Who are you looking for? It seems so easy a question, but people get it wrong all the time! You cannot just type in a surname and hope someone will give you all the information ever found on that surname (especially for names like Smith or Jones or Nguyen). Questions about specific people will go over better for two reasons. First, no one wants to help someone just looking for "anything". Genealogy is a hobby of research. Asking nonspecific questions has the taint of "do the work for me", and that's not how research works. Second, not everyone with the same surname is related. It would be a disservice to just spew out all the names and facts for everyone with that name. You may only be related to a small fraction of those people and would be too overwhelmed by the information to make sense of it all.
Be as specific as possible. If I want more information about John Kemper, I'm going to make sure to tell you if I'm looking for Junior or Senior. I'll add if I have a middle name or initial. Anything I can think of to narrow it down. In my tree there are over twenty John Kempers. If I asked someone for information on "John Kemper", how would they know if I meant one of these twenty, or one of the hundred others I've not connected to my tree yet?
I am going to tell you something very personal that I try not to tell people that have the potential to become friends or clients: I call you every name under the sun when you ask me for "anything" I can find on your ancestor. What the hell does that mean? What are you hoping to see? Like I said earlier, it sounds like you don't really want to do the work and want me to hand you your family's history. Which is fine if you're willing to pay me. I mean, if I'm going to waste my time on a fishing expedition for free, it's going to be on my tree. What bothers me more is that I don't know what expectation you have. I offered free research to one woman to find "anything" on her relative. It was early in my effort to become a paid genealogist and I thought I would give her my time if she'd give me a written recommendation. I was looking to build a reputation. It was like pulling teeth trying to find out what she was looking for. I found birth records, death records, news articles, censuses, military records.....even made contact with a living cousin who had a photo of him! In the end she wasn't satisfied with the results. What was she looking for? "I heard he owned a store downtown and I wanted to know if there was anything about it anywhere." Um, okay. I could've talked to a few folks about that specifically if you had just told me. I went to work with some local help and found advertisements, a photo of the outside of the store, and a book made by the historical society that mentioned her relative and his store as integral to the beginnings of the town. Finally happy, she was willing to write me a shining recommendation that I could use to encourage new clients. She wasn't so happy when she asked if I'd help her with another relative and I told her it'd cost. Sorry, but I wasn't touching that family again without some incentive.
There are thousands of people willing to do the work for free. Some do it because they need experience so they can build their skills. Others do it because they love history and the thrill of the chase. You do get what you pay for, however. And I don't mean in just monetary terms. Yes, a professional genealogist with degrees and focused training commands a large sum for their time. Yes, they are worth it. But there are also many volunteers (myself often included), who know the value of their time and are willing to forego money to help someone in need. Do not disrespect the volunteer simply because they don't charge you for the effort! If I ask for information on my great grandmother Bonnie Goff/Gaulf, it will help me and my helper if I tell them what I want to find. I already know about her married life, I need to know about her parents. So my request should be for someone to find me her parents or birth certificate. It'll keep folks from sending me information I already have which wastes their time (and mine). If I don't tell people what I've found, I'll appear rude when I have to tell them I already found that. I'll appear even more ridiculous when I don't clarify at that time what I really want. Seriously, if you make the mistake of not saying what you want the first time, don't compound it by giving nothing in your response other than "yeah, I found that already." People will remember your name and will stop helping you.
So now I'm telling people that I'm looking for Flossie Lorraine Martin. I have her first marriage to a Gruggett. I have her second marriage to a Householder. I'm more interested in her parents and possible siblings. I've given you my who and what. Now what about my where? Where actually means two things when making a request:
First, where was your ancestor? Flossie died in Missouri. I found her in the censuses with her second husband and it indicated her birthplace was Tennessee. Her death certificate says she was born in Reelfoot. Knowing this will help you and anyone who helps you know where to look for your relative. There is no centralised repository for documents in the US. Most of the world can't say that they house their records in one place for the entire history of their country! So if I don't give locations, I'm making the job harder for no reason. I'm also sending folks on a bit of a wild goose chase if the locations I'm looking into keep their records locally and not online. By giving the locations I know (or that documents say), people can help me narrow down my possible matches. It's much more helpful to ask for help finding a person in a specific region or city of Lithuania rather than the whole country (which has also changed shape and my ancestor may have all their records in Russia or Poland if that town is not currently considered Lithuanian!). If I don't know where, I need to do more work in the areas I know to look for clues to narrow down the search in the next country. Asking someone for help finding a needle in a haystack is best when the haystack is as small as possible.
