Messages May Come and
Go, But Archives are Forever
As editor of the Ancestry Daily News, I receive some interesting mail. Questions
and comments come from around the world and all levels of genealogists (and some
non-genealogists). Unfortunately, I often receive messages where it is obvious that little
thought has gone into the composition of the e-mail. I guess that it is in part due to the
instant gratification that we receive through this wonderful thing called technology.
It's stating the obvious to say that technology has been a great boon to family
historians. It has put records from around the world into the comfort of our homes, where
we can sit in our bunny slippers and explore them at our leisure. It makes available
reference materials to help us find our way and learn new research techniques. And one of
the greatest benefits is that it brings us together and allows us to bond with other
obsessed genealogy fanatics at any time of day or night. Message boards and mailing lists
allow us to exchange research and techniques, and commiserate over brick walls. When we're
lucky, we can also share the joy of a find with others who won't think we're "a bit
off" for spending so much time prying into the lives of people we've never seen or
These message boards and mailing lists are also susceptible to some of the same types
of messages I see in my inbox, and without a doubt, one of the most frequent suggestions I
have for a column is to address one or more problems that are related to these forums. So,
in today's "Family History Compass," I'll use some questions based on examples
from my editor's mail to illustrate a few ways we can improve the posts we make to these
"I've Been Collecting Rocks Since I Was a Child and Would Like to Learn More About
Them. Can You Recommend a Good Book?"
Here's someone with a legitimate question, but who is most definitely barking up the wrong
tree. Despite the fact that geology and genealogy sound similar, they are in truth miles
apart. The only rocks I'm interested have writing on them and are sitting on my ancestors'
Often, we see posts made on boards and lists where although they might not be so
drastically off track as this person, could be redirected to a more appropriate place.
It's important to look at the purpose of the forum to which you plan on directing your
query. The folks on the Mongolian mailing list will probably not be able to help you find
your ancestors from Ouagadougou, regardless of how knowledgeable they are about genealogy,
nor will they likely be inclined to discuss it. Your message (and the 50,000 scathing
e-mails that will likely follow) will be doomed to live on in the archives of the mailing
list in infamy, while your Ougadougouan ancestors remain in obscurity.
Be sure to check out the home page or welcome message for lists you've joined. Not only
will this give you important subscription information (how to subscribe, unsubscribe, and
post), but it should also provide any guidelines as to what is appropriate to post on the
"Since I Pay Taxes and Social Security, Why Am I Not Listed in the SSDI?"
It is glaringly obvious that this person didn't do his homework before asking this
question and hasn't taken the time to learn that SSDI stands for Social Security DEATH
Index --- death being the operative word here. It is assumed that the composer of this
message is not yet dead, and if he is, I should probably ask him a question - if he's seen
my ancestors, please have them contact me as well. I have some questions.
Before posting a question to a mailing list, it's a good idea to do a little homework
yourself. While many folks are wonderfully generous when it comes to helping out, some may
become a little tired of answering questions for people unwilling to do a little digging
themselves. Many mailing list home pages have an FAQ and/or basic information on resources
available for those researching the area of interest that is the list's focus. Check it
out, do some searches, and if the list or board is archived, search the archives to see
whether or not that particular question has been asked before. Doing so will help reduce
clutter in the archives and people will be more likely to continue to help if they are not
overwhelmed by the same questions over and over again.
"I've Lost My Ancestors. I Think They're in the Ukraine."
First of all, again, this request is misdirected. Although I'd love to help this person
with their research, I have to scrape time from the "wee hours" to work on my
own research, and like many other columnists/editors, I just don't have any time to chase
other people's ancestors.
Even if I did want to help this person, I couldn't do a thing with this type of request,
and nor will anyone on the Ukrainian mailing list. Posts should include the pertinent
details about the ancestor being researched. If you have more than one ancestor in the
particular area, it's best to post your questions one at a time, including appropriate
subject lines that will get people's attention. A good example for a subject line would
FOODJABUNNY, Herbert A. 1821 - ca. 1877,
This tells us "who" we are talking about, "when" he lived, and
"where" he was. The body of the message should give us "what" we want
to know about him, and if we have formed a theory, "why" we believe it to be
true. A post like this covers the "five Ws" and will also be much more likely to
catch the eye of other descendants or cousins of Mr. Foodjabunny.
Other items you may want to include would be places you've already searched for your
answer so you don't get fifty people sending you to something that's already been done.
At the same time, you don't want to overwhelm people with an "epic e-mail" full
of bits of interesting trivia about the ancestors that are unrelated to the problem at
hand. While this is great fodder for the family history, the folks on the list don't want
to wade through it to get to the meat of the problem. A short, to-the-point post will
achieve much better results.
More on the Archives
Mailing list archives can be wonderful tools and many people overlook the search feature
that is available with most of them. If you've recently joined a list, you may want to
check out the archives and do some searches for your ancestors' names. Not only is this a
good way to hook up with others researching the same lines, but many people post
transcriptions of records related to the list's interests, making these list archives, in
essence free databases.
One thing that's good to bear in mind: If you have a signature line listing the surnames
you are researching, it's helpful to others doing searches to insert spaces or characters
between the names that are not relevant to the post. For example, if you post is about Mr.
Foodjabunny, you might change your signature line to read as such:
Researching FOODJABUNNY, P*E*R*S*N*I*C*K*E*T*Y, B*U*G*A*B*O*O, and S*M*I*T*H
This way anyone searching the archives will only pick up the surname relevant to that
particular post and not all the posts you made regarding your Bugaboo ancestry. Since it's
a bit of a pain to type this up each time, it's relatively easy to create subject lines
for each of your lines ahead of time, and then just choose the relevant one for each post.
And in the End . . .
Ancestry.com's "sister company," RootsWeb.com maintains over 24,000 mailing
lists, most of which are archived. See lists.rootsweb.com
for a complete list of what is available and to locate the archives for each list.
The Ancestry.com Message Boards provide another
great searchable forum for posting and searching for your ancestors. There are currently
over 126,000 with over 9.7 million posts
Mailing lists can be wonderful tools, and when you put a little thought into the messages,
you might be surprised at what you can find. Give it a try!
Juliana Smith is the editor of the Ancestry Daily News and author of The
Ancestry Family Historian's Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine
and Genealogical Computing. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at: mailto:email@example.com, but regrets that
she is unable to assist with personal research.