Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Four Things To Remember When Asking a Stranger for Research Help

Charles Crow (and sons) and his Harness & Saddle Shop in SLC.
So you decided you are going to do some family history research. Good for you. Millions of people find it a satisfying, even rewarding endeavor. But like most people (well, everyone, really) you have run into the metaphoric brick wall. You've done the basics, like asking your living relatives, but you have reached the limit of what they can tell you. Public records have run dry and you have no idea how to proceed. There is someone you think might be able to help. You may have seen their name on message boards or in blog posts. Perhaps you noticed they are also working on the same line as you or perhaps they are an expert in the area you are lost in. Whatever the reason, you believe that he or she can help. The only problem is you don't know this person at all.

This is not a primer on how to find someone's contact info. I'm assuming you already have the right email address, but you are not sure what to say. It can be tricky, especially if you are like me and have introvert tendencies. With that in mind I'm going to pull from the scores (I don't think it has been hundreds) of people who have reached out to me over the last 9 years with varying degrees of success. So here we go...

1. Don't expect people to devote their time to your issue. 

This may sound harsh, but hear me out. Many people perform research for a living, or at least wish they could. Sometimes we Mormons expect other Mormons to donate their time and talents to the greater good. And while a bishop may ask a ward member who is a plumber to help out a needy family, it is a bad manners to ask strangers, even Mormon strangers for the same treatment, especially when we are not talking about necessities. While many people will be happy to help others - and I've had the family history consultant calling where I did exactly that - few have the resources to regularly give away their livelihood for free. (I know. I'm a cranky old man)

As an amateur, however, I don't make a living at this. And while I wouldn't lose any income, I have a life outside of my limited time dedicated to this hobby. So I will pick and choose the people I help and the people I direct elsewhere. Honestly, I am far more likely to help someone I know. Which brings me to the next point.

2. Introduce yourself first. 

Remember that although you don't know this person, you do know enough that they might have some knowledge you need. The reverse, however, is not true. They are not even aware you exist. Now is the time to fix that. Tell them who you are and how you know about them and why you think they will be able to answer your question. For Example:
Hi, my name is Bruce, and I am new to family history. My ancestors came to New York in 1854.  I understand from your blog that you are an expert in 19th century LDS immigrants and how they found jobs in New York. 
Notice I started with my name, and added my specific interest. I also stated how I came to know about this fictitious expert.

3. Offer something. 

It doesn't have to be grand or earth shattering. It shouldn't be too large to consume in a brief reading. But it should grab you expert's interest.
One of my New York immigrant ancestors found work making saddles, a job which included a contract for Johnston's Army. He would often have to deal with the procurement officer who had already made up his mind about the Mormons. Charles loved to relate how he told that officer that they were going out west to be licked.
The ones I receive that catch my interest tend to describe a story about a Tennessee Mormon conversion story. They are the hardest to find, especially when the subject is relatively unknown, because they rarely make it into the official record. So when someone offers one that has been locked away in a personal journal, hold me back!

Notice in my example I have yet to ask my question. While I tend to value getting to the point, most requests I receive get to the point far too quickly. Which brings me the item.

4. Don't ask for "everything."

Even if it is just on a particular family, its too much to ask. In some of the email contacts I have received in the last 9 years, the request was for exactly that.
Can send me everything you have on the [X family]? 
Uh, No!

First of all, I have no idea what you have and what you don't. There is no way I'm going to waste time sending you something you already have (see #1, above).

Second, I don't know what you have tried that isn't working. If you haven't even checked the census cause you don't know how, then you need serious help which I'm not inclined to give (see #1, above). Have you overlooked the 1870 census because your search has been too strict? I might know the one piece of info you need for a breakthrough which will let you continue finding more on your own. But because you were not specific about your problem (i.e. you can't find Charles Crow in the 1870 census) I can't tell you that he was listed as Henry Crow that year - his middle name - because his mother who lived with them that year answered the census taker and that was what she called him. (Note to family: I made that example up. Repeat with care.)

Third, I don't know what you really want. Are you looking for citations & references? Are you hoping for journals, letters, or stories? Do you just want enough dates to submit the name to the temple? Are you trying to go back one more generation? All of those things tell me what kind of family historian you are, and what kind of info you might think would be worth my time to send to you (see #1, above) (Note that if you are asking about a relative I just spend 6 weeks fixing, I will get protective)

Instead, pick one thing, THE item that has you baffled, and ask that, just that.
I know Charles' father was a needle maker in England, but I've always wondered how Charles got into the saddle making business once he arrived in New York. Was it a business that hired emigrants? Did the church have emigration agents who helped him find a job? Is there somewhere you can direct me that might have some hints about this?
Then let the stranger set the tone for how much she (or he) wants to share. I could go on about other things to be aware of, such as the size of your first email (Short. No more than 300 words.) and the need to proofread, but I think if we all could get these four right, I'll be happy. All told, a successful first contact with a stranger who might be able to help with your research can lead to years of collaboration. Take the time and the effort to do it right and although you may not get "everything" right away, you will be better off in the long run.

(disclaimer: I may be a cranky old man, but I secretly enjoy being asked, and helping people who share my interest.)


Ardis said...

Yes. Yes. Yes. YES. We have received, and either answered or ignored all the same requests!

BruceAllen said...

Ardis, You were one of those on my mind as I wrote this.

LauraN said...

Bruce very politely asked my sister-in-law for help identifying someone in a photo, and she passed it on to my husband. The request followed all of these guidelines. My spouse was able to identify the ancestor. Spouse might dump further information later, but I think he got distracted.

BruceAllen said...

Yeah. I am very familiar with being distracted. I have no suggestions for.... wait, did you say photos? I have photos that could use some attention identifying the people in them. I'm working on a post right now that will ask people to help matching names with faces. Now what were we talking about?