How To Collaborate With Other Genealogists

by Thomas MacEntee | Sep 23, 2011

A sense of connectedness is what many of us in the field of genealogy experience once we get started researching our roots. Yes, there is that connection with our own ancestors, even the ones we've never met: we see similarities in appearance, behavior patterns and even life choices. Yet this connectedness is almost never reciprocated by our ancestors (well, unless your dead relatives talk to you, and that is a whole other topic . . .). It tends to be a one-way street.

However, the more you become involved in the genealogy community, the more you realize there is another level of connectedness: a connection with other researchers. The term often used is collaboration or collaborative genealogy and while technology and social media has made connecting with others easier, collaboration has always been a part of the genealogy community.


Why Collaborate?

A longtime genealogist who did not use the Internet or email, once told me that she didn't see the value of collaborating - online or offline - with others in regards to her own family's research. When I have these encounters, I don't regale the person with tales of brick walls coming down via social media connections for fear of sounding like a technology cheerleader. I simply ask them: who helped you get started in genealogy? This usually gets the conversation rolling and I find out that someone actually did take the time to collaborate with them and give them their start on the fascinating journey of discovering one's ancestry. Then they tend to understand the value of collaboration.

Remember the saying "No man is an island?" It applies to genealogy and research as well. For most of us, at some point in our efforts, we will need to reach out to someone in the genealogy community for assistance. Some folks stubbornly try to "go solo" perhaps because they see asking for help as a sign of weakness or they fear having the research "stolen" from them.

But what if our own ancestors had decided not to interact, to socialize, to ask for help from their relatives and community? The truth is that most of us wouldn't be here right now - most of our ancestors would not have met, gotten married, had children etc. Social interaction is vital to not only the well-being of a person, both physically and mentally, but also to the growth of family lines.


Making The Connection

My strongest recommendation for those new to collaboration is this: go slow. Here is a "go slow" approach to working with others:

  • First, work with another relative who also researches your same family line. See if they would like to share research information or even tasks such as writing reports, ordering vital records or taking photos at cemeteries.
  • Next, branch out to the "non-family" world by attending a meeting of your local genealogy or historical society. Most societies have a person who welcomes newcomers - if not, go up to people and introduce yourself and make sure you mention the surnames you are researching. You might be lucky enough to connect with someone willing to share research or better yet, a distant cousin!
  • Finally, take the plunge into the online world by reading blogs and looking for other genealogists on Facebook or even sites like GenealogyWise. If you find a researcher with similar surnames or family lines, contact them and offer to exchange research data. Also, don't be afraid to post a query at a message board or even ask for help online.

Here is a quick list of ways in which genealogists are collaborating with each other both in-person and online:

  • Genealogy and Historical Societies: attend a meeting of a local society and visit several societies until you find the one that is right for you. Also don't forget there are many online societies you can join that can help you with your research.
  • Genealogy Conferences and Workshops: education opportunities abound and very often you can sit with other researchers and socialize during the break, during a meal or even while the audience is gathering for a presentation.
  • Family Tree Websites: many sites, including Archives.com, offer its members the ability to build online trees. Also, there is usually a search feature so you can connect with other researchers who share your surnames or family lines.
  • Message Boards and Queries: there are several free message board and query websites where you can post information along with your email address so others can contact you. Post your surnames, your research locations, and also don't be afraid to ask for help or a lookup!
  • Get Involved in the Conversation: participate in conversations while at society meetings and conferences but also realize you can talk with others online as well. One way is to leave comments on blog posts or articles related to your research or surnames. Also some websites and services have chat rooms with specific meeting times and topics of conversation.
  • Share Your Research: you can and should share your information just as others do. Besides building an online family tree, consider starting your own blog or website and posting information. You'll be surprised at the connections you make with others researching their own roots.

