea what they have already checked (or whether they have checked anything at all), and depending on the family, the answers could be pretty complicated and beyond the scope of an email response. Wouldn’t it be better to state exactly what you are looking for and what resources you have already tried? Even if you have no idea what you are doing, why not say so? Wouldn’t it be better to post something like, “I am looking for a marriage date of John Doe and Jane Smith who were probably married in Some Township, Any County, That State. I have checked marriage indexes and the records of XYZ Church and ABC Church where they lived, but with no luck. Any information or suggestions where to look would be greatly appreciated.” At least now, I know that 1) you’ve tried, and 2) what you’ve already done, which allows me to be much more concise and helpful in my response. But more than that, it leaves a record for others who might come across this information in the list archives that someone has checked those resources for this family unsuccessfully (note the use of “unsuccessfully” versus “and they are not found there”).
This leads to the main problem – that of the answers. The folks asking the question may be new to genealogy – they may not know any better. As much as I’d like to, I certainly can’t help every list subscriber out personally. But when I do help, I can provide much more than just a list of names and dates. I can’t tell you how many arguments I’ve seen on these lists rage on for days or weeks – without a single piece of evidence other than “I have proof,” or “according to my information…” being presented. Now for the suggestion (okay, guilty, this is technically the second suggestion): Why not include full source citations for every answer you provide? You have to go to your database anyways to look for the info needed – why not spend an extra minute or 5, and copy the source citations as well? Even easier – export a text file family group sheet complete with sources, etc. Then paste that into the post or email.
Answering in this way:
1) gives the person the info they are looking for
2) shows people on the list where the info came from (and where it DIDN’T, if you are being thorough)
3) provides a great example of citing sources (again both positive and negative searches, if you are being thorough)
4) leaves a permanent record in the archives for others to follow, confirm, or refute with their own research.
Just my $.02. I am as guilty as anyone in not being thorough in my answers to questions. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that if I am going to bother to take the time to reply at all, I might as well make it the best reply I can!
1. “Stuff Floating In Chris Staats’ Head“, Staats’ Head-Lines, Cleveland, OH, 6 Dec 2009, upper lobe, synapse 8.