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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Have You Asked the Right Person or the Right Question?
by Rhonda R. McClure

February 06, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Genealogy is the search for answers. Of course since we are searching for answers, then there must be questions. Usually for every answer on a pedigree chart we find that we have two new questions, that is the parents of the person we just identified and added to the lineage.

For genealogy to be successful we often must rely on the information of others. Some of that information we may find on our own, but many times we must ask someone. How we ask and who we ask has changed quite a bit over the years, especially since the Internet became such a presence in how we do our research.

Avoid disappointment by being prepared.

Asking the Right Person?

You may be sitting there scratching your head right now wondering if this is a trick question. After all we are talking about asking questions and perhaps I am trying to set you up. Unfortunately I am not. There are many times when the question we have asked has not been presented to the right person. Those who are kind or who have the time, will take the time to respond back and let you know that they cannot be of help. Others will simply delete or ignore the message without responding.

Too often I see questions asked of individuals who really haven't said anything about the subject at hand. One person may have mentioned British census in a general message, perhaps letting others know that the 1901 census is online. Then I see others asking specific questions of that poster about the British census. Sometimes the original poster just doesn't respond and other times, they may point out that they have not used the census and were just sharing the information for those who might be interested.

I suspect that I see more questions than most people because of the various columns I write. The nature of those columns has me out there looking to see what has been posted by others both in the way of questions as well as the answers. Too often I see someone post a message and then another person comes along and posts a "follow up" to that message asking a question. Sometimes that question has nothing to do with the original message, and as a result the original message author sometimes can't help the person.

I also see problems in messages people send me when they ask me to do research for them. While I certainly answer questions as part of the columns I write, and some of those do have research involved in them, it is impossible for me to do all the research that people ask for. And I know I am not the only author or editor to whom this has happened.

Asking the Right Question?

Again this is not a trick question. Too often we don't take the time to read what we have typed before we click the send button. The question goes out either in e-mail or onto a message board but when others read it they don't understand it. It could be that a critical word was omitted. Sometimes the grammar is off making the sentence hard to follow. Sometimes we have simply just not phrased the question correctly.

For instance, we might have wanted to ask how to find land records in a county. We post the message and no one answers or they ask us questions. If you take the time to go back and see what was originally sent, it is sometimes clear why we either went unanswered or other people had questions of their own about our message.

Too many times I have received questions that don't make any sense. I get the feeling like I have walked into a room in the middle of a conversation that I cannot follow because I wasn't there for the beginning. The problem here is that there is no beginning, just the message I have received. I know that others receive similar messages. The person who sends the message assumes that they have been clear, when in fact it just seemed like they were clear because they were looking at their research folder or the census page or whatever sparked the question in the first place.

This is an easy habit to fall into and sometimes we forget that the person receiving the question doesn't have the same research sitting beside them at their desk.

Asking for Too Much?

If there is a faux pas in messages that I see the most, I suspect it would have to be the person who is asking for the moon and the stars. In some cases I can tell that the person is new to the hobby and really doesn't understand what they have asked. Other times though I am forced to ask myself if it is an attack of the "lazies."

When you post a message asking for others to send everything they have on a given surname, you are in essence asking them to send you their life's work. Many genealogists have been researching their family tree for ten or more years. You are asking them to send you everything they have done in that period of time on a given surname or lineage. Never mind the amount of money they may have spent to get some of the records.

This is not to say that a genealogist is not willing to share. Most genealogists that I have met are more than willing to share. They are, however, looking for someone who will share back. Eventually they may give you the moon and the stars if they think you will help them in finding the sun. Remember, genealogists need other genealogists.

In Conclusion

We are constantly asking questions in genealogy. We ask who, when, and where just about all the time. And each time we answer those questions on one individual we have others for whom we are looking for those same answers. If you have not asked the right question or the right person, though, you may find that your questions are not getting answered.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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