I have several family lines that currently disappear in Kentucky or Virginia that I might ask about. Is that appropriate for this site?

If we don't allow specific questions on specific ancestors would there be enough traffic on this site?

  • Would you be willing to edit your question above with an example? Genealogy is often context specific. This is not a site for cousin connections or look ups, but it should be a site for expert answers to good questions. I assume by your question that you agree?
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 10, 2012 at 1:45
  • I guess that is the point of the question. Both families get lost in the 18th century. Is that fair game? How about if they disappear in the late 20th century? Is that off limits? Commented Oct 10, 2012 at 1:50
  • If the question itself is written in the context of the Q&A purpose, then I don't think any of the questions are off limits. I assume you mean the record trail runs dry. Those are good questions, especially if you have or are trying to learn if the record trail has really run dry or why it seems so.
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 10, 2012 at 2:06
  • e.g. Is this question acceptable: genealogy.stackexchange.com/questions/66/…
    – lkessler
    Commented Oct 10, 2012 at 3:08
  • Duncan gave us another great example. Reading it over, I didn't find a reason to suggest closure, but I am going to comment on how the question could be improved. I am interested in everyone's take. genealogy.stackexchange.com/questions/1430/…
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 23:04
  • I am also "guilty" of this with genealogy.stackexchange.com/q/1443/70. I asked it in that way because the underlying (generic) question about unexplained gaps in a timeline that might involve overseas travel seemed unlikely to attract interest. I expected comments that will contribute to building community consensus on how much individual detail is needed to illustrate a common issue or concern. (Is there such a thing as ethical trolling?)
    – Fortiter
    Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 2:47
  • @lkessler That question was more about finding details and clues in an old photograph. I felt it was more useful to others' learning than just a straight-up I can't find 'so and so'. Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 3:58
  • If you eliminate questions closed as duplicates, 40% of the questions closed to date have been about individuals. It's at least possible that some members consider the community has decided on an answer to this meta (ie the answer is 'no' or a qualified 'no, unless it could be turned into a more general methods question'). I personally disagree with that answer but if it is the community intent, then add it to the faq. If it isn't their intent - then help those posters improve their question so they can be reopened so we don't give the wrong impression when recruiting new membership.
    – Duncan
    Commented Nov 9, 2012 at 13:53
  • 1
    @Duncan, Of the 13 questions closed to date only 2 have been closed as Off topic, and only one of those was about specific ancestors. 2 more questions about specific ancestors were closed for not being "real questions" and 1 was closed as "not constructive." In addition, there are a lot of questions about specific ancestors that have not been closed. So I don't think you're reading the community intent correctly about what is on- and off-topic.
    – user104
    Commented Nov 9, 2012 at 18:34

9 Answers 9


Most genealogy related question are generated by getting stuck while researching. They're often referred to as "brickwall" questions. The questions are usually posed elsewhere as

I can't find anymore information about my ancestor. Here is what I know... Please help!

If we don't address those types of questions in some form then we have no chance of maintaining a viable community. You can only ask so many questions about research methods.

But we also can't address them as is. They're too specific. Any answer will only help the person who asked it, which is not the purpose of SE.

What we can do is rephrase the questions to be more general. Here's an excellent example:

How do I research Chinese names that have been Americanized?

The question was raised because the OP hit a brickwall, but it was phrased in a general way so that answers will help anybody in that situation.

  • 1
    It would be great if there was a blog post about how to go from the too-specific question to one that would be more acceptable on the site.
    – fbrereto
    Commented Oct 11, 2012 at 23:25
  • I'm not sure the problem is that of being too specific, @fbrereto. I just posted a comment to the Sayward query genealogy.stackexchange.com/questions/1469/… saying that the question body leaves us hanging as to the real "problem." I may have jumped the gun, but 20 hours has passed without an edit to that question body. How long do we wait?
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 22:57
  • 1
    @GeneJ: The Sayward question you link to smells like a similar kind of question on Stackoverflow which is basically a riff on "solve this problem for me". One of the things we strongly encourage on SO is to detail what they've tried to do, what's going wrong, what they're expecting, and what they've done to get from where they are to a solution that hasn't worked (e.g. Google, other SO questions, etc.) It would seem to me we should encourage a similar level of participation by the person asking the question, otherwise it's a "solve this problem for me" post and not really a question; close it.
    – fbrereto
    Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 23:12
  • 1
    @fbrereto We have the opportunity on Genealogy.SE to bring the "query" into the 21st century. This is good.
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 23:28
  • 1
    @GeneJ: I ran out of comment space, and so more clearly fleshed out the point I was trying to make here: meta.genealogy.stackexchange.com/questions/3/…
    – fbrereto
    Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 23:28

Yes. We should allow questions about specific ancestors.

