Ask the Right Way
As you search the web, you'll eventually come across other individuals researching the same ancestors. They may have information on your family that has been passed down to them, including treasured photographs, family stories, or even official documents and records. Or they may have researched a family line that you haven't yet had the time or resources to pursue. The first instinct — and generally a good one — is to contact them via e-mail. Keep in mind, however, that while your shared interest in the same ancestors means they are likely to be related to you in some distant way, in reality these people are basically strangers to you, as you are to them. To better ensure that your e-mail is opened and answered, or your message board post isn't overlooked, consider the following:
Include a meaningful subject line. An e-mail from an unknown sender with a subject line of “Help!” is likely to be deleted without being read. Include the surname or full name of the individual you are writing about, as well as something like “genealogy” or “family history.” Subject lines such as “Powell Genealogy” or “Family Tree of Archibald Powell” are more likely to catch someone's attention than “Hi.”
Keep it simple. Explain briefly who you are and how you received the individual's name and e-mail address, as well as how you are related to the family you are contacting them about. Consider this first e-mail as an introduction to test the waters. It's not the best time to share your entire life story.
Be precise. Many people throughout time have shared the same name, so you'll need to include additional details to help people identify the individual you're interested in. Where did he live? About when was he born? Can you provide names of other members of his family? Briefly explain what you already know or where you've already searched for this individual.
Don't ask for the moon. A genealogist who has been patiently researching their family for years isn't really going to appreciate an e-mail asking for “everything you have on my family.” Most genealogists are exceedingly generous in sharing the information they have uncovered, but be reasonable in what you ask for. Asking for a few specific facts, such as a marriage date or parents' names, is a good rule of thumb. They may offer to share more, of course, but they'll appreciate that you don't expect it of them.
Protect the privacy of the living. While it's okay to share the names of your living relatives with other people, please don't give people their birth dates, social security numbers, or other private information.
Offer to share information in return. If you're asking for something specific, it generally pays to offer something in return. Perhaps you have some old family photos, documents, or dates that this individual may be interested in.
Say thank you. Take a few minutes to respond with a quick note of thanks for any information or response you receive, whether it is truly helpful to you or not.
The above guidelines also apply to posting queries about your family online, whether on a genealogy forum or through a mailing list. Keep your query short and sweet, but include a relevant subject line, identifying details about your ancestor, and an overview of the places you've already searched.
A genealogist should always give credit where credit is due. Don't add someone else's family history research to your genealogy database and represent it as your own work, or share the information without acknowledging the source. The many careful, painstaking hours of research that went into putting all of those facts together deserve to be acknowledged.
Volunteer help can also be of tremendous assistance when researching your family tree. The genealogical community tends to be a very generous, giving group of individuals. All you have to do is ask a question and you'll usually get an answer. Help can be found almost anywhere you look, but the following groups are especially notable for the volunteer assistance they provide.
Books We Own (
Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (