I haven't had enough gumption to work on my own research lately, so to fire up my imagination and take a bit of a break, I've been watching videos on YouTube, particularly the Ancestry.com videos that describe how their pros do searches. (Many of these are archived from Live presentations; the people who watched Live had the opportunity to chat with the presenter afterwards.)

In one of the videos, Crista Cowan said that she could tell from the comments she was getting in chat that some of her audience wasn't able to apply the concepts from her case studies to their own research. So she took even more care than usual to emphasize the basic ideas in her talk and to encourage her viewers to apply the same techniques in their own searches.

If that is true of the majority of people asking genealogy questions on the Internet (big if, but I'll address that in a moment), then the new user's inability to apply the concepts shown in a case study is going to be a big stumbling block in sustaining Genealogy.SE as well.

I didn't understand the SE way the first time it was described to me, but once I got here and saw the strengths of this format, I quickly came to appreciate it. My (limited) experience of genealogy communities was either with forums (which on a lot of sites are on rather old and unsophisticated technology), with query boards, or with what I like to call comment chains on blogs and sites like Facebook.

And it seemed like what usually happened was this. Someone posts a question about a particular family line and they don't give much information, so the only people willing or able to answer will be the ones who already know the answer. Whether the question is meant as cousin-bait or not doesn't really matter -- if none of the forum regulars are already working on that line, and no one knows the answer, no one will answer, so the question just sits there. Or, if someone is working that line, very often the two users will take their conversation private, so there's no useful information left behind for others who come later. That happened even on the RootsWeb Mailing lists, which otherwise seemed to have a higher level of discourse.

However, I learned very early on, when using the query board Curious Fox, if you post your question as a puzzle, and give enough information that someone that isn't already familiar with the family and area can get their teeth into the problem, you'll attract the people who like a good challenge, and then you'll get answers, whether they know your family or not. I left a very detailed query about specific things I wanted to know, and got very specific, helpful answers from another user who took up the challenge of working that problem.

Because of that experience, I came to SE already knowing that you had to make your questions something interesting that people would want to work on. And since I had read several good how-to books on genealogy when I was first starting out, I came to SE already knowing the value of reading a case study, and knowing how to mine someone else's case study for ideas on how to solve my own problems.

I like to answer questions on SE because I learn about things when I answer someone else's question, and if I think about how I would write up a question for SE, and then how I might answer a question like that, I discover things I had forgotten to research. So I think the format has tremendous value for people doing genealogy, and I want the site to succeed.

The challenge for G&FH.SE is: how do we get across, in a nice way, that the reason a lot of people are stuck is that they aren't asking the right questions? (Or, as Crista said in her video, that they have blocked themselves?) And that we can give them better answers if they tell us more information about what they've already done? How do we convey that there are other ways to get information than simply asking for help from people who are working on the same line as you are?

SE can be very effective at smashing down brick walls, if the new users can grasp the idea that the SE way is so very different from the other forums and query boards, and give us something to work with.

I'm thinking about the recent question How to find death record from late 19th century New York (State)? where I wrote up what I thought was an okay answer (given the limited information we were given to work with) and was told "oh, I've already looked in all those places". (This happens all the time when I'm recommending books; someone will ask for a recommendation and I'll suggest a bunch of books and they'll say "oh I've read those already" but when I ask what their favorites were and what they liked about them, they can't always articulate it, and they don't see the purpose of my asking.)

I just don't know how to break that mindset that some people have of only working on their own families, and not thinking about the larger view. In addition to letting people know that they can get the answer to their questions here, how can we get the idea across that if you answer someone else's question, you build skills that can help you with your own problems? And that it isn't always necessary to have people familiar with that family line in order to crack a problem?

I know there are other Meta questions about how to encourage people to write up a summary of the work that they've done already, and discussions of the elevator pitch, and I'll go review those (pointers welcome). But I wanted to toss this out, because it bugged me to hear Crista say that her audience just wasn't seeing the point of the case studies she was using to illustrate her talks.

