How to Get Your Genealogy Questions Answered

woman-687560_640All of us need to ask questions when we’re doing our genealogy research. Whether you’re talking with a librarian, a courthouse clerk, or a cousin, there are some strategies you can use to get your questions answered. 

Actually Ask a Question

“I’m trying to find Joseph Dickinson.” Ok, that’s nice, but what specifically are you trying to find? His birthplace? When he was born? When and where he died? His parents?

Pretend you’re on Jeopardy and phrase it in the form of a question.

Where was Joseph Dickinson born?

It’s easier (and more productive) for the other person to answer when there’s actually a question.

Get to the Point

The clerk at the county probate office really doesn’t want to hear a litany of ancestors. He or she simply doesn’t have the time to listen to a long-winded backstory of how the person you’re looking for is related to you. (Plus, it can be confusing — and annoying — to the person if he or she isn’t interested in genealogy in the first place.)

My ancestor William Harrison Skinner died in 1850, leaving a widow and several children. If I wanted to obtain the guardianship records for the children, I don’t need to tell the probate clerk that William died in the spring, so he showed up on the 1850 mortality schedule, that the family split apart after his death, with children ending up in 3 states, and that his widow went on to marry at least three more times.

Instead, I would ask the clerk, “I’m looking for guardianship records from the 1850s. Can you point me to them?”

Be Prepared to Clarify

One of the first things that librarians learn in library school is that the question that someone asks usually is not the question that they want answered. Go figure.

Consider this exchange:

Researcher: Where are the books on Hessian soldiers in the American Revolution?

Librarian: What is it you’re trying to find?

Researcher: Books on Hessian soldiers. Duh. [walks away in disgust]

I’ve seen this play out in person and online. The librarian isn’t trying to be a smart-aleck. He’s trying to point the person to the most appropriate resource for the person to use to solve their problem. In this case, it may not be a book about Hessian soldiers. Let’s try that exchange again:

Researcher: Where are the books on Hessian soldiers in the American Revolution?

Librarian: What is it you’re trying to find?

Researcher: I think my ancestor might have been a Hessian soldier. I’m looking for a roster of all of them to see if he’s on it.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Now the librarian can ask about why they think their ancestor was a Hessian and suggest resources they can use to try to prove or disprove that theory. (By the way, there isn’t a comprehensive index of all Hessian soldiers in the American Revolution.)

Don’t feel bad if the librarian answers your question with a question. He or she is just trying to point you to the very best resources to answer the question that you’re really trying to solve.

(While you’re talking with the librarian, make sure to ask these three things.)

Be Gentle

When you’re talking with relatives, there could be subjects that they don’t want to talk about. Be gentle. Be kind. Interrogating relatives usually leads to one-sided discussions.

If the issue is when something happened, like “when did your grandfather pass away?” and the person doesn’t remember the year, ask for a frame of reference. “Were you still in high school when he died” or something similar can at least help you get an idea of when it occurred.

What strategies have you used to get your genealogy questions answered?

How to Get Your Genealogy Questions AnsweredEveryone needs to ask questions while doing genealogy research. Here are some strategies to get your genealogy questions answered.

Posted: December 16, 2016.

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