By Lori Samuelson
Destroyed records, distant geographic locations and related costs are frustrating obstacles in genealogy. One of the most difficult aspects, however, is when you know where needed knowledge is located but the gatekeeper refuses to communicate with you. Connecting with others to share their finds takes time and effort but the rewards are well worth it.
Motivating someone to provide the information you need is a skill. To establish trust in the relationship, the contents of your initial message is important.
Here’s a few tips to help you encourage others to assist you:
- My mother used to say you catch more flies with honey and that’s still true today. Manners are important as no one likes to be ordered to do something. Let the individual know you value and appreciate their assistance.
- Although the record you seek is very important to you, it probably isn’t viewed that way by the other person. Be specific in what you need to minimize back and forth clarification. I get several requests a week from folks who discover my large online tree. Asking for a photo of Anna Grdenic Kos is a specific request. Requesting I send a picture of Great Aunt Anna is not clear and would require me to respond that I don’t have a great aunt by that name.
- Show respect by limiting the time and effort that will be needed to accomplish your request. A look up in a certain book can be quickly done; asking that a search be made of all available resources for your elusive ancestor is not an appropriate request. Archivists and research librarians have too many responsibilities to be consumed by a sole patron’s need. If you plan to visit and do the research yourself, it is wise to contact the facility ahead of time confirming it will be open and requesting recommendations of collections that might be helpful to you.
- People are more motivated to accomplish a task if they can connect to it. Appealing to emotions is one way to make that connection. I once needed a copy of a Bible page to show relationships for a relative’s lineage society application. Always wanting to become a member, the completed application was intended as a 70th birthday present. With the help of other family members, we traced the Bible to the early 1960’s but the last owner was deceased. Using social media, a contact was made with a 2nd cousin. Although she didn’t know what happened to the Bible, she understood our motives to find it. The cousin contacted her uncle who thought it might be in his attic. Not only was he right, the box contained the only known photo of my husband’s 2nd great grandparents!
- If you still haven’t received the information don’t despair as life often gets in the way. Sending a reminder often helps. Last August, I phoned a clerk inquiring about the process to obtain a divorce record as the information wasn’t online. I sent a snail mail request as directed. After a month, I phoned again for an update. I was told the office was busy and to use email to verify that my original paperwork had been received. By late September, I received an email response that the office was too busy to fulfill my request. I tried again in October and November. I received the same response. In December, I used a different approach. Writing the following:
“I have been a good genealogist this year and am really hoping that Santa will bring me the divorce records for Francis and Emma Landfair. My initial wish was made on August 1st. Have a wonderful holiday season!”
I received the document 5 days later.
Remember, more than one contact method may be necessary. Snail mail isn’t always forwarded, phone numbers change and sometime people stop checking an email. Try texting, especially to a young person. Although your preference may not be the same as your contacts, go with what works for the receiver.
- Always volunteer to repay any costs associated with the find. Although we often overlook the low cost of a photocopy, facilities budgets are shrinking. Offer to pay or make a small donation for the service. If money is tight for you, volunteer at an upcoming event or by transcribing a collection.
- Sometimes the information you are seeking is unpleasant so remind yourself that others may not embrace your request warmly. With the wide availability of DNA today, dark secrets are being brought to light. To lessen the shock, a letter is preferable as it allows the receiver time to process the contents. Often a third party serves as a go-between to further diminish the emotionality.
Here’s hoping these motivating tips bring great finds your way!