28 January 2012

Foraging in Forums

I love Ancestry's Facebook page. I'm on there a lot answering and asking questions, checking news and connecting with people. What surprises me is how many people post queries like "anyone researching Jones family?". It's not a bad idea to ask, mind. It's just that Facebook's a stream of consciousness and that post will be invisible in a day. I've even seen people ask if the Facebook page is searchable so they can find information and queries that have long past. It's not, but there's hope! In most sites, you'll find a plethora of information not found readily anywhere on the web. This magical forest has it's own hazards of dead-ends and misinformation, but to a wary traveller, it can bring about the most fascinating finds! What is this wonderland of genealogical beauty? A forum!

Forums or Message Boards are places where people put up a message hoping that a living breathing person like themselves will happen past it and they can connect and share information. When used properly, you can find new relatives, new sources of information and help on some of your thorniest issues. When mishandled, you can find yourself lost in a maze of nonsensical postings, forever hiding the gems to be found. However, you should devote some time each month in searching forums, as a breakthrough can pop up at anytime from anyone.

How to use what's there

My two favorite and regularly checked forums are on Ancestry.com and Genforum. Different sites and societies will have their own for the special topics they cover, but I find these two to be well used, maintained and covering the most topics. Both have a surname, regional, and general discussions section. Ancestry adds things peculiar to it's site like announcements, information on their record collections, ethnicities and royal lineages. The message boards on Ancestry are also found on their affiliate site rootsweb.com.

There are two ways to use the forums. The way most people do, and the way a serious hard-core gotta find it researcher would. Most people will read a few of the topic sentences hoping to see a name they recognise, or they'll type a name into the search bar at top and hope to find something of use. These people usually get bored one or two pages into a forum. This isn't a good idea. First, titles can sometimes have no information ("OMG help pleasssseeee!!!!!!"). Second, most recent activity is at the top, so something from a seasoned relative may be farther back. Third, it's kind of a hunt and peck method that leaves most people believing the forums have nothing for them and they give up.

Now let me ask you something: When you know your relative was living in Oklahoma during the 1920 census, but you can't find them in a regular search, do you give up? If you do, you are a "most people" researcher and you need to stop that right now! If you don't, then what's your next step? Why, you try to narrow it down as best you can to the right district, but if you have to you will go page by page in the entire state's census just to find that relative! And that's what you may have to do on a message board. Not to say that a hunt and peck can't find you what you are looking for, but it has to be a pretty big needle (or a pretty small haystack) to immediately yield results. PLUS, searching more thoroughly than for just what you are looking for right now can bring you new avenues to explore!

Kemper Surname Message Board on Genforum.com
The first time you enter a message board, this process will take longer. Once you've caught up with it, however, you only need to periodically check on it (or set it so you get an alert when new messages are entered). I love surname message boards. It's where most people will begin. You'll of course want to search the way you know it is spelled and then any other close spellings to see if there is a separate board. I also check locality message boards if a family founded or was centralised for a long time in one spot (or if I need to know more about an area, culture or time period to help me break out of a research rut).

What I always start with is the earliest messages, which means I hope the board has a quick button (like Genforum) for having listing all messages or going to the earliest. Ancestry doesn't, so if there's 3000 messages, I have to page through them 50 at a time. That's a pain, but I tend to scan the titles to see what catches my eye. Either way, I want to start at the back and move forward so I don't miss anything. When I went to the Kemper forum (pictured above), I found more information in the older posts than I did the new. I also was able to find a few cousins via their old posts. Never worry about the date on the message. You may not get a response if you reply to something over a decade old (maybe they don't have that email anymore), but when you do it's so much fun! I found one cousin that had posted back in '98. I thought for sure I'd never hear from her. Much to my surprise, she did message me back and we shared what we knew and have kept in touch since.

I try to keep myself organised with forums like I would any research. I have a great old program from FranklinCovey that is like a dayplanner on your computer. It's pretty outdated for most stuff (it doesn't sync with smartphones), but you can print to the notes section and it comes off just like it would if you used paper. It also has pen functions, so I can just mark out the messages I've used up and make notes right on the "page" for follow up. I also separate into folders marked "round 1", "round 2", etc. so that I can search first for names I know, and then go back again for less obvious links. You can organise your notes with notepad or word or whatever, but I always try to keep a copy of the message titles so I know what I've searched and what I could look at again. Even if a message means nothing to me the first time through, I might find something that needs a second look later! For example, a woman was asking about a relative and I didn't recognise the name. Months later, I found a census that listed him as son to a person that was in my tree. I was then able to contact her and add what she knew to that information and share what I had for the line as well! By keeping track of all the messages and periodically checking over them, I find I can answer more questions without having to clog the board with a new query on an old topic!

Adding to What's There
  It is very important that your question gets answered. So how do you go about making sure people see it? Well, first, PLEASE check to see if it's been asked before! I've seen way too many repeated posts from different people and I just wonder if they ever get to one another. If there are tens of thousands of posts, no one will read all of them and yours could be the one that is ignored. After checking to make sure the question hasn't been answered yet, make sure you're message will get a response!

Obey these simple rules:
  1. Make your title count! In the below example, the first title is so vague most people won't even bother to read it unless really curious. Try using a name, location, date, anything specific to your query, but keep it brief.
  2. Post in the right forum. Make sure your post is topical. If you are searching for Smiths, naturally you'd want to put that in the Smith surname board. But if you're looking for Corporal Smith of the Union army, posting it in a war or military board may yield more results from someone familiar with battles that person was in.
  3. Give what you know to get what you need. In your message provide all you know. "Looking for Genevieve Bootyshaker" doesn't get you what something like this will: "Genevieve Bootyshaker married to Tom Bootyshaker. Born October 1818, died May 1876 in Oklahoma. She had three children Archie, Ned, and Jules. Need to know her maiden name, parents, birthplace and if she had siblings." Don't make people ask you for what you know (or assume you know nothing) leading them to be less than helpful or ignore you completely.

Ancestry.com message board for Indiana Cemeteries

In Conclusion

If used properly, forums can be another tool in your toolkit. You can post to a forum and know that if you don't receive an answer right now, one may come down the pipeline at anytime. Searching message boards can lead you to new information, new relatives, new experiences. If you add them to your regular record searches and facebook connections, you will greatly increase your chances of finding what you need. It takes time to go through, and you can narrow it down with search features. But taking the time to comb through a board can lead to some great finds. Happy hunting!



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