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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Communicating With Fellow Researchers Online
by Rhonda R. McClure

October 24, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Genealogy thrives on people. The more people we are in communication with the better our chances of finding information on the line that we are currently working on. For this reason, the Internet has become a major resource in the researching our ancestors. Through the many different communication areas we have the chance to meet many genealogists, at least virtually, and work through research problems.

Of course, the key to this communication is that we indeed communicate with each other. There are many different ways to communicate virtually, the most popular being bulletin or message boards and mailing lists. Lately, though, the problem is that people are taking their correspondence back to individual e-mail, preventing others who are working on the same line the opportunity to share or join in on the conversation.

Message boards offer a great way to reach many other researchers.

Protecting the Innocent

One of the reasons, I believe, that we are seeing a return to one-on-one correspondence in e-mail is the need to protect the living individuals about whom we may be conversing. What is it they say? A secret isn't a secret as soon as you tell one person. The same is true about sharing information about our living relatives. As soon as we share that information with just one person, we have lost the control to protect the innocent. We hope the person we are corresponding with in e-mail will not incorporate the information we have shared in his or her public postings or in the publishing to the Web of the family genealogy. Usually though, this isn't the case.

Instead of narrowing your posts to a single individual through e-mail, better to limit any sharing of information to the generation before those who are currently living. In most cases the individuals we need to reach, anyway, are those with whom we share a common ancestor some generations back. They really don't need to know my complete descent down to me, just that I am working on that lineage and am willing to share what I have up to a point. The information that I am willing to share is in fact more important to them than my living relatives because it is more pertinent to the research question at hand.

Some people feel more comfortable corresponding via e-mail. They can write their response offline, taking the time they need to get it just right. Many people have a hang up when it comes to corresponding on a bulletin board because they are doing the composing while online. One way to get around this hang up is to compose a response in your word processing program. This allows you to read through the message and take advantage of your word processor's spell checker and grammar checker as well. Then you can simply copy and paste to the bulletin board. The biggest thing to using this approach is to remember that you cannot use any special formatting in your word processor because the text field of the bulletin board will not be able to recognize it.

Where to Share?

I see so many individuals posting to bulletin boards asking for help and then telling folks to contact them in e-mail. Sharing through e-mail narrows the field of correspondents to just yourself and the person you are contacting. The benefit of a bulletin board is the fact that others can come along and read the posts. I can't tell you how many times I have seen information shared on a bulletin board that was of benefit to many people. It is also important to remember that for every person who does post to a bulletin board you have a number of individuals who are simply reading. They may not feel comfortable posting, but they are also researching the same lineage. As a result they read the posts, learning about the family as well as genealogical methodology in the process.

By sharing publicly on the bulletin board or the mailing list, you are offering a case study of sorts to those who are new to genealogy. By seeing how a particular resource aided you in your research they are able to apply the same resource to their own research problem. Of course, if the correspondence is done in e-mail then no one gets to learn.

I know that some feel that they had to learn the hard way so why shouldn't others, but I think if you look back over your research career, such as it is, you will find that you have been helped in many ways. Perhaps you have read magazine articles, or you have read how-to articles on Web sites, such as Perhaps you have stumbled into bulletin boards and just read the messages there. All of that helped you, just as you can help others now. The best part is you really don't have to go out of your way, simply converse on the open bulletin boards instead of taking everything to e-mail.

Give It To Me In E-mail

I will confess that I have been conversing electronically for more than a decade now. No, the Internet has not been available to genealogists for that long. I started conversing online back when commercial services such as GEnie, CompuServe and Prodigy were all the rage. We were reduced to conversing with just text, no pretty pictures, and as a result there was a lot of give and take and sharing that went on in the bulletin boards of these dial up services.

Perhaps that is why I find I have a negative reaction to those who post asking for everything I have on a given surname and asking me to send it to them in e-mail. Usually everything I have comprises years of work. More importantly, if I am going to share my information, then I want to know that the person I am sharing with will understand that sharing is a two way street. I find that those who are not willing to check back to the various bulletin boards, especially now that they offer notifications, are also not willing to share with me and to stay in the research for the long haul. There is a lot of information available online, but many times it still requires that we take the time to go digging in original records. Some of those records I may not have access to and may need to rely on the willingness of others.

This is another reason to leave the correspondence on the bulletin board. If you converse with the person in e-mail and they also do not have access to the records you need, then you are no closer to getting the information you want. Whereas if you carry on your correspondence on the bulletin board and both of you post that you cannot get the records needed, you will be surprised how often someone will come along and say that they can get the records for you. It may not be tomorrow, but it is usually much quicker than you will ever get them yourself.

In Conclusion

Bulletin boards and mailing lists offer genealogists a place to reach out and connect with other genealogists. It offers a place for those who are new to the hobby to read and follow a research project along, learning as they read. It offers genealogists the strength in numbers that are so often needed to progress on a particular lineage. Don't throw it all away by taking your correspondence to e-mail.

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

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