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I answered the question Handling and storage tips for Old Family Bible.

In my answer, I said succinctly what to do, and then I provided a link to an expert site that gives great details on one aspect of how to do it.

I received a comment from Area 51 moderator @RobertCartaino saying it would be better to include those tips here rather than sending them off to another site with a link.

Then over in another qustions, @TAH gave what I thought was an answer, but gave it as a comment. I asked in a comment why not make that an answer instead of a comment, which they then did.

That answer was one with instructions and a link to an external site. I thought it was a very good answer. But then over in chat, @GeneJ asked if this question should be referred to a third party site.

I have not seen anything written up on Stack Exchange that says you should not link to other sites or that answers should not tell people to go to other sites. My experience with Stack Overflow is that a lot of questions are answered this way and they have never been discouraged. My experience with website optimization is that it is good to link to other sites because they notice you and they link back.

Part of the issue may be the question. If it is a list question, e.g. "Where can I get information on ...?", then you'll get 100 answers with 1000 links to other sites. That is obviously bad.

But if a person asks "How do I do ...", and you as a expert know the general procedure and then refer them to the detailed instructions, is that wrong?

I definitely think it is better to refer them to a site with the detailed instructions than attempt to copy the instructions over. That information is copyright and you'll still have to credit that information and a link to that site in that case would be absolutely required. As Robert suggests, I could summarize what the site says in tips, but again (and as all good genealogists do), I'd want to reference my source meaning I'd still need to link to that site.

So I'd like to know what the policy should be with regarding to linking to other sites.

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Chiming in...

Genealogical research is not like other pursuits on SE, so I would take their blanket recommendations with a grain of salt.

In software (and I am a developer who spends much time on StackOverflow), saying RTFM is a real brush-off. Most people have either already read the link provided, and if they haven't, when they go to read the link at the answerer's request, they're still confused. There's a two-step process here where reading the documentation is not the answer -- the second step, getting the correct code fragment, is.

In genealogy, on the other hand, a significant part of the problem is even knowing where to look! There's no official documentation for "all archives everywhere," so there's no "manual" the questioner ought to have already read. So the two step process here is: (a) locate the repository with the answers, (b) do the hard work of searching the repository for the answer. And I think we all know that sometimes (a) is the really hard step. For ex, if someone could tell me which of the 5 possible archives in Poland and/or Ukraine ended up with the b/m/d records for one of towns, I would be so grateful!

In the case of GeneJ's question, I felt it was important for him to know that there is a group of people who specialize in questions like his. I know for a fact that this Listserv is fairly active and helpful. Should I have posted on this listserv for him to get the ansewr and then posted it here? Of course not. Following on my example of the Polish/Ukrainian town, if someone could tell me of a researcher in Eastern Europe with the familiarity I lack, I would be overjoyed to contact that person. Should someone else, not me, contact that researcher on my behalf? Again, of course not.

So, there are two issues here:

(1) The people who know these deeper answers aren't on this SE right now and may never be. There are so many sub-specialities in genealogy. Hopefully we will start getting some of those specialists, but until a German-Jewish expert shows up, GeneJ's question would never get an answer. But many of us who aren't specialists in a particular area at least know how to point someone in the right direction (for ex, my general expertise is in Eastern European Jewish genealogy, which gives me more insight than the average person in what Jewish genealogy resources there are). I'm agnostic about whether my answer should be a comment or an answer -- I only moved it as requested :-) -- but I did truly believe I knew something GeneJ might not about Jewish genealogical resources.

(2) If this SE works when it's opened up more broadly, we're going to have a population of newbies who don't even know the basics of what record sets are on Ancestry and FamilySearch. Can we really not just give those newbies the link to the archive they don't know about? (This answer is possibly an example of that.) Again, we're obviously not going to do the research for the person.

A better model for what we should do here is the "Ask the Editor" features in the genealogical magazines/newsletters we subscribe to, which hew to something like what I'm recommending (at least in the ones I read). Only rarely do they actually do the research. But experts in the particular research challenges under discussion lay out what records are available, recommend which the researcher should peruse, and help him/her anticipate what s/he might uncover and where to go next.

