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A Genealogical Friend in Need: Where To Find (and Give) Genealogical Help Online

When you've hit a brick wall or can't get your hands on a document, the generosity of a stranger in the right place or with a new idea can make the difference in your research. Sometimes you may need that stranger, other times you may be the stranger who holds the key to someone else's dilemma; learn more about two online resources where you can ask for, and give, genealogical help.


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A picture of that tombstone, a photocopy of that birth certificate, a fresh pair of eyes to look at your genealogical brickwall - sometimes the generosity of a stranger in the right place or with a new idea can make the difference in your research.

Sometimes you may be in need of that stranger, other times you may be the stranger who holds the key to someone else's dilemma; learn more about two online resources where you can ask for, and give, genealogical help.

Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness

Founded in 1999, Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (RAOGK) connects researchers with specific, localized needs to other researchers who live in those areas. Listed by state, and outside of the USA by country, volunteers in each area explain what tasks they are willing to do in their area for someone who lives long distance. Examples include look-ups in state censuses; locating and taking pictures of tombstones; or research and photocopies from court and public library archives. An e-mail form available through the RAOGK website lets a requester contact a volunteer.

Although the time given is free, volunteers must be reimbursed for their expenses such as transportation, photocopying fees and postage. With over 4,000 volunteers, RAOGK has set up guidelines to make sure that transactions run smoothly. For example, volunteers should not be asked to perform a task if the requester lives within 50 miles of the area where the information is located. "In some instances and in some areas, the volunteer you've requested information from may even live further away than you do," explains the RAOGK website.

Requesters should also only send one or two requests regarding one or two ancestors. Helping out on a volunteer basis, RAOGK volunteers can't reconstruct someone's entire family tree for them; research on birth parents is also not allowed.

Want to Volunteer?

RAOGK volunteers commit to performing one task a month. When they receive a request, volunteers must reply to the requester within 48 hours to two weeks, informing them upfront about reimbursement expected and if there is a waiting list. Volunteers must also sign up for RAOGK's mailing list.


Beyond the mailing lists and guidelines, RAOGK's "thank you page" testifies to the generosity, gratitude and abilities of RAOGK users and volunteers. "Super sleuth," "can't thank you enough," and "you're great" are some of the messages left on RAOGK volunteers. "You don't think you helped me," wrote one requester to his volunteer, "but you did more than you know." Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness can be found at


More of an online community than a strict volunteer listing, Ancestorville has an especially active Facebook page of 18,306 followers. Ancestorville was originally (and still is) a website started by Debra Clifford, an antiques dealer and history enthusiast in the Hudson Valley area of New York. The introduction of Ancestorville's Facebook page in February 2010 has not only attracted thousands of researchers, but it's also solved many brick walls and given researchers, or "Ancestorville townsfolk," as they refer to themselves, a place to bounce ideas off each other.

"I had no idea it would take off like this," said Clifford, who credits the page's popularity to Ancestorville's many chats, including the daily 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. chats, as well as the popular 11 p.m. "Graveyard Shift" for West Coast townspeople and East Coast night owls.

Researchers work together, give advice or simply discuss how their research is going in the daily chats, as well as in special chats by state, ethnicity or topic. Discussion also takes place on A-ville's Facebook discussion page or wall. Clifford said even her morning Facebook status update, which researchers respond to with their own updates on where they are and what they're researching, can jump start genealogical discussions.

Help from Ancestorville Townsfolk

Like RAOGK, enabling thousands of users to work together effectively has required guidelines in Ancestorville. Newcomers or townsfolk looking for help are asked to be specific in what they're looking for, to give as much information as they currently have, and to be patient and check back frequently. Those not familiar with Facebook also need to learn tricks to make their queries stand out, such as putting their request in a separate post, posting surnames in capitals and adding a location or timeline to catch as many eyes as possible.

Helping Others in Ancestorville

You might be looking for help in Ancestorville, but you probably also have the chops to help out someone there, too. Clifford said the online community includes researchers of all skill levels, with an episode of "Who Do You Think You Are?" sometimes bringing in newcomers who aren't even familiar with census records. And like RAOGK, your location and resources could make the difference for someone who can't access the local records in your area.

There isn't a solid line between being a volunteer and being someone looking for help in Ancestorville, where the emphasis is on sharing the journey. "It provides a community aspect that is welcoming, and a place to make friends," explains Clifford.

Ancestorville's Facebook page can be found by typing "Ancestorville" in Facebook's search box. As a page, Ancestorville does not require you to become a "Facebook friend" to read information and participate. "It's nothing more than hitting that 'like' button," said Clifford.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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