from the beginning

From the Beginning #2: Contact Your Family

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When you begin your family history journey you need information.

Much of the information you need exists in the collective body of knowledge within your family.  Some beginners skip the important step of contacting family.  This is a mistake.  You will save yourself time and effort if you contact your family first.

As you work on your family history, you will find yourself in search of information that takes you back to contacting your family.  This is a step you will repeat often as you seek to grow your tree.

When you first begin reaching out to family, remember these important tips:

  • Manage your time.  If you request information from family, be prepared to process that information in a timely manner.  Genealogy conversations have a shelf life.  You make a request, someone responds, you have a follow up question, they respond, and so on.  If you send out too many questions to too many people, you may not be able to keep up with the responses and maximize the information.  Some responders will become bored with the conversation if you allow too much time to pass – they may not answer your follow up questions.
  • Consider the circumstances of the person you are seeking information from.  Do they prefer a visit, phone call, letter or email?  If you send something in print be sure the font is appropriately sized and easy to read based on the age and eyesight of the person you are contacting.  Are they very busy?  Don’t overwhelm them with huge, open ended questions like, ‘I’m working on my family history, can you share what you have with me?’  Instead ask direct questions like, ‘I’m working on my family history, do you have a copy of Grandpa’s Personal History?’  Simple, straightforward questions with direct answers are a great way to begin a dialogue.
  • After you decide what information you are seeking, set yourself up for success.  If, for instance, you want to update a family group sheet for your brother, print out what you currently have and mail it with a SASE {Self Addressed Stamped Envelope} so he can quickly fill in the blanks, slip it in the SASE and mail it back.  Or apply the same principle with an email.  Type up what you currently know so he can check for accuracy, then in list form, ask for the information you are missing.  He can quickly fill in the answers and send the email back.
  • Consider keeping a correspondence log for each person you contact.  You may include columns such as these: date of contact, type of contact, information requested, response, follow up questions.
  • I’m going to whisper this next part, you never know who is listening…  🙂  Some long time genealogists are stingy.  Don’t hold it against them.  Every beginner in the family contacts them and asks big open ended questions wanting them to share, share, share.  Sharing is a lot of work and then most of the people who request the information lose interest and move on to something else after sufficiently messing up the tree online.  Those long time genealogists get worn out by this.  Tread cautiously when you approach a long time genealogist.  Lots of them are very open, but some are understandably stingy.  But most of the stingy ones are really nice and open too – once you earn their trust.  So, approach with care and ONE very simple request at a time until you build a relationship and understand them better.
  • Record, record, record.  Preserve, preserve, preserve.  Whatever you take the time to gather, take the time to preserve in some way.  Be organized and consider how you are going to share what you find with your posterity in the future and also your siblings and cousins now.  When you think about how to share down the road it will help you as you organize now.

So let’s talk about some of the different objectives you can have when making contact with your family:

  1. Basic genealogy feelers.
  2. Help me update the living people.
  3. Photo, story, journal, artifact hunting.
  4. Research questions.
  5. Help me resolve conflicting information.
  6. Collaboration plans.
  7. How do we share all this cool stuff?


1.  Basic genealogy feelers.

The purpose of this type of contact if really two fold.  One, you want your family to know that you are beginning your genealogy journey.  This is important because Aunt Jane may have been waiting for someone to share her hard work with.  Or Uncle John may come across some old family treasure in the garage and because his wife just mentioned your phone call, he sets that treasure aside for you.  Two, you want to know who in your family has ‘the stuff’, knowledge, experience, interest in the very thing you are trying to learn.  As you send out your feelers make sure you remember both parts.

2.  Help me update the living people.

Lots of family members are good at this aspect of genealogy.  Their address book is up to date.  They add every new child born with full name, birth date and place and even a photo.  Updating family group sheets is a lot easier while people are living.  This is a fairly simple exercise but one that has great value.  There are many different blank family group sheets you can use.  Like this one, or this one and it’s second page.  Try sending out a few to family members to update for you.  This is a great way to start a genealogy conversation.

3.  Photo, story, journal, artifact hunting.

Most families have treasures.  The question is, who has them?  As you ask around remember that there are often feelings associated with these items.  There is only one wedding ring and for every daughter or granddaughter that inherits one, there are others who wish they had inherited that very ring.  As you carefully ask about treasures and identify their current steward, make a list for yourself of family heirlooms.  Contact the stewards and request photos or the chance to see and photograph an item yourself.  As you identify family treasures and preserve them in some way, be sure to write a brief history about each item.  My grandmother inherited a beautiful old glider rocking chair that came from England and crossed the plains in a wagon.  It currently lives in my uncle’s living room.  I wish I could remember who the chair originally belonged to.  These are the stories to write up and put with a photo of the item.

4.  Research questions.

As we research family members we often have questions that are about the facts.  We need a document such as a birth, marriage, or death record.  Sometimes we are blessed to be related to family members that know how to research and have a collection of records.  Identify the record you are seeking and be specific when you make contact.

5.  Help me resolve conflicting information.

While researching you are going to find documents that conflict with each other.  If the person you are researching was known to an older living relative, you may choose to contact that relative to ask their assistance in deciding which information is most accurate.  Often they know something that helps you recognize that both pieces of information hold truth, it’s all in how you interpret what you are reading.

6.  Collaboration plans.

Collaboration is important to your success as a researcher.  Other family members may have resources you do not currently have.  As you work together, you will be able to grow your tree and add a richness that can’t be achieved if you go it alone.  Sometimes those plans are as simple as, ‘How about you work on that line, I work on this line and then we share what we have learned.’  Other times an older relative is willing to fund the research efforts of a younger relative who has the skill and time but not the funds.  Some family members have photos but lack the computer skills to scan and upload but they are willing to let you come over and scan.  They will usually spend time telling you who everyone in every photo is and where the photo was taken.  Whatever collaboration looks like for you – make it part of your genealogical plan.

7.  How do we share all this cool stuff?

Work together with your family to find ways to share what you already have and what you gather as you go.  There are many websites that are perfect mechanisms for sharing.  Consider which one works for you and give it a try.  Some items need to be shared other ways.  Use the creativity of your amazing family to find ways to share your treasures.

Make a plan today to contact some family members.  Choose an objective, choose a method and make the approach.  Good luck!