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  • The Computer Genealogist: Using Online Message Boards

    Maureen A. Taylor

    Published Date : December 19, 2003

    Before computers, genealogical researchers placed queries in print periodicals. A few daring souls even sent letters to local newspapers hoping a kind editor would publish their inquiries. Some papers such as the Boston Transcript and the Hartford Courant devoted space to special genealogical columns. Today, the Internet has made it easier than ever to form alliances with genealogists researching the same ancestors as you. The web is now the place to post queries or answers to genealogical puzzles. The format is very similar to the newspaper and periodical columns. You can share information and make amazing discoveries simply by placing a query online. While it hasn’t yet happened to me, friends tell me about finding cousins in all parts of the country. They have also located additional family photographs for their collections and uncovered research clues. With these new family web contacts, it is possible to form new friendships and share the genealogical workload. Of course, you can still use newspaper or magazine columns to post your questions. The International Society of Family History Writers and Editors website (www.rootsweb. com/~cgc/cgc3.htm) contains a link to these print columns on their “News Stand” page at stand.htm.

    It is the immediacy of placing a query online that attracts many genealogists. With so many message boards and forums to choose from, you need to know how to increase your odds of making a successful connection.

    Search first

    Before posting your own research problem, find out what already exists. There may be hundreds of postings to wade through for a common surname, but most lists have a search feature that allows you to conduct keyword searches. If you aren’t sure where to begin, check out the links on under “Queries.” You’ll find sites that post messages on surnames, places, and topics. When visiting such sites, you will note that each query generally appears with the main topic, a link to the person submitting it, and the date it first appeared. Any responses, also known as threads, appear with the original query. Search as many lists as you can. Select topics or surnames related to your query. The GenForum message boards through allow you to save your searches in an area called “My GenForum,” so that you can easily replicate searches. With so many lists from which to choose, your chances of finding matches are better on more active lists. You can tell how active a list is by looking at the number of postings it receives daily and the size of its directory. If you find a posting that seems relevant, send a quick private message to the person who submitted the query or add your answer to the thread of messages following the question. If you don’t turn up any hits, it is time for you to add your own research question to the board.

    Posting queries

    There are several things you need to keep in mind when creating your query. Be specific. While you don’t want to tell people your whole family history, you need to include some facts or risk never receiving responses. In general, you want to keep queries short and to the point. State the name and dates of the person you seek and any information you have that helps identify him or her. Then explain why you are posting the query. It might be helpful to list briefly what data you are not interested in receiving. For instance if you already have a marriage record for the couple, include that material in your posting so that you don’t receive duplicates.

    Again, post your query on a busy site — the potentially larger audience increases your odds of receiving a reply. If you don’t find a board that applies to your surname, topic, or locality, ask the board administrator to add a new category.

    If you want to see some sample queries, look at the examples on the Rootsweb site, ~mistclai/queries/samplequeries.html, which also includes some humorous examples of what not to do. Elizabeth Kerstens offers advice in her online article “Writing Effective Electronic Queries” at You can also follow the guidelines offered by the National Genealogical Society in an article titled “Good Queries are Clear—Specific—Simple—Concise” on their website at In general, the basic guidelines for queries are:

    •   Keep it short

         Most individuals do not want to read long queries. For instance, Rootsweb has specific guidelines to follow regarding content. 

    •   Make it easy to understand and read

         Focus your query and stay on the topic. Don’t include extraneous information not related to the question.

    •   Check your grammar and spelling

       Always double check these two items. After all, you are presenting your data in a public forum. Give your requests a professional look with correct spelling and grammar.

    You generally need to provide an email contact for responses. If you are not comfortable with your primary email address appearing in such a public forum, consider signing up for a free email account through a provider such as Yahoo or Hotmail.

    Follow the rules

    It’s a good idea to read the FAQs or guidelines for each message board before proceeding. Rootsweb, for instance, requires certain formatting so that your message can appear online. There are restrictions on all lists. Never include any type of advertising material or anything that could be construed as a copyright violation. Remember to keep your message appropriate to the board you are on and you’ll be all right.

    Sign-up for a mailing list

    Another option is subscribing to a surname mailing list that will send you email updates. Just beware. I subscribed to a Taylor list for several weeks and my mailbox was inundated with unrelated queries. If you don’t have a common surname, subscribing to a list may work out fine. Keep in mind that you’ll probably want to sign up for several lists to cover all the surnames you’re researching, as well as places where your ancestors lived. If the mail becomes overwhelming, you can always remove yourself from the list. Adding your name to a mailing list is certainly worth a try.

    What’s next?