I agree with @JustinY that "If we don't address those types of questions in some form then we have no chance of maintaining a viable community. You can only ask so many questions about research methods."

I disagree with the assertion that the specific questions must be generalized because only the Original Poster (OP) will care about the answer.

I agree generalizing helps more people but the assertion that only the OP cares about a specific ancestor is misleading. Although I agree only my sister and I care about my father, most people born in the 1600s have thousands of descendants, maybe even millions. Some of the value of the site comes from finding your 'cousins' interested in that same ancestor (see need-more-strategies-for-meeting-collaborative-cousins).

@beachbuddah observes 'there are many sites out there that do just the sort of thing' (ie specific ancestors). I think that supports the idea that genealogy.se should as well. Recall the se "about" observes "What’s so special about this? Well, nothing, really. But we synthesize aspects of Wikis, Blogs, Forums, and Digg/Reddit in a way that we think is original.". And I'll add genealogy.se would be the one place to go to get all questions answered.

I think @Fortiter had it correct that a question is best when it has both a general question and a specific example. This helps the greater community but also helps those with the specific interest in an individual. Remember stackexchange is about answering questions to specific problems. Wanting info about a specific ancestor is a specific problem.

A good analogy might be CodeReview. Although the code reviewed is a specific program of use only to the OP, it's still worth doing. It helps both the OP and the reviewers and the general community. I think specific ancestor questions would be similar in genealogy.

Recall the questions are specific problems a poster has encountered and are questions about facts (it's not like asking someone to write code for you). Both the method to get the answer, and the specific facts found are both valuable to many.

  • I'm starting to lean this way.
    – user47
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 13:43
  • 3
    I think we have to allow questions about specific ancestors, as long as they're questions about how to progress research on those ancestors, rather than questions asking for others to do that research.
    – user104
    Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 11:49

Yes, GFH should be a place where people can come and ask these kinds of questions. However...

These questions can often take the form of "solve it for me", a well known question type on StackOverflow. Thinking about what details I want of those questions on SO, we should encourage additional information along these lines:

  • The specific problem they are trying to solve. Asking to find all the info about a particular person is too general and not a good question. If extra details are found while answering the question, that's fine, but the original question should be targeting something specific.
  • Details about what they've got so far (dates, places, relatives, etc.), to the degree they are willing to divulge the information, knowing that the more they can provide the more likely the question they have will be answered.
  • Details about where they've looked. Did they go to Ancestry.com? Google? Some random site? A library? Panama? Any information that keeps people from retracing steps is helpful.

To carry the analogy the "solve it for me" questions on SO that lack additional information are quickly closed as not a real question. Without information like the above I wouldn't expect the GFH community to tolerate them much, either.

TL;DR: The individual posting the question should show a vested interest in solving the problem and using the community as a hand up, not a handout.

  • "..vested interest." Very well said. +16 million.
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 23:33

Seems to me that there are many sites out there that do just the sort of thing you're asking about, Blake.

I would think this site would be more effective if we were to ask something along the lines of 'Are there any known databases that can help me overcome this brick wall I have with my relatives from Kentucky or Virginia?'

Eliciting the knowledge of experts - meta or local - regarding tools, databases, methodologies will be what distinguishes this site from others where the question seems to be 'Who knows this person?' sites.


  • 1
    We have to be careful about creating lists of resources. We don't want to do that. Asking about "known databases" would just result in 10 answers each with a database listed. That's a no no type of question.
    – lkessler
    Commented Oct 10, 2012 at 2:41
  • I'm looking forward to some questions about brick walls. The private beta would seem to give us the perfect opportunity to fine tune the concept and develop a winning approach.
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 10, 2012 at 2:46

References to specific ancestors can both enhance and reduce the quality of a question. Our challenge is to include the right amount of specificity in the right manner.

