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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 1/23/2002

Before You Post (read the follow up: After You Post)

Submitting genealogical queries has never been easier. Query boards, mailing lists, and online data sites have made publication of genealogical interests virtually instant. Searching is usually easy and does not require manually viewing each page or using an index. It is easier than ever to get international exposure for your problems.

And yet we still don't get answers.

In the "old days," when one wanted significant national exposure for their genealogical stumbling blocks they had to advertise in one of the large national magazines. Publication of the query was not instant and payment was based upon the number of words. The genealogist would wait at least six months before their query was in print. To minimize cost, the genealogist would carefully craft their query, including enough words to be clear without being needlessly verbose. Just listing the surnames Smith and Jones would not be effective, but needless words upped the cost.

The online posting sites are wonderful, but free queries and the ability to instantaneously post should not entirely change the rules. One can't simply slop anything in a query and expect results.

Provide Adequate Details
On any of the query boards, including those at Ancestry (, word count is not an issue. Details should be sufficient enough to allow the reader to determine if the subject is a likely match for her own research. Readers are not likely to completely read rambling textual monologues. Keep it clear and succinct. A few examples follow.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
These samples parallel postings I have seen on a variety of boards. I've used my own family members in all cases so as not to pick on any one poster (and to increase the chance my long lost distant relative learns of my problem!).

Not So Good
"My name is Jimmy Jo Genealogist and I am so excited about looking for my family history. My ancestor was Ira Sargent and he must be the most difficult man on the planet to find. I swear his alien comrades must have just dropped him off the UFO and returned to their home planet. I can only find him in one census and his first wife just up and disappears, leaving him and the children. Maybe the UFO came back and got her by mistake?! I need help! Please send me what you have."

New meaning to the word "vague" here. While we can sympathize with the writer's frustration, some readers will wonder how much research the writer has actually done.

A Little Better
"I'm looking for Ira Sargent. He lived in Warsaw and his wife Ellen left him in the 1880s. They are both dead."

Where is Warsaw and who expects these people living in 1880 to be living now? Otherwise I'd try locating them in the longevity section of the Guinness Book of World Records.

"Looking for information on William Ira Sargent, born ca. 1846 in Canada. First recorded existence is the 1880 census for Warsaw, Hancock County, Illinois. His wife, Ellen Butler was born ca. 1856 in Missouri and lived with Ira as his wife in 1880. She left a few years later and was never heard from again. Ira lived in Lima, Adams, Illinois and Rocky Run Township, Hancock, Illinois after his wife's 'disappearance.'" He died in Peoria County, Illinois in 1916. Their children were Ida Mae and Ella.

The last query has dates and locations. Some dates are approximate, but that is okay. The researcher searching for an Ellen Butler born in 1800 in New Brunswick immediately knows that this query is not for her.

What's the Chance?
My wife has an ancestor named Philip Smith. How effective will a query like "I'm looking for a Philip Smith who lived in Illinois in 1850" be? If this man is an ancestor or a relative, I must have some fact other than his existence in 1850. Few are likely to respond to this query. I should add the county where he lived, the people I think are his parents, the name of his wife, and the state of birth he lists in the 1850 census.

It Will Be Public
What you submit to one of the genealogy bulletin boards will be available to all who read it. And it will stay there, so read it BEFORE you submit it. Readers could incorporate the information into their own genealogy database without asking. This may happen regardless of whether or not you want it to and regardless of whether you think it is ethical or not. However, this type of problem is nothing new.

Genealogists who were researching in the distant past (for example, the '80s) encountered the same problem using a more archaic media called a book. If you were to publish your genealogy in paper form, you would be taking the exact same kind of risk. Material can be copied from a book without any credit given to the original compiler.

The best approach is to use the information as clues, obtain the actual records, and contact the original poster—they might be more than willing to share. The original query poster might have additional information (ulterior motive alert!). If there are details you don't want used by others in this fashion, then don't include them in your query. Even if I could sue for copyright infringement (and that's a big if), the legal fees would probably exhaust money I currently use for other things like house payments and food. My dependent descendants are somehow used to eating and having a place to live—they're funny that way.

However do include enough information so that query readers can distinguish your John Smith from the millions of other ones out there. Otherwise why post at all?

Keep Track
Keep track of the queries that you post. Some sites allow you to create a username and a posting identity in order to tie all queries to the original submitter. Use this feature! Then when your e-mail address changes, it can be changed once. Otherwise you'll need to keep track and post email updates to all your queries. Otherwise how can people reach you?

Your Subject
Your subject should be brief and specific. Avoid being redundant. If posting to the Smith message board, avoid using a subject line of "Smith family." Every message posted to the Smith board should be about the Smith family. Use a location or a complete name and a birth date in your subject line. You want to catch the attention of potential readers.

Michael- Get Off Your High Horse
Some of the query criticism might sound a little harsh. But remember some of these query boards have thousands of messages, more than any one person can ever read. And while messages boards can be searched, unspecific queries are still unspecific. Finding them takes time. When the surnames and first names are common (and who doesn't have a few of those), researchers simply don't have time to read incomplete postings. Queries with few details are the ones readers are most likely to click right past without giving a second thought.

I want the best chance that researchers who are looking for my query find it. Let's face it, researchers type in names and/or locations into search boxes. That is how searches are conducted. I should put terms like this in my query. This increases the chance that other researchers locate my posting. And don't we all want interested researchers to find our queries?

Be Polite
All of us started out inexperienced at some point in time. Keep this in mind when reading and replying to postings.

Why Be Concerned?
In summary, posters to a genealogy bulletin board are hopefully trying to:

1) Maximize the chance that potential relatives see their query
2) Maximize the chance that those who see (and can help) respond

It's not as difficult as selling manure to a cattle farmer, but it's not as easy as selling water to a dehydrated man either.

Do New Researchers Know All This?
No they do not and frankly it's the responsibility of more experienced researchers to gently show them the way. There's no need to post nasty responses to unspecific queries. If you encounter a vague posting on a bulletin board and the names interest you, post a short follow-up of the type "could you provide approximate dates and places so other readers can better determine if they can help you?" If you're tempted to be rude, remember:

--- Your posting will remain forever
--- The poster may in several years obtain vast quantities of information and may remember your rude response

Search the boards and post, but don't spend hours and hours looking. After all, there are actual records you can be researching as well!

Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry and Genealogical Computing . You can e-mail him at: or visit his Web site at: , but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2002,

Used with permission.       

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