When I started researching my family history, pre-Internet, I knew that if I wanted help I had a few options. I could attend a genealogy society meeting. I could go to the Family History Center. I could even write to Everton’s Genealogical Helper magazine and hope to connect with someone researching the same ancestor or ancestral line.
Fast forward to today and some of the ways we ask for help has changed. Everton’s magazine is gone (but you can see those old inquiries in the Everton’s Genealogical Helper database on MyHeritage). Many genealogy societies include virtual offerings due to the pandemic. Family History Centers still help patrons and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah is also available for virtual assistance. Add to those tried-and-true options what is now available online: genealogy and history specific Facebook Groups, genealogy chats on Twitter, online family trees, message boards, and library chat features and the answer to your question could literally be a few keystrokes away.
All of these online options provide a way for your to crowdsource your problem. “Crowdsourcing” means to “obtain (information or input into a particular task or project) by enlisting the services of a large number of people, either paid or unpaid, typically via the internet.” It’s the way we answer questions about a variety of things in our day-to-day lives today from reading reviews of services to posting questions on Facebook. Genealogists use it as well and should in order to find the answers they need.
So what’s the best way to utilize online help? A few things to keep in mind before you crowdsource your genealogy problem include:
1. Choose the Right Place
Where’s the best place to ask your questions? Well, it depends. Is it something “simple” that you think other more experienced genealogists might know? Are you asking about what records were kept in Madrid, Spain in the 18th century? Are you wanting to know whether people had to have driver’s licenses in Florida in 1900? Your fellow genealogist might be able to answer that simple question but to learn more about Madrid you should probably seek out a genealogist who specializes in Spanish research, a society located in Madrid, or a nearby archive. A specific question about historical Florida driver’s licenses might be something for a librarian or archivist at a library in Florida.
If your question is specific to an area, you’re better off asking those familiar with the area (like a Facebook genealogy group for a specific location). Don’t assume that records everywhere are consistent, locations do differ and having someone in that location help you might be your best bet.
2. Be Specific
When I present genealogy brick wall lectures, I invite the audience to ask me a question about their brick wall. I always ask them to tell me their problem in 2 sentences. In those 2 sentences I want them to tell me the problem and where they’ve looked. This helps me get a sense of the problem and where they have searched for an answer so I know how to best help.
The same method is useful for asking for help online. Be specific, don’t get into a long story. Most people are used to scrolling through social media posts and not reading longer, detailed posts (in the case of social media). So briefly explain what you are trying to find, the location, and date. You might also want to explain briefly where you’ve looked. That way you don’t get multiple suggestions for the same places you’ve already searched. Responders can then ask you additional questions that will help them help you.
3. Be Patient
Patience is a virtue and family historians need to have more than their share. I don’t know about you but I’ve had some genealogy problems I’ve been working on, on-and-off for decades. Sometimes online assistance, or getting the right answer, isn’t as instantaneous as we would like. Keep in mind that it might be worthwhile to ask for help in more than one place. A message board is an old tried-and-true way to get help. But you might have something posted on a message board and not get an answer for years. A Facebook genealogy group might not be as active and it might take some time. So be patient.
I know this article is titled 3 Tips, but I want to provide one more for you to consider.
4. Not Everything is Free
I know we like free genealogy. Lucky for us, the genealogy world is filled with volunteers who give freely of their time and talents. However, at a certain point you may have to pay for that record lookup or that expertise. Your best bet for finding information in a specific place, might be to ask the local society to do some research. However, you’ll need to pay a fee or donation to do so. But remember, it’s definitely worth it to get the information you need and probably much less expensive than if you were traveling to that place.
What’s Your Question?
Crowdsourcing your genealogy question is a wonderful way to get the answers you need. But it takes more than just asking online. You need to carefully consider your question, what you need, and who might be able to give you that information.
Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.