23 September 2009

Genealogy News and Issues - October 2009

by Charles S. "Chuck" Mason Jr., CG

From time to time the topic of not receiving a reply to either a letter or an email that someone has written comes up in genealogy circles. There are a number of reasons that cause professional genealogists either to not reply or to simply turn down a request for research. An email that I received earlier this week prompted me to write about this issue this month.

I received an email from someone I do not know. Actually, there were two identical emails, sent exactly six minutes apart. The email stated that I was “REQUIRED TO VIEW THE ATTACHED FILE BELOW.” The file was regarding the estate of a Dr. Girard Mason. The entire message was typed in capital letters and gave no explanation regarding who this person was, who the person sending the email was, or why they were contacting me.

My first reaction was that this might be an attachment with a virus. My second reaction was, “How dare you tell me what I am ‘REQUIRED’ to do?” I have not opened either copy of the email. I did reply to the sender that I was not required to do anything, especially when I do not know who you are. So far, I have not received a message back. However, this incident brought to mind other emails and, back in the dark ages, snail mail letters I have received.

Since I do research for others, and I have a website, I often receive emails from potential clients. In the mid 1990s I was secretary of a genealogical society. Today that society has a website and often receives inquiries from people seeking help. A number of years ago I came up with some guidelines for letters. They also apply to emails and may be helpful in explaining why you may not receive a reply to your letter or email.

  • Contact the appropriate research facility, organization, or researcher. Today the majority of these organizations and professional genealogist have websites. If you are seeking information about someone that lived in one part of the state, do not assume that a facility or organization many miles away will be able to help you. They may not even have a research facility of their own.

    A professional genealogist may list the facilities or counties where they research. They may not research in other facilities; especially if they are a considerable distance away. They may list specialties or locations where they research, and those locations may not be where they reside.

    The facility, organization, or researcher may have information about areas not listed on the website or may do research in areas or facilities also not listed. However, do not assume this is true. Contact them and ask. It is wasted time to send a lengthy letter or email requesting research outside their resources or areas of expertise.
  • Write clearly and concisely. Sometimes I have received messages with sentences that run on and on. Unscrambling what the person is trying to say is next to impossible. This can be extremely difficult if you are dealing with two or more people with the same name or several generations of the same family. You might try designating which person you are talking about with a descriptive note like William [the father], William [the son], and William [the grandson]. If the problem involves several generations of the same family, clearly identify which generation of the family you are talking about and identify each person.

    Another problem I often encounter is mixing dates and places of birth, marriage, and death for two or more people. If you have some of this information for both a husband and wife and are requesting the missing information, identify what you have for the husband and what you are missing. Then do the same for the wife. The same would apply to the children of the couple.
  • Use proper grammar and spelling. I know that the use of email has caused many people to relax their use of grammar and spelling. However, it can be extremely difficult to absorb the information in emails that are full of misspellings and poor grammar. In some cases, because of misspelled words and grammar, the message does not make sense. The lack of punctuation can also make the message hard to understand.
  • Clearly identify what information you have, what resources revealed the information, and what resources you have checked. Identify the resources that also produced negative results. Professional genealogists often hear complaints that they searched records that the person had already searched, but the person did not tell the genealogist that they had already done this research.
  • Keep your expectations reasonable. Do not expect to find everything in one place or in a short period of time. Sometimes brick wall problems may be simple to solve, but often they are not. Many different records may need to be searched in a number of facilities.

    Also, requests like “send me everything you have on a certain family” may be unreasonable. I once received a request that our genealogical society send the person everything we had on the Lee family of Virginia. First, we did not have a research facility, so we did not have any information about the family. We would have had to research at a local library. Second, the Lee family came to Virginia before the American Revolution. There are many generations of the Lee Family and many books, articles, and other information about this family. The request was unreasonable to try to fill, not to mention very costly. This person may have only needed a small amount of information.
I try to work through the problems with the information or lack of information in letters and emails and always reply to the person. However, in some cases I turn the person down because I do not want to deal with the issues I mentioned above. Sometimes facilities or individuals will not answer your requests. In some cases it is not because of anything you did; but in other cases it may be because of some of the reasons I have included here. ◦