Genuinely, I look fwd to the day when GeneJ's question gets the kind of answer he expected. That's a community that would benefit me tremendously, too. But in the meantime, let's not hold ourselves back from doing the best we can in pointing people in the right direction just b/c of some arbitrary guideline created for pursuits quite unlike our own.

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  • Great answer. I too see some of the differences in the genealogy population from the programmer population. It may be a real challenge for this site to keep itself relevant if the general genealogy population takes to it in a big way. But as both you and the Stack Exchange edict says, the key is to be able to attract the Experts so that these questions can be answered with expert answers. – lkessler Oct 14 '12 at 22:16
  • +1 for anti-RTFM... but also in agreement that G&FH is not a technical site, but a historical site and the rules of engagement are different here – Andrew Oct 15 '12 at 9:27
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Answers should be like mini Wiki articles: they contain links to other sources but should be sufficient to stand on their own. Linking, summarizing, and even quoting are good when they're done together. An answer that only contains a link or only contains a quote is a bad answer.

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Links are fine, but links alone don't make great answers.

  • "Linkrot" is a big problem. I don't have the article at hand, but I recently saw a report that some surprisingly large percentage of links either change or disappear over a relatively short period of time. (It was larger than the 3%/year mentioned in the wikipedia article on linkrot.)

  • Thus, if all you're posting is a link, it is fairly likely that your answer will be completely useless within a few months.

  • The least you can do is quote a small relevant passage, like I'm going to do with this related answer from meta.SO:

    When someone goes on StackOverflow, the question "answer" should actually contain an answer. Not just a bunch of directions towards the answer. You should provide context to all your links, otherwise the OP will have no idea what they are clicking into.

  • It would be better to post complete information, possibly including links to quality sources as an avenue to further research.

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The old teacher in me says that I don't want to reinvent the wheel on how to do something when there is already a perfectly good resource available.

BUT I do have an obligation to ensure that the questioner understands why that resource is being recommended and how they should use it.

So a suggestion to follow a external link should be supported by a justification for its choice, a comment on the relative strengths and weaknesses of its presentation and a warning of possible pitfalls.

For example: The step by step instructions provided at {link} are easy to follow even though the justification for {procedure} there is slim. You will find that the discussion at {other link} makes sense once you have actually {completed your first...}. This {link} is considered to be the definitive statement of policy on {area of study}

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Believe the issue is whether the link is offered as a reference and/or source of additional information, or if it is offered as an answer.

Extracted from an upvoted answer on meta.stackoverflow, "I think links are fantastic, but they should never be the only piece of information in your answer." Link to the full Q&A on this follows.

Are answers that just contain links elsewhere really "good answers"?

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From Chat with @GeneJ:

GeneJ: @lkessler Thank you. I understand what you are saying, but we could answer every question that way. Which would make for a pretty boring genealogy.se

lkessler: @GeneJ - to me, it may mean that the question isn't very good, if it results in answers like that ... but I don't know.

... and it's not boring to the asker if it answers their question. And its not boring to anyone else finding the question if it answers it for them as well.

GeneJ: Perhaps that is what we differ about then, because I thought that was a great question for genealogy.se

lkessler: Then how would you answer it without a link? The answer is to post a question at that SIG.

GeneJ: Add that I don't have a problem with essential "link only" entries being made in comments (vs answers). Now, if the respondent has taken the time to search that secondary site to include information IN the answer and then link to the secondary site as a reference, that is quite a different thing.

lkessler Well, reading it again, basically the answer is saying to ask the question elsewhere. Hmmm. I can see the logic in not wanting to do that in answers, and keep that in comments. ... so I see your point now.

GeneJ: I hope you will be careful, though, as I believe TAH posted at our encouragement. Would hate to see that become more of a target. Does that make sense? Ref: Q: Are answers that just contain links elsewhere really "good answers"?

lkessler: I'll add another comment on his answer to clear that up.

The comment I added was:

TAH: Some discussion re whether I did it right by recommending your comment be a question. They told me: "links should never be the only piece of information in your answer". See: Links to other sites? I guess the idea is that we want this site to help people, and not tell people that they should go to other sites for help.

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