The Dos & Don'ts of an Effective Genealogy Query

methods & strategies Mar 26, 2021

In genealogy, asking for help is a good thing. In fact, it happens to be a problem-solving strategy I advocate (you can grab a copy of my free problem-solving guide here).

Asking for help usually involves a query. You might decide to post a query on a message board or in a Facebook group, or you might even reach out to librarians and archivists in places where your ancestors lived. When you compose a query, there are some dos and don’ts you’ll want to follow so that you can help others help you.

Before I dive into the nitty gritty, let me show you an example of a not-so-good query. Consider this query* posted to the Smith surname board on Ancestry:

Title: John Smith

Looking for John Smith who died between 1880 and 1900, probably in Morgan County, Illinois.

*Okay, this is factitious and may be a little extreme, but I have seen queries of this broad and undefined nature before.

I’m guessing that if you saw this query, you might not respond; heck, you may not even read the query since the title gives no indication of place, time period, or anything other than a very common name. The query is not any better than the title. Sure it gives a time frame and a place, but do you know how many John Smith’s died in Morgan County between 1880 and 1900? (At least four.)

Not only that, but when I see the range 1880-1900, I think, “destroyed 1890 census” and “20-year gap.” Did John Smith really die, or did the researcher simply lose track of him in that 20-year span and jump to a premature conclusion? Who knows. There just isn’t enough information in the query to work with.

So, if you really want help and don’t want your genealogy query to go unread, follow these tips. They will help you form a thoughtful query that will allow people to actually help you.

Do: Include enough information in the title to give people on message boards enough reason click to read the entire query. Same goes for email subject lines.

Don’t: Use titles/subject lines that are vague, such as a name only or simply “Help!” (seriously, I see this all the time).

Do: Provide a clearly written and succinct snapshot of what you know about the person you are inquiring about. When the details are speculation, be sure to note that. If you don’t have a lot of details on the specific person of interest, you can include details about their parents, spouse, and/or child as these folks are part of their network and can help separate them from people of the same name.

Don’t: Provide every last detail you have for this person…that’s overkill 😀 Conversely, don’t provide such scant details that people don’t have enough information to help you.

Do: State your objective and reason for the query, such as: “Trying to determine the parents of [person of interest].” Limit this to one (maybe two, if tightly related) things.

Don’t: Ask for everything under the sun. People are willing to help, but don’t take advantage of them. This is particularly sage advice when sending inquiries to librarians and archivists.

Do: Include the places you have looked or briefly note the resources consulted thus far. This way, people willing to help won’t waste their time suggesting or looking in places/sources you’ve already searched.

Don’t: Include every last source consulted—just include those that are relevant to your question/objective. For example, if you are looking for the maiden name of a female, you could say “I’ve searched for a marriage record in XYZ County and come up empty, birth records for her children were not recorded in XYZ state during this time period, and all of her children’s death certificates state ‘not known’ for mother's maiden name.”

Do: Write your query as if you were writing a business letter or email. Use proper grammar, capitalization, and punctuation, etc. Please, I beg you!

Don’t: Expect people to take you seriously if you just slap something together that lacks punctuation and is riddled with run-on sentences, grammar errors, and misspelled words.

Do: If you have a public tree online, provide a direct link to the person of interest so people can get additional information and see the family structure.

Don’t: Include the main link to your tree where people have to spend time searching to find the (correct!) person of interest.

Do: Respond to additional questions or points of clarification in a timely manner.

Don’t: Wait days to respond to these questions—people will likely lose interest in trying to help you.

Do: Thank each individual who provides advice or information.

Don’t: Look a gift horse in the mouth. Pay the generosity forward when you can.

Bottom line: Be specific and provide enough information so that people can actually help you 😀

Why not take a stab a crafting an effective query? Choose someone you're working on right now and use these tips to write a query. Then post it on applicable message boards or in applicable Facebook groups.

I'd love to hear how it goes. Did these tips help you focus in on your person of interest and clarify your objective? If you posted your query, did you get any good advice or information? Let me know in the discussion of the post on Facebook!

P.S. Asking for help is one of my go-to strategies for problem solving. For more strategies, download my free guide.

© Julie Tarr. This article was first published at Genealogy In Action; appearance of this article elsewhere, without my permission, violates copyright.