Maybe this is more of a big deal to me because I come from an academic background, but I still remember how exciting it was to have people come back from the field with the things they were working on. They would present questions from their fieldwork that they were stuck on, and ask for our input. They wanted our opinions, about real questions that no one knew the answer to yet. And what we had to say really mattered -- it wasn't just for a grade. It was fun.

I want to convey to people that writing up a summary of your work so far is actually helpful in itself, as well as making it easier for someone else to suggest ways to answer your question. It isn't just asking people to jump through hoops before we answer them, because we feel like it. It's what SE is for -- to be able to present your tough cases to an intelligent audience who can help you with your problem.

  • 1
    Jan, I haven't responded because all I can think to say is: Yes! This!
    – user104
    Mar 28, 2014 at 8:58
  • When I said "only working on their own families, and not thinking about the larger view" I was thinking about Curious Fox, which is geographically-based, but on SE we can also attack the larger questions of "how do I find a birth record before the start of civil/statewide registration?" There are some questions which require area-specific knowledge (e.g. my father was born before the start of statewide birth registration) but the techniques you might use in the UK to find supporting evidence can also work in the USA.
    – Jan Murphy Mod
    Mar 28, 2014 at 18:51
  • 1
    And in some cases, it might be advantageous to have to present your question to someone unfamiliar with your area and your family line, because then you have to think about and articulate basic things where you may have skipped over something obvious and made a mistake or caused a block for yourself. So how do we get across the idea that writing up a concise but thorough summary of previous work is an aid to solving the problem in its own right?
    – Jan Murphy Mod
    Mar 28, 2014 at 18:54
  • 3
    I have lost count of the instances where I've gone: could ask that on G&FH.SE, but better check my facts first... and then gone: DUH and not asked the question.
    – user104
    Apr 1, 2014 at 14:54
  • 1
    @ColeValleyGirl -- same here, and some might be good candidates for self-answered questions, but it still seems a bit odd to answer myself.
    – Jan Murphy Mod
    Apr 1, 2014 at 16:44
  • 1
    I've taken the re-edits by AnaHervesi and PolyGeo into account and re-edited the question. Further re-edits are welcome, of course.
    – Jan Murphy Mod
    Apr 1, 2014 at 17:05
  • 3
    tl;dr "On Genealogy and Family History Stack Exchange, we ask you to present your questions a little differently than you might on other sites that you may be used to, where people post 'cousin-bait'. This is a feature, not a bug."
    – Jan Murphy Mod
    Apr 1, 2014 at 17:20
  • I like your new title the best of the four so far. Not sure how many people agree but I like to make Question titles as succinct as possible by dropping out words like "the", "a", "I", "we" etc and to shorten "How do we" to "How to".
    – PolyGeo Mod
    Apr 1, 2014 at 21:50
  • I have to dash now, so if you want to shorten it, be my guest! :)
    – Jan Murphy Mod
    Apr 1, 2014 at 22:24

1 Answer 1


I think you have provided much excellent food for thought in your, as always, well written synopsis so I hope you will not mind me quickly summarising what I took from it.

To me it says "Don't just give us a Question with little context, start first by summarising as clearly and pertinently as you can, what you have done in the way of research to try and answer your own question, and then ask us your focussed question. This will not only stop us simply retracing your steps, but the story behind your question gives you a much better chance of attracting our interest and skills to it."

If anyone is interested in how and why this great Stack Exchange format came into being I strongly recommend this hangout by its founder Jeff Atwood in which he emphasises the importance of a story to each question that "sells" it to potential answerers, and then "gardening" your question to review it as more details (that often come from comments) assume relevance.

  • 1
    "Don't write the title until you've finished asking the question." YES!
    – Jan Murphy Mod
    Mar 22, 2014 at 17:24
  • 2
    Because once you've written out the whole question, the answer you're really asking may not be the one you thought you would be asking when you started.
    – Jan Murphy Mod
    Mar 22, 2014 at 17:31

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .