Creating Golden Queries
Consider your goal before posting a genealogical query.
There is a certain amount of information you already know, and, of course, there's additional information you wish to learn. You can best accomplish the goal of discovering new information if your query clearly and concisely states what facts you already know, and plainly asks for the information you wish to learn.
First, consider the audience to whom you want to direct your query. Do not expect the list subscribers to an Ohio County list to be able to answer a query about your ancestors who lived in Missouri. Don't ask about Irish ship lists or which genealogy software is best suited to your needs, on a list devoted to Alsace-Lorraine research.
You may be subscribed to one or several lists and feel it won't hurt to ask the list members with whom you have already become acquainted to answer your question about software or ships. You may feel as though your fellow list members are extended "family," but those list members are not the most knowledgeable researchers to be asking questions about subject matter not covered by the lists to which they belong. Find a list or board devoted to the topic of your query in order to find the "experts" on that topic.
For lists, you will need to subscribe to post your query, but once you have obtained your answer, you can always unsubscribe when you no longer have any interest in, or need for, the subject matter being discussed on a list. With message boards, you do not need to subscribe to post and, if the board is gatewayed to the corresponding list, you have the added benefit of the list members seeing your query and possibly responding. You can find the most appropriate list for your query starting here: http://lists.rootsweb.com/ and you can find a board starting here: http://boards.rootsweb.com/
Once you have found the most appropriate forum for posting your query, your second consideration is choosing an eye-catching and informative, yet brief, subject. Subjects are like an advertising banner for your query -- they either immediately catch someone's eye and draw their interest in reading your message in full, or they result in your query being overlooked -- all due to a dull or poor subject line.
Subjects such as "Help," "Genealogy," "Research," or "Looking for Family" tell the reader nothing. On a genealogy list or board everyone is looking, researching, and needing help. Get to the crux of the matter. Put yourself in the place of the unknown reader who is going to find your message in his incoming e-mail or who is going to be browsing through a message board index page. Include the name, dates, places of the people about whom your query revolves -- and avoid abbreviations. Think. Will your cousin in New Zealand, who has your mutual ancestor's 1852 family Bible, know who and what you are talking about? Leave no doubt, spell everything out.
Take time to plan and prepare your subject line and query before posting it. Don't rely on impulse. There is no rush to post a query. Your ancestors are not going anywhere -- they will still be here tomorrow if you are not completely satisfied with the wording you have selected for your query today.
Review the wording of your query after you have constructed it to be sure you have answered the specific questions regarding the WHO you are writing about, WHAT you are looking to learn, WHERE the family lived, and WHEN they lived there. Ask yourself whether you would understand your query if you were not familiar with this family or ancestor. If you can answer YES to all of the above your query may be ready to post. Take another run-through to check for spelling errors and incorrect dates and for anything that might be extraneous to the basics of your query.
If someone responds to your message, you can always flesh out the details about how your great-grandfather built his own sod house on the prairie in a later e-mail reply. Lengthy details that add nothing to the specifics of your query often tend to lose the reader's interest, especially if the reader has no apparent connection to your ancestors. Remember that while YOUR genealogy is extremely interesting to YOU, others may not be engrossed in all the details. If you keep the message brief and get to the point of your query -- perhaps a lookup in the 1900 census -- someone, even someone unconnected to your ancestors, might just keep reading long enough to realize they can help you.
All of the above considerations add value to your query. Your choice of words can be worth far more than the proverbial "penny for your thoughts" -- if you take time to plan and prepare. A well-constructed query can be as valuable as gold.
You may also find it useful to read Notes & Comments About Mailing Lists