Reading thru the comments given to questioners, I believe there is general consensus that when asking questions about a specific individual, that context is good and should be included (and that in general original posters, myself included, don't include enough). How much context is appropriate? Should we provide guidance in FAQ? Eg

"when asking a question about a specific ancestor, it is best to provide all that you know, preferably directly in the question, not just link to another site"

Beyond the individual, how much is appropriate? Immediate family? For example, one commenter requested lineage from poster to the person being asked about. Is it appropriate to include or is that superfluous to the question about a specific individual? Is there a general rule on how much is appropriate- maybe 2 generations worth?

This question assumes the answer to should-we-be-asking-about-specific-ancestors is yes (otherwise this question is a moot point since we shouldn't be answering questions about specific individuals, only about research methods).

  • 1
    Should (and will @Duncan permit) this meta question to be edited (scope expanded) so that it addresses circumstance and how to handle both "not enough context" and also "too much context?"
    – GeneJ
    Nov 8, 2012 at 15:36

4 Answers 4


When looking at a question about a "brickwall" or how best to progress research on a specific ancestor, I'm more likely to find a question interesting (and work towards an answer) if:

  • The context (i.e. the information already known) is laid out in the question, and sourced, such that I can assess how much effort has been put in by the questioner and how reliable the results are, as well as avoid going over ground the questioner has already covered adequately.
  • Information (albeit brief) is provided about other searches already done unsuccessfully, again so I can avoid re-work but also so that I can perhaps spot an improved technique for the same search that might lead to better results

I completely agree with @GeneJ saying:

The broader the question, the more work an answer will entail, so context should be relative. The broader the question, the more context should be provided ... and the reverse.

I have a preference not to be sent off to other sites to understand the context, but that's perhaps an idiosyncrasy. I do think there's value in laying out the context explicitly as doing so helps me focus on making my questions specific and relevant to others, but it may be that I'm providing too much context when I do so.


The reason why you're posting your question is to solve a specific problem about an individual.

So you should include all the context necessary to describe what you know that is related to solving that problem.

(How's that for a simple as pie guideline)

Try to make the problem as specific as possible. The more specific the problem, the less context you will have.

Don't expand and try to get everything into one question. You can always ask multiple questions about different specifics.


Whether it is about a law, a person, a place, source, interpretation or other question, I'm looking for context to provide a solid footing from which an expert answer can be developed.

The broader the question, the more work an answer will entail, so context should be relative. The broader the question, the more context should be provided ... and the reverse.*

I look for the context to be referenced--book and page, graphic upload, etc. Where possible, I would usually test that footing to make sure I understand the problem, understand why it is interesting, and know that it holds before I put time into developing an answer.

Louis wrote, "For example, one commenter requested lineage from poster to the person being asked about."

Perhaps you are referring to my comment here (the Jacob Fisher question)? If so, then my logic, in part:

  1. Fisher is a common surname. It was common in New England at the times in question, in part because there were many early immigrants of that surname. (I did establish some basis on this before posting the comment.) Without even much thought, I would assume there was more than one Jacob Fisher about New England at the time Duncan's ancestor lived there.
  2. The request is broad. We needed to identify both Jacob Fisher and wife, Sarah Hodges, and identify them well enough to be able to discover a relationship to both sets of parents. We were also asked to identify the children born to Jacob and Sarah.
  3. There is not much context to support the broad research. The question is premised on the notion that one of the children born to Jacob and Sarah (Hodges) Fisher is a Jacob Fisher, 1776-1820. Ala, Duncan is " descended from ..." and then (paraphrased) "such and such vital record shows/proves my ancestor is the son of ..." So, our answers to the question would be identifying the grandparents and aunts/uncles of one Jacob Fisher (1776-1820).
  4. Since the vital record referenced does not identify the parents of Jacob Fisher, 1776-1820, it begs the question, Who was he? If Jacob Fisher 1776-1820 didn't exist, then "whose" grandparents are we identifying? (Fortiter can confirm, but I suspect he spotted the potential problem right way.) Commenting to ask questions about the child/children/wife of Jacob Fisher 1775-1820 was one way of trying to get him better identified in the question itself.

Answering the question was awkward. Given what seemed a noticeable conflict/problem with the footing or context, what are we supposed to do? It's a little bit like answering a loaded question, "When was the last time you beat your wife."

The issue of whether the question was overly broad aside (we all only know what we know), it seemed Duncan had provided the context and he provided the references for his context. That seemed to warrant an answer (I assume Fortiter felt the same way), but then what question are you really supposed to answer? (The change in context changes the question.)

P.S. Duncan suggested, "when asking a question about a specific ancestor, it is best to provide all that you know, preferably directly in the question, not just link to another site."

While providing information in the faqs is a good idea, providing the references to some great example questions would be especially helpful.


I was puzzled at first by the request to you for downstream connection to the person in question. But given the uncertainty apparent in that family (that is, a relevant context in a particular instance), it should be seen as a caution against choosing an "interesting" historical figure and then trying to prove he is an ancestor rather than working backward from yourself through proven steps.

That does not mean that you can never investigate people outside the border of the known and the unknown for your family. I have a number of topics of interest which impinge upon my family history without being attached to my genealogy (strictly defined).

In some cases, it might be appropriate to say "this is an interesting person, who may or may not be a direct ancestor" and allow others to assist with your search on that basis, if they choose.

As I have said in other posts, if the search for that person involves or illustrates an interesting technique or resource, then I (for one) am more likely to become involved.

  • I have a question about your 'interesting' reference. Are either of the Albert Fishers (who I know are my ancestors) or the Jacob Fishers (who may or may not be my ancestors) 'interesting' or famous in any way? The lineage question came up wrt the Fishers. You have whet my curiousity! I do agree with comment about 'finding someone and proving downward'. I always try to start at me and find info upwards. Admittedly sometimes the links are tenous, so you hypothosize updwards with less than conclusive evidence and then try to validate (or invalidate) the hypothesis.
    – Duncan
    Nov 6, 2012 at 22:44
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    I know that the Fishers are of no interest to me. I am very self-centred and focused on MY family not yours. But you can attract me to your question, not by explaining that they are famous, but by showing me a puzzle. Tell me about three Jacobs living in the area at the same time and the difficulty of sorting out which is which. That sounds interesting!
    – Fortiter
    Nov 7, 2012 at 0:24

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