Consider some hypothetical pairs of questions:


(a) As a young child I was taken meet my great uncle X who immigrated from Y in the '70s. There's nobody alive I can ask now, and I'm not sure I'm remembering his name properly -- I only heard it once. Is X a name from Y? How can I find out? And if it isn't, what might I have heard. I've tried searching with Google but without luck, especially as I don't speak Y.

(b) Is X a name from Y? I only heard it once, and haven't found anything on the Internet.


(a) My ancestors were rural copyholders in 18th century Pembrokeshire. How can I learn what day-to-day life was like for them? I've found a lot of a material online about rural England in the same period, but nothing for Wales.

(b) What was life like for a rural copyholder in 18th century Pembrokeshire?

In each case the question is in scope for this site (genealogy, family history, microhistory) but some of them are better questions than others and some may fall foul of the statement in the Help Center:

The community tends to respond better to questions that show you have already done some research (at least used a search engine or consulted a dictionary) before asking for help.

How should each version be handled? Please post your own answer and/or disagree with mine as appropriate).

3 Answers 3


In the first example where the information comes from a face-to-face meeting, from variant (a), I know that the name comes from an oral memory, not a written document where handwriting or issues of reproduction of an image might be obscuring the underlying name.

Having the longer version of the question, even though it is low-content when it comes to information, spares the community from a round of comments trying to find out more about where the name might have come from (by which I mean, what source / container might have held the name, not the name's country of origin).

In the second example, variant (a) has an assertion that the person writing the question has done some research effort. Since they are only reporting negative findings, and not any search terms or methods that we could troubleshoot, it isn't very useful for showing research effort, but I think it is better than nothing.

For all four variants, the lack of any kind of research goal in the question makes it less likely that I'll be able to craft a useful answer.

Alternate example 1:

(c) What keywords or library subjects can I use to research first names from [country]? I'm trying to find out more about name N which I learned from meeting a relative from [country] [time period] ago, and I'm having difficulty finding resources on the Internet.

Alternate example 2:

(c) What records and authored sources can help me discover what life was like for a rural copyholder in 18th century Pembrokeshire?

Both of these variants are problematic in that they beg for an answer which is a list, but at least they don't ask the person crafting an answer to do their homework for them like the other variants do.

For example 1, asking for help finding resources to answer the question leaves behind an answer that might help someone else who is researching a different name from the same locality / language group.

  • Thanks Jan. Are the questions bad enough to close? And if so, what closure reason would you give?
    – user6485
    Dec 18, 2019 at 8:49
  • PS I deliberately worded both variants of the first question to make it clear the source was oral...
    – user6485
    Dec 18, 2019 at 8:49
  • 1
    I need to think about the closure part of your question. For question 1, your (a) variant gives the context of a not-current memory vs. (b) which could be from a casual meeting you had with someone last week. For any genealogical source, knowing the distance between the event and the record is important for analysis of the record -- even here, where the 'event' is hearing the name, and the 'record' is writing the impression of how it sounded in the question for Genealogy.SE.
    – Jan Murphy Mod
    Dec 18, 2019 at 8:55
  • 1
    Putting my linguist's hat on -- knowing the native language of both parties (the older relative and the younger one) can be an important clue about what sounds may have been spoken and how they might have been interpreted by the hearer. Note my favorite surname example of a person who was enumerated in the 1920 US Census as 'Clumfort' whose surname is likely to have been Klopfer. Much easier to parse when you know the family is from Germany and the informant could have been a native speaker of German (and, if necessary, you can cross-check the enumerator's native language).
    – Jan Murphy Mod
    Dec 18, 2019 at 9:02
  • 1
    P.S. Yes, I know, you hate hats. :)
    – Jan Murphy Mod
    Dec 18, 2019 at 9:04
  • I do agree they're all bad questions in some degree or other, and can only be answered with general advice on how to go about the search. Except of course a passing expert in country Y might know the answer immediately....
    – user6485
    Dec 18, 2019 at 9:09
  • 1
    Even so, we have to look at the long-term value to the site. A passing expert who says "Oh that name is probably [S] instead" and nothing else leaves behind a poor answer that will not be of any value to users with other names from that language. I feel strongly that our Q/As should benefit more than one person (the 'case study' idea).
    – Jan Murphy Mod
    Dec 18, 2019 at 17:40
  • 2
    Re: closure: my personal feelings of "I'm not here to do your bleeping research/homework" violate the Be Nice principle and don't align well with the SE closure categories. "Your question is too narrow -- answers are only likely to help you" is not one of the options. My ideal question-asker is not simply a help vampire, but also is a stakeholder in the "willing to help other users" goals of SE.
    – Jan Murphy Mod
    Dec 18, 2019 at 17:43
  • 1
    yes I yearn for a "go away and learn a bit and then come back and and ask a better question" close reason but we have and need to work within the SE boundaries. I'll upvote answers that might help other people, but we don't have any more tools.
    – user6485
    Dec 18, 2019 at 18:39

All the questions are on-topic.

Let's assume they aren't duplicates.

They're not unfocused.

They're not opinion-based.

Do they need details or clarity? Arguably not. It's clear what's being asked, even if we don't always know why. Do do we really need to know why something is being asked -- or should we be assuming good faith? Yes, I know that's not in the Code of Conduct anymore, but it's still a good rule to live by.

Most important of all, each question in the pair IS THE SAME QUESTION. And they're each answerable to the same degree with the information given -- in fact, the G&FH content where it exists adds nothing to help an answer. Somebody with the appropriate expertise could write the same answer to each variant of the same question. Or somebody who was feeling kind could document the beginning of a targetted search stratgy to find the information sought. 'Great Uncle X' and 'My ancestors' bring nothing to the party.

So closure doesn't seem appropriate for any of the variants.

But some of the variants are undeniably worse than others, primarily on the amount of research effort shown. Lack of research effort isn't a valid closure reason, but it should attract downvotes (and associated comments asking for more information).

If we as a community decide we want to prefer some overt G&FH context, we should amend the Help Center "What topics can I ask about" to mention that we prefer to see both some research effort and some G&FH context.


From our Tour (with my bolding):

Genealogy and Family History is a question and answer site for enthusiasts and experts to share their knowledge and build their skills while researching genealogy, family history, and related topics in microhistory.

When I open a question the first thing I consider is whether it appears to be a question related to researching genealogy, family history, and related topics in microhistory.

If it does not, then I think it is off-topic before getting to any dot points listing examples of what's on and off-topic in our help, so I vote to close it with a comment along the lines of:

There does not appear to be a Genealogy & Family History component to your question. If there is, then please edit your question to describe it so that your question can be reviewed for re-opening.

I should probably make that:

There does not appear to be a Genealogy & Family History (or microhistory) component to your question. If there is, then please edit your question to describe it so that your question can be reviewed for re-opening.

For your four examples I would:

  • 1. (a) leave open - comes out of G&FH research
  • 1. (b) vote to close - sounds like it could be someone trying to remember/clarify a name of someone they met in a pub. I did that at What Estonian name is there similar to Titsilt?
  • 2. (a) leave open - comes out of G&FH research but would try to entice more focus
  • 2. (b) leave open - sounds likely to have come out of G&FH research but would try to entice more focus

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