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Posting Good Queries

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I love genealogy query boards. I work as a computer programmer. In my work I give advice about stuff that will sound like geek to you; intentional denormalization, common record definitions and license-plate primary keys. Getting my clients to take my advice is like pushing a 600-pound bag of Jell-O uphill. So, late at night, I lurk around query boards. I can sometimes help beginners who aren't even related to me. I find it refreshing to give advice that people will take. They even thank me, 3 times out of 20.

I read dozens of queries a week. Some posts are better than others. Just for fun, how many flaws can you find in the following query? Assume it is posted on the Smith surname board.

Smith family - please help

My grandfather John Smith married Malinda McCorkle. They had six children; Frankie, Johnny, Mutt, Jeff, Bubba, and Bobby. Bobby married DeeDee and worked for the railroad. Jeff lived in Springfield. Please e-mail me at Clueless@someISP.com with any information.


(Answers below. Those of you with resolution 800x600 can't see them. The rest of you are on your honor not to cheat.)


Ready? From the top:

Poor heading. If you were trying to sell a 1985 Ford in the classified advertisements, you'd take out an ad in the Automobiles for Sale section. You would not title your ad "Car for Sale". You would title it "1985 Ford". Everything on the Smith family forum is about Smith family genealogy. Don't re-state the obvious. Write something useful. The best headings have a name, a spouse and some sort of date; birth, marriage or death. Two points don't determine a line, in genealogy, but they help. The name of a spouse helps identify people. If you don't have a spouse, a parent or child helps.

Grandfather has no date. Your grandfather could have been born anywhere between 60 and 150 years ago. Read how. Saying he was your grandfather doesn't pin down his birth, death or marriage date. None of the children have dates either. If you don't have exact dates, estimates help.

Grandfather has no place. Listing birth, marriage and death places - or as many of the three as you have - helps people. The more common a name your individual has, the more important it is to list other identifying facts. People post from the USA, the UK, Australia, Canada and the rest of the world.

Nicknames. Mutt, Bubba and Bobby were probably born with different names. Bobby was probably Robert. It is anyone's guess what Mutt and Bubba started out as. Most people use their legal names on legal documents, so their birth certificates, marriage licenses, death certificates and census entries will probably not have their nicknames. Some people, especially in the southern US, have legal names that look like nicknames to the rest of the world. If the person used a nickname consistently, put it in parenthesis.

No maiden name. DeeDee, wife of Bobby, has no maiden name. Maiden names help.

No state. The post doesn't mention a county, country or continent, either. Almost every state in the USA has a town named Springfield. Some states have two or three. List the place as town, county, state. Spell out the state or province; "WA" means Washington here in the US, but "Western Australia" down under. "NS" is Nova Scotia, but not everyone recognizes Canadian provinces immediately. It could be a typo for "ND". If you have just the county, make that clear; "Logan County, Illinois" instead of "Logan, Illinois." If it isn't obvious, put in the country as well.

No request. What are you looking for, ancestors, descendents or a biography? Tell people what you already have and what you are looking for.

E-mail me. People may not want to e-mail you. They may not have e-mail at the computer they are using, if, for instance, they are at the county library with your ancestor's biography open in front of them. They may be lazy, too.

More importantly, if they answer you privately, no one else looking for information about John will see the answer. A reply serves three functions; it gives you the information, it shares the information with the world, and it tells the world your question has been answered. The last is especially important if you are asking for a lookup.

I look up obituaries in my county library for people who post on the Stanislaus County GenForum page. Nothing is more aggravating than spending half an hour getting seasick reading microfilm, then finding out the person already got it, either from a post on another board or from someone who didn't post a reply. Both Ancestry and GenForum will notify you when someone posts a reply if you check the box; do so.

E-mail address in the post. If you change your e-mail address, the one in the post will bounce. Both GenForum and Ancestry let you change the e-mail address on ALL of your posts (the one tied to your username) with a few strokes. They can't change it if you type it in the body of the post. Someone may want to reply to your query five years after you post it.

A second point - spam robots troll the web looking for addresses. They will find your address if you put it in the body of a post, and you'll get a flood of offers for male enhancement products.

E-mail rebuttal. Raymond Maris, in a GenForum post, made two points:

1) Most folks will share more information, especially on the living, by private e-mail than they will on a public forum.
2) Also, I am allowed to check my private e-mail from work, but am not allowed to access genealogy forum websites.