Do's And Don'ts Of Genealogy Collaboration

  • DO ask for permission to use research content if you've found something online. And ask politely. In most cases, the researcher not only will be happy to do so, but may offer additional information that isn't even published.
  • DON'T copy research that is posted online without giving proper credit or attribution to the original researcher. Most researchers work many years to produce a body of work and a little recognition goes a long way. Not only mention them by name, but also link back to their blog or website.
  • DO respect intellectual property and copyright laws. Depending upon your location, there are laws regulating what you can and can't use in regards to published research. Also keep in mind that while narrative text can be copyrighted (examples: obituaries, family stories, etc.), facts cannot be copyrighted. In those cases, do your own research and write your own narrative using the facts.
  • DON'T assume that someone else's research is sound or correct. A good researcher will take a critical approach towards such research and determine if it is based on sound research practices. Are there source citations? How was the information located? If you have questions, contact the researcher but do so in a non-confrontational manner. Accepting the research of others on an "as is" basis can later cause you to go on a wild goose chase and basing your own research on faulty data.
  • DO be concerned about your privacy and the privacy of others. Never share or publish information on living individuals. If you see your own information or that of another living relative published, contact the website or blog owner, kindly explain the situation and ask that it either be removed or specific information be substituted with the words [PRIVATE].

Collaboration Is Not New

If you have been in the genealogy field for some time, as I have, you know that collaborating with other researchers is not new. The desire to connect and share information has always been there, yet the methods we use to connect have changed, and rapidly so, with the advancement of technology.

For example, I discovered that a second cousin five times removed, George W. Putman, used collaboration in the early 20th century when compiling a printed genealogy of my Putman line. He wrote letters to the postmasters of each small town in upstate New York, asking if they had addresses for citizens with the last name Putman. The postmaster would forward a list to my cousin who then wrote letters to each person, trying to determine how they were related to the Putman family.

While the use of letter writing for gathering genealogy information eventually led to the use of the telephone during the 20th century, genealogy and historical societies were established so that members could meet and exchange information. Such groups would produce a newsletter or journal where a query or advertisement could be placed, asking if other researchers shared a common surname or other research.

Once the personal computer appeared in the early 1980s, genealogists using modems and programs such as America OnLine or online bulletin boards saw the collaborative value of these venues and exploited them to their full extent. Queries were posted online, other researchers could pose questions or ask for help, and even lookups were performed using these programs.

In the early 1990s, the Internet revolutionized the way in which family historians connected with each other. Websites allowed not just genealogy vendors like Ancestry to provide research content (and charge a fee for access), but individual genealogists and genealogy societies also could have a presence on the Web and solicit information as well as provide content and allow genealogists to collaborate.

Fast-forward to the social media era in the early 21st century and now the possibilities for connecting seem endless. Facebook, Twitter and other tools are being used to exchange information, to ask for assistance and to help newcomers to the field of genealogy. Blogs have replaced websites as the easiest way to have an Internet presence and to connect with others. Genealogy vendors now provide more than just research content - they allow users to build family trees online and to search for connections with others maintaining their own trees.

Who knows what the next "hot" method of collaborating will be? Whatever it is, be sure that genealogists and family historians will find a way to put it to good use for the purpose of collaboration.


Conclusion

A little philosophizing here: I've always believed that if you are constantly looking at every encounter or situation from the perspective of "what's in it for me?" then very often you will bypass or miss opportunities to give rather than receive because you don't see the value inherent in those opportunities.

A hand that is constantly holding on to something can't be open to receive something new. As a genealogist, I've had to "let go" of what's in my hand and learn to give freely to the community mostly through collaboration. In doing so, what has come into my hand is much bigger than what I can even hold sometimes and I am amazed at the abundance.

Don't pass up the opportunity to share your research and your knowledge especially with newcomers to the world of genealogy and family history. Just as we research connections between our ancestors and their friends and neighbors, we too must be aware of our connections to the genealogy community - connections that, once established, will serve us well into the future.


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