Do you regularly contact other genealogists when researching? Is there a feeling in today’s world that we don’t need to reach out to others because we can find everything we need on our own? Have the messaging systems at genealogy companies made it more difficult to get in touch with each other, even though advances in telecommunication in the last 40 years should make it easier?
Thomas W. Jones, PhD, CG, CGL, FASG, FUGA, FNGS gave the lecture, “The Advance of Research Habits over Recent Decades—And the Downside” at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG) in January. The lecture was part of the “Meeting Standards with DNA – Research Strategies” course coordinated by Karen Stanbary. This is part three in my four part series include about the lecture.
Part 3: Collaboration and Personal Communication
Today, genealogists can “collaborate” by looking at each other’s trees or reading their notes as posted on popular tree-building websites. In the pre-1980s era, Dr. Jones recollects sending SASEs – self addressed stamped envelopes. Finding inquiries about common surnames in Everton’s Genealogical Helper, a circular for connecting genealogy resarchers, genealogists would write a letter. Everyone included their home address in their inquiries, or how could anyone ever contact them? There were not as many privacy concerns in those days, because identity theft didn’t exist yet.
Jones stated that he received responses to over 80-90% of his lettesr. Today’s abysmal response to messages in the Ancestry messaging system is an indication that something has changed. First of all, many people don’t even know they have messages waiting for them at Ancestry. Jones recommends that all family history websites facilitate the sharing of email addresses of users, instead of using their own messaging system. This helps users receive genealogy communications in a way that they’re used to and reduces the friction for responding.
Jones noted that Ancestry allows you to add links to your website and social media accounts on your profile, but has no field for email address. I have added my email address to the about me section beneath my name.
Don’t Be Afraid to Reach Out
One of my main takeaways from Dr. Jones’ lecture is to not be afraid to reach out to other researchers. What’s the worst that can happen? They don’t respond. And if you don’t try, they definitely won’t respond. Every time I receive a response, I’m pleasantly surprised!
Sending letters was one of the key ways pre-1980s researchers collaborated. They often found rare photos, family bibles, and records. We can do the same! It’s easy to “lurk” – looking at others’ trees, wondering where they got their information, checking their social media profiles – and never reach out. There is power in emailing other researchers and asking for help. I emailed a researcher who wrote a book about one of my ancestral families after I had solved my “brick wall” question on that line. After a few emails back and forth, it became apparent that had known the answer for several decades! It would have been wise to reach out earlier in my research.
Another time I found a blog post about an ancestor in England. I was working to resolve conflicting evidence about the person, and the blog post helped. I needed more information though, so after returning to the blog post over and over, I finally decided to comment on the post and hope for a response. The blog author emailed me and gave me the home address of his cousin, a 90-year-old in England who sent me photos, documents, and family stories that helped me solve the mystery. Even more exciting than getting email responses from other researchers is getting large packets in your mailbox stamped with “royal mail!’
This lecture was in a course about DNA evidence, so of course my mind turned to the messages we send to our DNA matches. Learning about the history of collaboration among researchers made me realize that personal communication with our DNA matches is an art. We should try to work together with them, be polite, and offer to share what we have. I think some of my messages to matches have been too focused on getting the information I wanted and less focused on genuine interest and collaboration.
Here are some of my suggestions for collaborating with others:
– Share your email address in the “about me” part of your Ancestry.com profile, as well as FamilySearch and other tree-building and collaborative family history sites.
– Include communication with other researchers in your research plans. Just give it a try!
– Respond to others’ inquiries. Often I will get questions about sources and where I found information. I always respond, even if just to say, “I don’t remember,” or “I don’t know,” or “I must have copied that from someone else’s tree.” (Then I decide if you have enough sources to keep that info in your tree or delete it. I’m surprised at the amount of information I copied from other Ancestry trees when I first started.)
– Establish relationships with others instead of lurking. Be genuine and respectful.