Both are valid points. Ask for a response by e-mail if you must, but if you get one, consider posting at least some of the data yourself as a reply to your query.

Here is a revised post. Along with everything else, I put each child on a new line, which makes it easier to read.

John Smith b. 1888, m. Malinda McCorkle

My grandfather, John Smith, was born 01 April 1888 in Logan County, Illinois. He married Malinda McCorkle, birthdate unknown, on 14 February 1910 in Pocatello, Bannock, Idaho. They had six children, all born in Pocatello:
Francis ("Frankie") Marion, b. 1910 - 1912
John Wesley, b. 01 September 1914
Matthew ("Mutt") Edward, b. 1916
Jefferson Davis, b. 1920, lived in Springfield, Clark, Ohio
Lewellyn ("Bubba") Bruce, b. 1922 - 1924
Robert ("Bobby") Lee, b. 06 June 1926, d. 31 Aug 1996.
Robert married Doris Delilah ("DeeDee") Dickenson, birthdate unknown. They married sometime between 1946 and 1948. She died in 1998. Robert worked for the railroad.

Looking for parents for John and Malinda, spouses and exact dates for all the kids, and any cousins interested in swapping stories.

Here is a handy checklist for a good query. You won't always be able to do everything listed. If, for instance, you are announcing a grand McCorkle reunion in Pocatello, you won't put a specific individual's name in the heading. You won't always know all seven facts about the individuals, either; if you did, you probably wouldn't be posting a query about them.

  • Read a dozen posts before you compose your first. You'll see good ones and bad ones.
  • Put a specific name, spouse and date in the heading.
  • Give as many of the basic seven facts (birth date and place, marriage date and place, death date and place, spouse's name) as you can for each individual.
  • Name the county and state or province for each town or township. Name the country if it isn't obvious.
  • Many people consider using all capital letters to be SHOUTING, and genealogy query boards to be a libraries. Use regular upper and lower case.
  • If you post the same query on more than one board, say so. It is frustrating for a researcher to spend 15 minutes replying to a post on the Logan County board only to find out someone else already answered you on the Smith surname board.
  • Don't post the dates of living people.
  • Put a blank line between paragraphs.

The better your post, the better a chance you have of connecting to someone who can help you.


Here are some points to remember. They won't make your post easier to answer, but they will make the on-line community a nicer place.

If you post the same query on more than one board and get a response, post a reply to yourself on the other boards. This is particularly important if you are asking for a lookup, since once you have the marriage record or obituary, there isn't much more to add. If you've asked for "any" information, you'd welcome a second, third or twelfth response, but it would be simpler for all if everyone interested in your individual(s) concentrated their responses in one place, so again, post a reply on the other boards with the URL of the first reply, asking people to add to it if they can.

If someone does a lookup for you, it would be gracious of you to return the favor. If they don't need a lookup done in your county, do something nice for someone else in their honor; a cemetery or newspaper lookup, for example. You don't have to be related. Most of the GenForum and Ancestry county boards have three to ten times as many requests as they do replies. Find your county and look for a request you can answer.


Some of the Ancestry query boards are "gatewayed" to the corresponding Roots Web Mailing list. That means if you post on the board, a copy of your post will go to everyone who is subscribed to the list. This causes a problem pretty constantly:

If you subscribe to the mailing list and someone who does not subscribe posts a query, they may not see your answer. For instance; Jason McCorkle posts a query on the McCorkle surname board,

Does anyone know about Hezekiah McCorkle, 1840 - 1922, born in Logan County, Ohio?
He died in Fresno, California when he was shot by a jealous husband.

You subscribe to the McCorkle mailing list. You see Jason's post in your e-mail. Hezekiah was your 2nd great grandfather. You reply to the mailing list

Hi Jason!
I have his diary, the sword he wore as a captain in the 43rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry and seventeen pictures.
Write to me.

Jason doesn't subscribe to the list. He waits and waits. No one posts a reply on the board. Jason cries bitter tears into his pillow every night and eventually gives up genealogy for stamp collecting. That's a pity, because Jason bought Microsoft at $14 a share, and he would have taken you to dinner in gratitude, to a restaurant with real flowers, cloth napkins, a 20-page wine list and a dessert cart so heavy the wheels groan. Then he would have paid to have the diary transcribed. I must have known 30 people that happened to.

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This page updated: June 21, 2014