Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega suggests ways genealogists can get help with their family history research. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”
You’ve started your family history journey. Congratulations! If you’re new to research you probably have a lot of questions. Did you become interested in your family history after watching a genealogy television show? Maybe a DNA kit made you wonder what else you didn’t know about your family history. Whatever your motivation was for starting your search, it’s important to know where you can go for the answers about websites, records, and how to research.
How to Ask for Help
Before we address where to find help, let’s talk a little bit about the best way to go about asking for help. Booksellers joke that they are less than thrilled when someone asks for a book by describing the color of the cover instead of providing the book’s title. The same could be said for those who ask for genealogical help. When you ask for help with your Smith family research, offering few specific details, or you tell someone you’ve looked “everywhere,” you’re not likely to get the response you were hoping for.
Before you ask for help, there are two things to keep in mind. First, know exactly what help you need, and second, be able to clearly show or describe where you’ve looked and what you have found.
Know exactly what help you need is basically the ability to ask a short, succinct genealogical question. You’ll lose people if you tell them a long story that eventually leads to your question. So instead come up with an “elevator speech” that gets to the heart of your research and your question.
For example, consider saying something like: “I’m looking for a birth certificate for someone who was born in 1895 in Kansas.” Avoid telling the possible helper your life story or that of your ancestor. Likely your elevator speech will lead them to asking you follow-up questions that will help them know what advice to give you.
It’s important that your genealogical question includes what you’ve already tried. It’s a waste of your time and that of the helper’s if they spend time suggesting records and repositories you’ve already searched.
However, telling them you’ve looked “everywhere” is also not helpful. Why? Consider a subscription database. You may think you’ve looked everywhere, but perhaps you only did a home page search or you didn’t realize that there is a collection of digitized books on that website that should also be searched. A helper might know more about that website, so it’s important to be specific about what and where you’ve looked.
Seek Help in Person
In some cases, it can be beneficial to receive individualized, in-person help. That’s where your local genealogical society comes in. Your local society includes members who’ve been working on their family history for decades. They know the websites, repositories, and best practices to help you get the answers you seek. Aside from people who can help you, they may also hold special classes for beginning researchers. In addition, monthly educational meetings bring genealogical presenters who provide genealogical know-how that can add to your research skills and knowledge of resources – no matter what your level of expertise is.
Don’t forget to also look for other in-person opportunities. Your local Family History Center has knowledgeable volunteers and access to subscription genealogy websites through their portal. Find your nearest Family History Center on the FamilySearch website.
Libraries may offer genealogy-related presentations that provide information on research or their collections. Look at your local library’s website to find upcoming events.
Lastly, don’t forget the benefit of attending seminars and conferences to get the help you need. Aside from educational presentations and networking opportunities, there can also be opportunities to speak with professional researchers and ask questions at special events or via appointments available at the event. For example, the yearly Southern California Genealogy Society Jamboree offers appointments for research help provided by local professional genealogists.
Seek Help Online
The nice part about doing genealogy research in today’s world is the fact that we have access to so much information online. This also means that we have a way to access people who have expert knowledge much easier than ever before. In just a matter of moments, or perhaps a few days, you potentially have access to information or answers from someone with expert knowledge in a specific type of genealogy or who lives in the place your ancestors are from.
How do you do this? One way is to use social media. By seeking out answers via social media websites where people post or virtually gather, you can ask questions or even learn by reading past posts.
Consider the genealogically-related posts on Facebook. Facebook groups exists for researchers interested in ancestors from a specific place like a county, state or country – or a topic like adoption or Mayflower ancestors. Download the free resource, the Genealogy on Facebook List, available from professional genealogist Katherine R. Willson, for over 300 pages of genealogy groups that might hold the answers you are looking for.
There are other options for seeking help online. Consider emailing repositories or genealogy societies in the place your ancestor was from. If you would just like to find other cousins who potentially have information, create a blog or a website with the information you know. When cousins search on that surname, they will find your online presence (make sure you provide current, up-to-date contact information).
Keep on Researching
Researching our family history is a pursuit that helps us learn more about ourselves by seeking out those who came before us. While it may seem like genealogy is largely done alone at the computer, genealogy is really a pursuit done in collaboration with others as we seek information, ask questions, and find answers. Good luck with your research!