Monday, August 05, 2013

I'll send what I have on the Allens, but it will be a wrench

I have been an avid genealogist since the 1970s. In those days "research" involved combing through dusty files and old books in courthouses, hours spent hunched over fiche and film readers, trying to finish reading through 1300 pages of unindexed county records before the film you ordered at a cost of $15.00 or $20.00 was returned to the dark vault from whence it came, 100 or 1000 miles away.

In those days genealogy was a very civilized pursuit. You wrote polite letters to other genealogists who might have information valuable to you, explained who you were researching, how you were connected and exactly what information you were seeking. You offered to pay for any copying or other expenses and included a self-addressed stamped envelope in case the recipient of your plea was kind enough to reply. If you knew the person you were writing was a "fount of knowledge" for the family you were researching you often tucked a $5.00 or $10.00 bill into the envelope.

Now for a small monthly subscription fee you can maintain a family tree on and have access to millions of ancient records, from old newspapers and high school albums to parish records from the 1500s, census records and military documents. All you have to do is put in the name and start searching.

There is also the "Family Tree", where subscribers can look at others' trees, and very easily pull data from dozens, if not hundreds, of trees into their own. The "Family Tree" on is a potential minefield. Look closely and you find children born 100 (or more) years before their parents, two, three, four families "blended" into one impossible 75 years of childbearing for one incredibly patient wife, men born 100 years before (or after) the Revolution marching with George Washington, 1/2 the world descended from Charlemagne and the other half from Richard the Lion-Hearted.

Truth be told there's a great deal more fiction than fact in Ancestry trees. THIS is where research comes in, or doesn't usually. People just copy from each other, never checking for documentation to see if what they are including is accurate. Newton Allen of Connecticut did not race down on his horse in the nick of time to father your ggg-granddaddy Newton Allen's children in West Virginia and then ride back home to his Connecticut wife and children. Lots of people have the same names, even unusual ones. I though it would be easy to find Stirling Tidwell until I found out that there were dozens of Stirling Tidwells born in the early 100s. And also remember that people were not normally buried in two separate graves in different states unless there was an incredibly messy accident.

So the rule is: Forget using the Family Trees of anyone else as the basis for your "research" unless you're just trying to find any way possible to connect Granddaddy to Dan'l Boone or Davy Crockett and you don't care what path it takes to get you there. 

Most Family Trees are public, but mine is private. This is because I have put years into personal research and if someone wants to use it they must ask for it. I generally ask how they are connected so I know the research is being connected to the right individual. This angers many people who expect to buy a subscription to and find their entire family tree researched and laid out for them, like buying a can of beans off the grocer's shelf. They do not understand that; 1) every family tree is unique 2) they need to do their own research using the the searchable public documents provides (it's really fun!),  and 3) they have no "divine right" to research which has been done, often at a considerable investment of time and expense, by another individual.

We might compare it to your neighbourhood street. Everyone can use the street, but a if a person living on that street puts together a collection of antique clocks there is no question to whom the clock collection belongs. No one would even begin to suggest that the right to drive on the street gives drivers the right to go into the collector's home and take whichever clock strikes their fancy (no pun intended).

I happily share research and documentation on individuals, like wills, deeds, photos, marriage records etc. But I am constantly asked to share not just information on individuals, but whole family lines, by people who do not understand that they must do their own basic work. I've been told, "I don't have time to look up all that stuff!" by someone who wanted a "family tree for her kids" but decided it was easier to simply take my tree than do research on her family, even though we are not related.

I used to delete "requests" like the ones below. Now I try to help others be more successful in their search for their ancestors by sending them a link to this page, so they can learn the right way to seek information from another genealogist. You note, none of these requests contain a greeting, an introduction or the courtesies of please and thank you, they do not even sign their names. All they do is make a rude demand, when common sense dictates that courtesy would produce a better response. Here are some requests which demonstrate how not to ask for another's research.

"Send me everything you have on the Cox family."

"I am a Cole descendant. Send me everything about my ancestors."

"I'm a descendant of X. Send me her parent's names." 

"David Crouch 1744" 

"I want all you have on the Smiths."

"Send me what you have on the Allens. It's mine as much as yours."

"Give me access to your tree."

The following three messages came from one charming young lady in the space of half an hour:

1) "Send me *everything* you have on the Clarks."
2) "I said send that information. I want it NOW."
3) "You _ITCH, how DARE you block me from information that belongs to me!"

Below is an example of the proper way to ask for information from another genealogist. Remember you are asking someone else to do you a favour, so be polite.

1. Begin with a salutation: Dear (Insert name here - if you don't know the name you may say, "Hello", or "Hi" or "Dear Fellow Genealogist" ) 

2. Introduce yourself:  My name is Mr. Very Polite.

3. Say who are researching and why:  I am researching the Civils, who are my paternal grandfather's maternal line. In particular I am looking for information on my grandfather's great-uncle Extremely Civil  who was born in 1810 in Peoria New York. I have never been able to locate him as an adult.

4) Say why you are contacting the person: I see that you have an Extremely Civil b 1810 in Peoria New York in your tree, who died in Reno Nevada in 1885. 

5) Make a POLITE request:  Would you be willing to compare the Extremely Civil in your tree with the Extremely Civil in my tree to see if we have a match?

6) ALWAYS OFFER to EXCHANGE information:  I would be happy to exchange any information on my Civil and allied families (The Well-Breds, Genteels, and Courteous families) that might be useful to you. I have photos of the Civil family and a copy of the family Bible brought from Germany in 1800. If these are of interest I am happy to copy them for you.  [Note; if you have nothing of interest to exchange then you are not ready to ask for another's research, go do some research of your own first]

7) End politely:  Thank you, (or) All the Best (or) Sincerely yours, etc.

8) Then sign your name:  Mr. Very Polite

And, after all this, when you receive a reply, whether the answer is helpful to your research or not, remember to write a "Thank You" note.

And, if you think this is too much trouble, then go do your own research. 


Nan said...

Oh, I do love this. It is amazing what people ask for and expect without any reciprocal offers. Even if one does ask politely for information, it is good to be reminded

Would you mind if I put this in our local Family History Society's journal, with full credits to you?


Deb said...

Hi Nan,

Feel free. My goat is gotten by these folks who were apparently raised by wolves, but think they are related to my 4th great-grandpappy Pious McManahan! LOL