The second thing any request should include is where you have looked. If I've already looked for and found Flossie's death record on Missouri's online database, I can save folks some time and avoid the "yeah, I know that" rude response. If I've searched Ancestry.com (or any website with several collections), it helps to say whether I've used the general search or if I've looked at specific collections. No general search on any website pulls up all the available collections. And I seriously doubt anyone makes it through every record pulled up in a general search without becoming bored, too. If you've looked in specific collections, tell your helpers what those collections were. (If you don't know what collections you looked into, first get a research log. Then start reading more than just the name on a page! There is so much information you are missing when you don't explore a collection.) By excluding those collections, your assistants can look in new places and help to bring new avenues of research to the top.
When my friend Loretta asked folks for names that seemed unique for her post "It's Not Unusual", she was looking for odd names that are much more common than one would think. She was given quite a few, but I was quite proud to recommend one of my own relatives: Washington District of Columbia. I'm sure I gave a few chuckles to those in the conversation on that oddity. I'm also sure that the smirk on Loretta's face quickly went away when she found more than one fellow sporting that moniker! If I wanted to know more about my D.C., I was going to need to tell people when he lived to narrow it down. Just because a name seems strange to you, doesn't mean it wasn't all the rage when your ancestors were looking for baby names.
This is even more true for those God-awful common names like John, James, William, Mary, Elizabeth..... the surname doesn't really matter, because people would recycle these names in the same family. Often in the same generation! By providing dates, we can separate one from another. My Kemper line originates from John Kemper b. 1692, immigrated 1714, d. 1670. He had a son, John Peter b. 1717 and John II b. 1722. Sometimes, in fact often, John Peter and John II are only listed as John. Knowing where they were and when they were there helps me figure out which of these three men I'm looking at. Knowing "when" also helps on a local, national or world level. I know that land records are actually for John II, because his father was alive but not naturalised. At the time they received their land, Virginia had requirements that the elder John did not meet. His son was old enough to qualify and so the land was his. Knowing a relative moved to Australia in the 1850's recently helped a friend of mine. She was unable to understand why her relative had left his family and moved to the other side of the world until she took into account the Australian Gold Rush! "Eureka" would be an appropriate response, I believe.
Keep It Simple
If you hired someone to look up your family information, would you be happy with someone who said, "I looked everywhere and I couldn't find anything."? Or would you prefer, "I found your great grandparents and their children in the U.S. Census for 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 online via Ancestry.com. I located your great great grandfather's pension request for service in the Civil War and your grandfather's WWII draft record online via Fold3. I took that information and ordered their complete files from the National Archives. I also found some birth announcements for your grandfather's siblings in the Chicago Tribune and had copies made for your records. However, I was unable to locate a birth record for your great grandmother, because she was born 5 years prior to the state required records to be kept."?
If you want the second response, you need to ask for it. Researchers need specifics in order to best help you. Following "Who, What, Where, When", I can ask for help with my elusive great great grandfather Jonas Levingskas by telling people in my request some basic information I already have and what I want:
- Hello, I'm looking for my great great grandfather Juozas/Jonas Levingskas. I have looked on Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org and Scotlands People. I found a death notice for his daughter Margaret Mitkus giving his name and address in Mossend, Scotland. I found a death record for Jonas stating his parents were Tomosus Levingskas and Yafilia Karezuskia. He died 26 December 1950 and the certificate indicates he was born in 1871 in Lithuania. It also indicates he changed his name to John Smith or was at least being called John Smith. I am looking for information on his immigration from Lithuania. A ships record or naturalisation record perhaps? Where should I look next?
Also note that I keep the message simple and small. I get to the meat of my matter. As much as I enjoy helping others, I have to admit that I often skip over a post that has more than two paragraphs before they get to their point. And if it's just a load of names and dates, I'm even less likely to take an interest. If I have to spend 20 minutes figuring out what you know so I can start my search, you've already lost me. While I will sometimes take an interest in a general "Can you help me with this person" post, I shouldn't have to pull teeth to help. And you may notice that I ask where I should look. I would never turn down someone else's work, but I show that I'm willing to learn a new trick and research this myself. I am not looking for my history handed to me on a silver platter. I don't knock anyone who can't research because of time or skill, but I don't coddle laziness.
Show me that you're willing to put in an equal amount of effort, and I'll teach you to fish.