In any technical field, whether it be Software Development or Genealogy, the goal is to find solutions to problems. In Genealogy, the approach to solving a problem reminds me a lot of programming. I'm not necessarily writing code, but I am going through a series of steps to get from point A to point B by following a series of logical steps based on questions I can answer about the problem itself. Sometimes getting to point B involves a series of intermediate steps, or mini-problems.

When problem solving, sometimes it's best to start with the easiest, or most likely cases, then diving deeper after narrowing down the problem. This can lead to problems for people answering questions, if those folks don't know where you left off in this process.

As an example, let's say I ask the following question:

"How do I find out what boat one of my ancestors came on"?

Well, it's quite possible I've done a lot of research on this already and hit a roadblock. For instance, maybe I searched the Family History Library and then discovered it doesn't keep records on this particular topic, and maybe I've looked at Naval records that led nowhere because they don't go back to 1695, for instance.

Now, a question like this could actually get many good answers, but those answers may not solve the actual problem. For instance, I might answer by saying the following:

"Go to ellisisland.org, they'll have that information"

However, the person asking the question may say:

"No! That won't work because my ancestor emigrated from Africa to Europe. Why the heck would Ellis Island have records of people who never came to America!!!!!"

This is a bit of an extreme example, but time could easily be the issue, as Ellis Island only operated from 1892 to 1954. You can probably imagine a lot of other answers one might give based on assumptions instead of facts.

I've seen a lot of similar-type responses on other SE sites, and the answer to this problem, in general, is to just tell the community what you've tried. What led you to where you are today in your research, and what avenues left you nowhere? Where did you leave off before coming to Genealogy SE for help?

The advantages of telling the community what you've tried so far is that the process escalates much quicker, and the answers people provide are less likely to be about resources you've already exhausted.

Everybody wins! Not only will this be more useful to the original poster, but also it should be useful to future visitors as well.

So, as someone new to Genealogy, I'm wondering, is this a field that contains enough of a "technical" component to where this advice, tell us what research you've done so far, would be a good guideline for us when asking questions? Would this not make better questions for a new Stack Exchange Beta that strives to make the Internet a better place for Genealogists and Family Historians? Should we gently encourage question askers to provide such information in their questions?

I thought a really awesome example of how this technique can be really useful is Finding New York birth record from around 1804?

  • it's probably not gentle if a specific question askers question is used as an example :-)
    – Jeni
    Commented Oct 13, 2012 at 11:07
  • @Jeni - It was a great example of a question that, with more detail, would be a really awesome question. Keep in mind that, unlike forums, SE isn't a random snapshot of the Internet. That post I mentioned, but didn't link to, could be one of the best questions on our site with some edits. We can't improve our posts if we're afraid to give, or receive, constructive feedback. I hope it's clear that my intent is to help people make their posts rock! Hope this helps! :)
    – jmort253
    Commented Oct 13, 2012 at 18:30

2 Answers 2


I think laying out (in brief) the steps you've already gone though and the sources you've consulted can be useful (both for people trying to answer the question, and for others reading and trying to learn from it).

As a minimum, I'd suggest that gently urging questioners to provide information about time and place that makes the problem they're trying to solve more specific and thus more likely to get helpful answers.

  • 1
    We should probably include this in the FAQ.
    – Luke_0
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 2:06

Echoing and extending ColeValleyGirl's comments, Yes! The work in genealogy is about context and specifics without which the questions will be boring and answers less helpful.

P.S. As you can tell by some of the comments to questions, we want well written descriptions and reference, too.

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