The Art of Research and How to Find Local Resources
A curiosity about family history always starts with a question, a need to know. It can start with a question we ask ourselves or something that is asked of us. Once engaged, we may ask relatives about the individuals who make up our family and are our ancestors. We then look at what we have and what is missing. We form more questions. What do we want to know? What piques our curiosity? One family? One ancestor? One question expands into several. What quest are we on? What pieces of information do we want to discover? Where do we think they are likely to be?
Having committed ourselves to find the answer, we often continue our genealogy quest by going online. We could be looking for books relating to our ancestors in an online catalog or searching databases for records. Many libraries pay for subscription databases such as Ancestry, American Ancestors, and Heritage Quest so their patrons can use them at no cost. If we want to get started on our home computer, FamilySearch.org is a good option. FamilySearch.org has millions of records online and access is absolutely free. It was created and is maintained by those members of the Mormon Church particularly interested in family history. This site is just as important as Ancestry to check. As we become more experienced we also discover websites that are especially useful for our particular areas of research, favorites that we keep returning to.
At some point, inevitably, we come up empty handed and are not sure what to do next. This is when we turn to people or institutions that we think can help us. These include public libraries, historical societies, genealogy/family history societies, town clerks, librarians, archivists, and subject specialists. We discover many of our personal contacts by first going through the institutions that employ them. It is likely we will first consult the institutions that are nearest to us geographically. Think, however, of your ancestors. Most of them probably moved around, some fairly frequently. Don’t overlook the importance of local history and genealogy resources in the areas where they lived.
Interested in learning more about a location, you may start by looking up a town or city of interest on the Internet. You may also consult books like The Genealogist’s Address Book and American Libraries Directory for likely places to send your question. Once you discover a likely contact, you need to do two things: check out your contact online and organize your question. To find more information about your contact, see if the institution has a website or a blog, a Facebook or Twitter page. Learn a bit about what it does and the information or collections it has. Why do you think this institution can help you? Once you check it out, do you still think it can help? Find out if there are guidelines for asking questions. Does it list a preferred email or postal address? Now back to your specific question:
The Importance of Questions
A question sent by email or through the post should be succinct and to the point while at the same time providing enough information for your contact to work with. Telephone queries may be fine to double-check contact information and hours, but for family research you need to offer a certain amount of detail. Questions that include information such as family names, dates, and places are best exchanged in writing. Anyone who has dealt with census records knows the myriad ways this material can be misheard and misspelled. Your question and accompanying information need to be written. If you desire an answer, how you pose your question is critical.
Here are some tips for what to include in your question from someone who answers them (me).
- Focus specifically on what you want to find out. For example, if you are seeking information about a person, let your contact know the full name of the person you are researching.
- What specific piece of information do you want to know? If you are researching a person, do you want to find a birth or marriage or death record? Think about what you are using these records to discover. Are you using them to find parents’ names? Say so in your correspondence. Do not think just of the record you are looking for, but of the information you need. It will be easier for your contact to think of alternate sources for the information needed if they become necessary.
- Do you already have other information that would narrow the search to the correct person? Do you have family members (spouse, children, parents) or dates and/or locations of birth, marriage, or death? Include them in your query.
- What makes you think the specific person or institution you are contacting has the information you are looking for?
- Let your contact know which sources you have already checked. You want the person to help you by covering new territory, not rehashing what has already been searched.
- Restate succinctly what you would like your contact to do.
- Don’t forget to end with a thank-you. Remember that the people you contact have many demands on their time. Be polite and let them know you appreciate their spending some of this time helping you.
A GOOD EXAMPLE OF HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A QUERY
Consider the following email as a model for how a query can be constructed, question by question.
Who are you researching?
I hope that you might be able to help me locate information on my great uncle, [full name] b.[birth date]. His son [same name, Jr.] b.[birth year] – d.[death year] worked for the city of Newton for many years. Note that the writer not only gave me a very specific question, but also let me know another critical piece of information. There were two men, father and son, with exactly the same name. The son worked here for many years – hence I may find other records under the name I am researching that pertain to a different person.
What specifically do you want to find out about the person you are researching?
My goal is to locate the death record and burial place of [first name] Sr.
What additional information do you have that might help?
The last-known record that he personally filled out was a WWII registration card in [nearby town] in [year], however Why are you checking in this location? he was listed in the your city’s directory [page number given] in [year of directory] living at [address] with his son. My correspondent was able to find a copy of the directory, probably online, before she contacted the library.
What research have you already done?
I do not believe that he had a Social Security number as there is no SS death index entry for him. Although he registered for both WWI and WWII, there is no service record for him. I have spoken to the State Archives, Boston Veteran’s Services, WWI museum in Concord, Military records, NARA, all surrounding towns, our family cemetery records, Find A Grave, Ancestry, Familysearch.org, Social Security Administration office, and pretty much all other resources within my ability. Many people will not have done this extensive amount of research. But whatever you have done, put down. You do not want resources you have already seen rechecked. Given time constraints, this will result in new sources having gone unchecked.
What would you like me to do?
I hope that you might have access to additional directories, perhaps an obituary database or another means to search for the death of [full name of person being researched].
Thank you for your assistance,
[Your name and contact information]
Results: When I went to the City Clerk’s Office, I found no record for the father. I found no obituary on our Newton Graphic newspaper microfilm for the son, as well as no death record. (By the way, when I pay a visit to the City Clerk’s Office, I always bring a family group sheet as a reminder to write down additional information I discover. It is always a paper version. For me, having something in your hand is a better prompt than if it’s buried on a laptop or tablet.) I found the marriage record of the son and records for the birth of four children (grandchildren of the man she was researching). She did not have information on two of the children and she did not have the marriage record. I checked for other information in a private subscription I have that pointed the search to a bordering town.
Now, how about an example of a bad query:
I have a whole lot of [fill in any surname] with a ton of [fill in common given names] and I don’t know how to put them together. I’m enclosing printouts from Ancestry that put most of these people in Newton at various times. Can you help me figure out how or if they fit on my family tree?
Most people would put a query like this in the circular file. No librarian has enough off-desk time to answer a question like this. I send such a correspondent a two-page letter explaining how to research and put together a family tree, in addition to a list of basic steps, family group sheets, and an ancestral/pedigree chart. This has often helped clarify the thinking of the person sending the original question. As a result, I have received rewritten queries I can work with, often accompanied by a family group sheet.
An Added Place to Post a Query
Did you know you can also post a query to multiple people at once using an online message board? Some websites also allow you to do this. If you are using this type of resource, it is important to know the site’s rules and regulations for posting a query. Some sites will restrict the subjects or locations they will allow. They may have a specific format or word limit. Be respectful of the places that allow you to do this and follow the rules. You will dramatically increase your chances of getting an answer and you may even make new friends in the process.
vea/20 May 2016
Newton Free Library
Library website: http://www.newtonfreelibrary.net
Genealogy blog: https://thecuriousgenealogist.wordpress.com
Genealogy LibGuide: http://guides.newtonfreelibrary.net/genealogy