Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Wisdom Wednesday: Writing Queries for Surname Message Boards

Would you respond to this query on a surname message board? (Names have been changed to protect the guilty.)

Hidden family
  Help! Seeking info on Plain S. Hidden, wife Luellen, daughter Constant. I know the family lived in Crawford Co and also Washington Co.
The good news: Showing the patriarch's first name and middle initial, plus his wife and daughter's names, is a big help. Listing a "who" is the first step.

The bad news: This query has no specific "what," "when," or "where." What, exactly, is the researcher looking for? Looking for Plain's parents, perhaps, or Constant's descendants? When did Mr. Hidden and family live in these places? In what state(s) are Crawford and Washington counties located?

My six top tips for effective queries:

  1. Who. List full names where you know them, and initials if all else fails. List as many of the immediate family (sibs or descendants or parents) as practical so readers can determine whether their family tree connects with the family you're searching for. Where possible, put surnames in CAPS or bold so they stand out.
  2. What. What do you want to know, within reason? If you're hoping to be handed a complete family tree, complete with source citations, you're probably on the wrong planet. But if you want to know parents' names, for example, you just might get lucky.
  3. When. Let readers know the approximate period that you know about or that you're hoping for information about. In this example, the query writer might have written, "Found in 1910 Census for Crawford county, Michigan, missing from later Census years."
  4. Where. County names aren't much good without identifying the states. Even if you're posting to a locality message board where everyone knows you're talking about Michigan, it doesn't hurt to spell it out. After all, many states have a Crawford county (not just Michigan but also Ohio, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Kansas, just to name a few).
  5. Play nice. Always offer to exchange information. Remember, you never know who you'll meet on a surname message board. If you want to take, you should be willing to give.
  6. Include current contact info. Be sure your e-mail address or other contact info is available to someone replying to your query. If you change e-mail addresses, update your queries. You don't want to miss a message from that long-lost cousin!
Cyndi's List has a number of good links about how to write queries. Good luck!


  1. I agree completely. The number of poor queries I see daily on message boards is disappointing. Not just from a personal research point of view (are they my family or not), but also can I help this researcher.

    Poor queries and poor subject lines. We hope the researchers learn as they grow!

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Very good points. I must admit that I often write fairly generic queries. Mostly because if I am writing a query about a family line I really don't have anything on them and would appreciate anything and everything someone else could share. We were just discussing on my blog how long to wait before you re-post a query. What are your thoughts? (On a side note I just noticed that you love to too!)

  3. That's a good list, Marian. I can add another suggestion. I'm on the advanced genealogy rootsweb email list (I'm still a novice but it's one way to learn more) where the more experienced genealogists suggest that a query also include a brief description of what research has already done so that people coming along to help don't waste time on what you already know. I learned how important that was when, early on, I posted a query for my grandfather without mentioning that I'd already searched every census, many immigration sites, lots of county sources, had church records, etc. Having not mentioned any of those, other people started to help by sending me information I already had!

  4. Thanks for your comments, ladies! Sorry I couldn't respond till now. Cheryl, you're right: Good subject lines really help. Heather, you brought up a great question--how long to wait before reposting queries? Will go over to your blog to respond soon...and Nancy, I love your idea of briefly recapping what has been done to date. I'll add that to my list of "DOs" and "DON'Ts."