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Genealogy tips: Social networking, online tools help researchers share family information

Published: Saturday, Oct. 19 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Social networking can help genealogists connect as they do family history research. (Shutterstock) Social networking can help genealogists connect as they do family history research. (Shutterstock)

Online communities exist as a place for people with common interests to build new relationships. These online services provide simple tools to generate collaborative opportunities for finding, sharing and interacting with like-minded people. Social networking websites use networking technologies such as wikis, RSS and mapping.

Online family tree building is one example of the benefit of this kind of collaborative community, helping people connect with family members and other genealogy researchers. Many sites become a platform for the family social experience: participants can produce content, preserve connections, add historical anecdotes and communicate via a number of mediums, such as instant messaging and email and picture and family tree viewing.

People who use these services can browse by city or country to view uploaded photos of specific cities and names of genealogists who live there. Examples include Facebook, FamilyLink, Famiva, Google Plus, LinkedIn, MyFamily, MyHeritage, MySpace and Twitter.

Social networking can help genealogists connect as they do family history research. (Shutterstock) Social networking can help genealogists connect as they do family history research. (Shutterstock)

I actively use social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. I can virtually travel long distances — even across the pond — for little or no cost at all. Usually, I'm contacting people who have already advertised their body of knowledge and expertise.

Facebook, one of the leading social networking sites, has been adopted wholeheartedly by the genealogy community. It has allowed me to find near and distant family; I have also followed other genealogists who offer online seminars or have websites with information on genealogy and the industry.

Twitter is a messaging platform in which — just like Facebook "friends" — users gather "followers." These are people who find a user's messages interesting and decide to follow him. Twitter is different in that users are limited to 140 characters for each message, or "tweet." I actively tweet the surnames I am searching for, especially the ones for whom I am encountering brick walls.

Other useful online services include the following:

  • Email. "Writing and sending email "is a quick, inexpensive and effective means to communicate ... (Email can be sent) with attached documents and photographs," Sandra Hargreaves Luebking and Loretto Dennis Szucs wrote in the article "The Foundations of Family History Research." "A brief and polite email to a potential, newfound or well-known relative is often the beginning of a wonderful exchange ... When communicating via email, traditional courtesies should be observed."
  • Mailing lists. "A mailing list is simply an email party line: every message a subscriber sends to the list is distributed to all other subscribers," Luebking and Szucs wrote. "Genealogy-related mailing lists can cover surnames, U.S. counties and states, other countries and regions, ethnic groups and various other topics. Subscribing to a mailing list is one of the best ways of connecting to people who share your interests. Many websites host mailing lists, including rootsweb.com, ancestry.com and genealogy.com."
  • Wikis. A wiki is a page or collection of Web pages designed to enable anyone who accesses the wiki to contribute or modify content. The value of a wiki is that anyone can contribute. The combined efforts of several individuals usually create a better result than any one person could achieve by himself. Wikis are used to create collaborative websites where a community can work together to provide meaningful content. The most widely known wiki is wikipedia.com, an online encyclopedia. FamilySearch started a Research Wiki. Be careful, though, because anyone can contribute, you must make sure to check the accuracy of information retrieved from a wiki site.
  • Message boards. Boards focus on "surnames, localities and many other genealogy topics. By posting a message to the appropriate board, you create a record through which other researchers can find you. You'll find message boards on ancestry.com, rootsweb.com and genealogy.com," Leubking and Szucs stated in their article.
Message boards are a "must-do" connecting point for genealogists to collaborate with one another on research topics of mutual interest in a public forum. The focuses of the boards range from surnames to locations to special topics. Depending on the board and the number of people posting queries and replies, the flow and volume of information exchanged are dynamic.

The majority of people using the message boards have been doing genealogy for more than a decade, creating a great pool of mutually beneficial knowledge and experience.

I have used message boards to assist in the process of planning and evaluating genealogy trips to Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Norway, Germany and Russia.

After posting my queries in both the country- and county-specific boards for the focus of my research, within hours — and for a week after — I received very insightful hints and direction from people who lived in the area or who had taken similar trips. Some people replied to the message boards, and others sent emails directly to me. Thoughts ranged from where to conduct my research and where to stay and eat to where I would most likely find graves of my family, as well as insights on personal genealogy.

Sometimes information doesn't come within hours or even weeks. In one case, I posted a message in November 2005 about research I was conducting on the Mullins family from Goochland County, Va. My first reply was six months later. The man who responded said he had been doing research on his line with the same name and realized that information he had gathered was not of his line, so he sent it to me, along with several links to review. We continued a correspondence away from the message boards for a couple of weeks, seeking to help each other with our research.

Remember, most message boards are open to the public, so anyone can view or post a query or reply. It is your responsibility to make sure that the information you're getting ready to post is really something you want to share with the world. There will be no time limit on how long the message will be posted. I have messages that have been "out there" for five or more years. Once you click "submit," the information is free to be used as anyone chooses to use it.

So take the time to carefully compose your message, providing the key information others will need to help you in your research. For example, the following is usually important to provide when helping others identify family connections:

  • Full name, including any middle names or initials
  • Birth, marriage and death dates
  • Places where the above events occurred
  • Residence and migration
  • Names of ancestor's children and parents
Don't be afraid to provide detailed information. When looking for specific help, it's crucial to provide enough background information so others can review it and provide quality input. Doing so helps others understand that you have done your homework, so they give better answers.

Check your grammar, spelling and accuracy. Think about how an error will change the response you might get, such as if you enter a date of 1962 when you really meant 1926.

Rather than composing your message in the data entry window provided by the message board, compose in word-processing software first, run spell check, edit and then copy and paste the message into the appropriate window.

Use the message boards to keep track of your efforts by doing one or more of the following:

  • Enter message board posts and queries on a correspondence log. Information to track will include the date when you posted, where it was posted and a summary of the post. As you receive replies, track the date each was received and the results (positive or negative).
  • Use bookmarks or favorites. Simply create a folder in your bookmarks or favorites for the explicit purpose of tracking queries. The program will usually allow you to add comments each time you visit the site.
  • Try genealogy software utilities. Some family tree software programs include correspondence logs or to-do lists. Be sure to include the URL, copy of your post or query, the date you last checked, and so forth.
Editor's note: The original version of this story posted on Oct. 19, 2013, failed to properly attribute all source materials, which violates our editorial policies. The story was revised on March 18, 2014, and attribution to original sources were added.

Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips and Tricks for Discovering your Family History," and founder of MyGenShare.com, an educational website for genealogy and family history. Facebook: www.facebook.com/barry.ewell

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