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Writing Effective Genealogy Correspondence


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Type: Article
Prepared by: Candace Hogan
Word Count: 783 (approx.)
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A genealogist's best source of data, records, photos, documents and stories can be obtained from fellow researchers, distant relatives, genealogical - historical societies and governmental offices (city halls and courthouses). With the advancement in electronic communications (email), contacting these individuals and agencies has made a family historian's work much easier. However, using typed or handwritten requests mailed using the United States Post Office is still very acceptable.

No matter whether you are using one or both methods, there are still certain standards that should be followed that will generate the biggest dividends when requesting assistance.

First, when contacting a genealogical - historical society, see which method (email or regular US mail) they prefer. Many now have their own web sites with instructions if you have requests for information. The same holds true for governmental agencies. At the very least they will explain on their web sites any fees for copies of documents or for research time.

A mailing address will be listed, so it is simple to write out your request, include the check for the fees and place the letter in the mail. Some places have no fees listed, so it is best to include a check for a minimal amount ($2.00), a SASE and ask that if there are any additional costs to let you know. If you find no web site for the society, library or government agency, try to locate their telephone number through information and call them asking about their policies and fees.

In any written correspondence (email or paper); include your name, mailing address, email address and phone number. Keep your request simple and straight to the point, no more than a couple questions or responses. You will get a much quicker response if you don't overload the clerk filling the request. If you do have more questions, send a separate request.

Do include full names, dates and locations to make the task of searching easier at the repository. If the ancestor had multiple names or nicknames, do include those. Never just write, "Send me all the information you have on Richard Jones". That is too broad a request especially with such a common name. Instead, try, "I'm looking for the marriage application / date or newspaper notice for Richard C. Jones and Margaret T. Harrison in the month of June 1907 in Greene County."

Whether you are doing a typed / handwritten letter or an email message, make your request business like with good writing skills, spelling and grammar. A sincere 'thank you' at the close of the letter is always appreciated.

Besides the various repositories of documents, great sources are relatives and researchers of the same surname. Checking with many of the message centers will generate many possible cousins and fellow researchers. At Rootsweb Message Boards, or, type in a surname at the search box, then scan the variety of posted messages. Reading their request or their offer of information may just be the key to unlocking some of your own family mysteries.

Again, correspond on a polite manner. Start by referring to your possible similar ancestors and how you located their name and address. Ask just a couple questions of an ancestor or two you both may share. Provide a little bit of information on the ancestors you have but never laden them down with numerous other branches with many dates.

If you happen to notice a couple discrepancies in what they have vs. your database, be polite and just mention one or two of them, along with your sources or proof. Be positive and upbeat about locating a possible relative and hopeful that each can share information. After several exchanges, more family items can be shared such as photos and family stories. Always thank the individual for their time and effort, it shows your appreciation.

Most important for yourself; keep a copy, handwritten or computer file log, of your correspondence. Sometimes it could be months before you get a reply, whether from a society or an individual and you may need to refer back to the original letter or message you sent. It will allow you know when certain letters were sent, so if no answer is received after 6 months, write to them again. Letter and emails do get lost occasionally.

Using a few common sense letter writing tips should yield great dividends.

Genealogy is my hobby and addiction. For the last 20 years I have been researching, even before there was the internet. Along the way I have found many resources and shortcuts that I love to share with others.

Feel free to visit me at sign up for my monthly newsletter and receive my free ebook "Commonly Used Genealogical Forms" as a thank you from me.

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