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Are you new here? Maybe you're asking, what's all this about, and why does Genealogy & Family History Stack Exchange do everything differently than query boards, discussion forums, and other genealogy sites?

Since the current design of the site has a black top bar with light-colored type on it, and for me, the navigation stuff is almost invisible, I wanted to make a post that would stand out and be a little easier for newcomers to find and be able to read.

Next to the search widget at the top right of the screen, there's a menu for help. Click the word and it will drop-down a menu that has:

  • Tour Start here for a quick overview of the site
  • Help Center Detailed answers to any questions you might have
  • Meta Discuss the workings and policies of the site (in other words, it brings you here)

Detailed answers that explain why we do things differently can be found in the help center, but the basic philosophy is simple. Write a focused summary of your problem as a question. Other people will answer it if they can. And if you think you can answer other questions that people have asked, write an answer. If you don't have an answer, once you have earned some reputation points, you will be able to comment on questions and answers that other people have written.

So you're probably wondering WHY we do it this way. I'm going to answer that question below, and I'd like to encourage everyone else to post answers about what makes FH&G.SE's format valuable to them.

For some specific tips on writing a good question, see:

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What I really like about the way Genealogy & Family History Stack Exchange works is that, unlike discussion forums, bulletin boards, list servers, etc, there is no need to read through long back and forth discussions as participants try to tease apart and respond to multiple questions and crossed conversations.

Some of that does happen here in comments, but you should see anything important being quickly pulled out and incorporated back into the original questions and answers.

By having clear questions and clear answers at the front and centre of what we strive for, and the tools to continuously improve them using edit buttons, the Q&As here just keep getting better, not just for the people who posted and commented upon them, but also for future visitors to our site.

The Q&As here become what you wished you had known to ask or answer at the start and any comment trails (sometimes red herrings) that led you there by whatever circuitous route do not need to be read.

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As I write this, I've been a user of this site for about a year. This is what I've learned in that time.

The question-and-answer format on Stack Exchange has been a huge help to me in my research. Thinking about how to write a question that would be appropriate here -- a tightly-focused, answerable question -- makes me think about my research in a different way.

If you post a question here, people ask you to post a timeline of events for someone's life and a checklist of sources that you've found already. Here is why it's important to show research effort -- that is, the work you've already done:

  • it helps you clarify your problem
  • we can review what you've done, instead of just asking "have you seen this?" and getting responses of "yes, I already have that"
  • it makes it easier for you, and for us, to spot gaps, like a missing census record, that could be the genesis of another question

When we are new to doing research, it's easy to say "I want to know everything about my grandfather!" because you may start knowing very little.

After we've been at it a while, we may still have the same feeling of wanting to know everything, but in the meantime, we've learned a few things, so our questions become more precise, like "How can I find out when my grandfather married?"

Later on, our questions may become even more precise, like "How can I find a copy of my grandfather's probate records?"

The more I can pinpoint exactly what I am looking for, the easier it is to find something that will answer my question. With experience, it is easier to spot information in a record and realize it is a prompt to ask other questions which will lead to other records. One good example of this is, in the US Census, sometimes there are questions about whether someone is a veteran. If the answer is YES then that's a pointer to military records somewhere. See the US National Archives (NARA) for some guides:

So -- now you have a precise question, but you don't know how to answer it. That's what Genealogy & Family History Stack Exchange is for.

No one person can keep up with everything, but if you post a question here, other people can tell you about websites you don't know about or records that you didn't know about. Sometimes you did know about the sites already, but you had forgotten to check there. Sometimes you had checked there, but the website has been updated since then, and you didn't remember to go back and check. It really helps to have someone look over what you've done so far with a fresh eye. That's why peer review is so great.

The other thing about G&FH.SE that has been a huge help to me is trying to answer questions that other people have. It's good for learning how to be more objective about research -- when you are investigating someone who is not in your family, you may not have the same eagerness to find something that fits, no matter what. It's a great skill-building exercise.

If you don't know how to make a checklist of sources, here's a video from Crista Cowen of Ancestry.com that shows how she designed one, and what it can do to help your research.

Think of these things -- the timelines, the source checklists -- not as 'homework' that you have to do because someone said so, but as powerful keys that can unlock the locked doors blocking your path to the information you want. Instead of chasing a bright shiny object and dashing off until you are stopped by a dead end, you are taking control, and making a Research Plan. Gathering your information, forming precise questions -- these are things that professional genealogists do. You can learn to do these things, too.

The really cool thing about Stack Exchange is that you can find the keys to unlock your own locked doors, AND you can discover you have the keys that unlock the door for other people.

So -- welcome! Have fun exploring the site, and if you have a question about how the site works, and you can't find an answer in the help sections, ask a question here on Meta.

Stack Exchange is different, and it takes a little getting used to, but it is worth it!

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