    Just because I’ve never received a positive response for my family mystery, doesn’t mean you won’t have success. There are plenty of people making online family research connections. Just be cautious. Before you send off a gedcom file to someone you don’t really know, establish the relationship. If you receive their research files, be sure to check their sources. As every good researcher knows, it’s important to verify information from a fellow researcher before you decide to work with the individual on a project. You want to make sure their research standards are the same as yours.

    Posting a query is a gamble, but I love the web for its ability to connect individuals around the world. You might find that someone living in the United States or even a distant relative overseas has the information for which you are searching. Even if you don’t receive that vital link you need, you can use the lists to find out about resources that might help you. I’ve been searching for years for particulars on a Peter Taylor who married Mary Elizabeth Priest in 1850 in or around Newington, N.H. Unfortunately, I haven’t had much luck. The problem is that Peter has murky origins and Mary was an only child. I know that sooner or later I’ll make a connection.  My best chances are through a collateral line. The most promising method for increasing my chances lies with the thousands of people who use the Internet for genealogical research. I haven’t stopped looking just because I haven’t yet found the answer to my question. Every day there are new queries added to online forums. I believe that sooner or later I’ll uncover a clue online. Chances are you will, too. 

    Basic types of message boards

    Surname: Post queries on a particular relative. For questions regarding your female relatives, list them on boards for both their married and maiden names.

    Locality: If you know your ancestor came from a particular area or spent a short amount of time there, you might want to ask for advice regarding resources. You can also duplicate your surname query on a locality forum.

    Topic: Want to share information on searching for relatives in prison records? Then post your query on a topical board. There are a wide variety of boards that cover subjects that vary from adoptions to photographs.

    Some popular message boards


    Search and post messages in discussion forums based on surname, locality, or topic. Messages can be viewed in several different formats. Email notification of new postings is available. Open and free to members and the public.


    Look through their message boards organized by surname, locality and topic. They have a FAQ to help users find what they need. For instance, one topic board focuses on genealogical software.


    A good general starting place for individuals looking for a message board that is locality-specific or for help formatting their request.

    •  National Genealogical Society

    Queries appear on their website for six months. Use their link to “How to Write a Good Query” prior to submitting.

    •  GenForum at

    Search or post messages on one or more of their boards relating to surnames, topics, or localities. My GenForum, which recognizes users for future access, requires cookies be enabled. You can narrow your search by selecting a feature that allows you to look at just new postings, those from the current day, the last seven days, or all messages. You can also look for specific keywords in all the messages or those for just the message board you are in. Messages are archived and nothing is deleted.

    •  Rootsweb or

    Adding your query to the Rootsweb Surname List (rsl) is easy as long as you follow their formatting suggestions, which are posted at #Submit. There are only five requirements, including submitting the name in upper and lower case letters and including your contact information.

    Using discussion forums on

    The new website offers a wide range of useful tools for genealogical research. We would like particularly to draw your attention to an extremely valuable feature — the NEHGS discussion forums.

    The new website offers sixteen different discussion forums on the following topics: Canada, Connecticut, corrections to genealogies in print, England, free queries, Germany, Great Migration and colonial immigrant origins, Ireland, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, royal descent and notable kin, surnames, and Vermont.

    You will discover that the new discussion forums represent a vast improvement over those on the previous website. Twelve of the discussion forums are brand new. The messages are every word searchable, so you can search by name or by any other keyword. You can arrange the messages in many ways, including alphabetically and chronologically. You can also subscribe to be notified by email when individuals respond to a particular post. You can also choose to provide — or not to provide — your email address on the messages that you post. And you can create surname folders to spark discussion on your particular surnames of interest.

    In the short time since the new discussion forums were launched, a number of interesting queries have been posted. The forum with the most traffic is the Massachusetts one — not surprising since our 2001 member survey showed that the majority of members indicated that their primary research interest is Massachusetts. Many discussion forum participants list queries about a particular individual or family.  One participant has used the surname forum to direct interested genealogists to his Kidder website. Others have posted questions on a wide variety of genealogical topics, such as the legal definition of the term “of age.” The “Corrections to Genealogies in Print” has allowed a number of users to refute erroneous information and provide corrections — complete with source citations. 

    We would like to encourage you to take advantage of the opportunities that these discussion forums can provide. More than any previous method, they provide a forum for NEHGS members and the public to exchange genealogical information and work together to solve common problems. Please help contribute to the usefulness of the forums by contributing your surnames, queries, and other postings! As more and more people participate, the forums will become an increasingly valuable resource for everyone.

    The NEHGS discussion forums and queries are located at


    Maureen A. Taylor is the author of Preserving Your Family Photographs (Betterway, 2001) and Uncovering Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs (Betterway, 2000) as well as a contributing editor to Family Tree Magazine. You can contact her at

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