When I reviewed the first draft of my question How should I distinguish siblings named identically? I decided that there was little in it to grab the attention of people with the knowledge I want to draw on.

I hope(!) that, by including a concrete example that exemplifies the problem, I have made it a better question. However, if someone limits their answer to references to the Medwell family, I will have failed.

On the other hand, what if the person answering uses a specific example from his or her work to illustrate a useful general principle ... ?


I think that the existence of forums which do this badly does not mean that we can't do it well.

These questions do have specific answers, and because ancestors several generations back may have many, many descendants, the questions aren't necessarily too individualized. Or maybe it will hit upon another site member's area of expertise even if it's not the same family tree. It's possible that many will sit unanswered for a long time, but that's not necessarily a horrible failure, because unlike a cluttered and poorly-organized web forum, a long tail of questions like that doesn't necessarily have a bad impact on the site.

In fact, encouraging a body of such questions might actually help the site attract new users and contributors. As I am typing this, the site has only fifteen questions this month so far. The risk of the site dying off from lack of use is a lot greater than the risk of it collapsing under the weight of questions about specific people.

Generalized "how do I find..." questions are useful too, but I don't think these questions should necessarily be turned into those. (Otherwise, it's the same general advice one might get from a beginning book on searching for one's roots, repeated over and over again.)

  • +1 for "Or maybe it will hit upon another site member's area of expertise even if it's not the same family tree." IMHO, effective help comes from others who are familiar with the resources available for that geographical area and place -- more so than others who just happen to be studying the same surname. I'm not saying we should turn into Curious Fox; what the SE format is strong at is providing help with the same kind of problem. How do we get people to branch out and think beyond looking for someone studying their own set of surnames?
    – Jan Murphy Mod
    Commented Dec 28, 2013 at 16:28
  • P.S. curiousfox.com/uk One of my earliest successful queries that drew help from a non-related Curious Fox user was very much a "help me work this puzzle" question that might be right at home here on G&FH.se. BTW, I leave my solved queries up on Curious Fox with a note saying that the question is answered, but I'd still like to converse with others interested in that geographical area.
    – Jan Murphy Mod
    Commented Dec 28, 2013 at 16:32

This all comes down to being able to ask the right question*.

The biggest issue in answering any question is not the answer – it is determining what the asker actually meant when they asked you the question. I, as many other people I know, always start by answering the question I was asked. However, often as not, that was not the question they actually wanted answered. They didn't know it wasn't the question they wanted answered, but it wasn't.

Of course, this is the purpose of the FAQ and other site guidelines, too, but I think that we should allow "specific" questions - so long as they are edited into a generalized form 'soon' after asking.

Completely banning them will give the issues enumerated by @JustinY's answer above.

* this answer comes from thoughts I've had elsewhen on the topic, derived from Jon Bentley's book, Programming Pearls


Based on the many thoughtful comments contributed, there seems support for allowing the questions within certain limits.

Faqs are needed. For example, PolyGeo did what could be done to improve the question title, but there isn't anything we can do to improve the content of this question, "I want more about XXXX born XXX died XXX married XXX." (See How to find birthplace and parentage of Maine individuals given known details of 19th Century death?)

The question content is seeking a proven answer yet (1) provides no references/reasoning/logic for the facts that are supposedly the basis of the inquiry and (2) provides no insight into the specifics of the research problem (including that there is no logical summary of the work that has been done already).

Re-visit tagging. If not "brick walls" then perhaps query. Are we going to allow surname tags? (Ala, a tag, surname-Miller.) Should each such inquiry include a location tag?

Update: At least in concept, I like the earlier suggestion of developing a blog post on this topic once we enough experience to believe there is a success equation.


From the other sites I've seen on genealogy they are often swamped by this types of questions that usually get very few useful answers. Unless you happen upon someone who actually already have the person you are looking for in their tree, you will not get an answer. And even if you get an answer, quite often it is just a person with a similar name and a similar date of birth; and not the one you actually looked for.

It is simply more useful; not just for you as asking, but also for others, to ask "How can I find more info about N.N." than essentially just asking other people to do the research for you.

  • 1
    +1. Let's not become a resource for those seeking a look up resource.
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 20:35

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