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Effective Communication

Communicating effectively is essential skill for genealogists. Whether in writing or on the phone, you’re going to ask for information or share information. And it follows that you should be able to type. If you can’t there’s a free, online program to help you develop that skill at: http://www.sense-lang.org/typing/. Or sign up for a keyboarding class at your local adult education center. Bonus: learning a new skill is supposed to stave off brain atrophy.

We don’t write letters on paper any more. We send e-mail. If we contact a cousin who doesn’t have e-mail (they tell me such people still exist), we call on the phone. Long-distance phone rates used to limit our conversations, but with today’s all-you-can-eat minutes plans for land-line and cell phones, we can talk more than our cousins can stand to listen.

Your E-mail Address

There are many free sites (well, free if you don’t include the advertising factor) that offer e-mail addresses. Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo come to mind. If you establish one of those e-mail addresses and check it fairly regularly, you can keep that address virtually forever. If you use an e-mail address tied to your Internet Service Provider (ISP), when you jump ship for a better deal, you lose your e-mail address.

You can establish your own Internet domain name and it and the e-mail addresses that go with it will be yours as long as you keep your domain name registration paid up.

But like street addresses, e-mail addresses may change and you’ll hear that tune, "Return to Sender, Address Unknown," playing in your head. It happens often when you find a query someone posted to a message board and you attempt to contact the sender and find no one on the receiving end.

There is something you can do to help people find you even though an e-mail address of yours goes defunct. Add a “signature” block to all your e-mail messages. All e-mail programs, even the free ones, offer this option. You set up a block of text (your signature) and apply it automatically to all your outgoing messages. Instead of some sappy quotation, put some real-world contact information in that signature. Your full name and street address is a good start. Add your phone number if you’re willing to talk on the phone.

Some folks won’t put their full name, much less an address, on their e-mail for fear of having their identity stolen. What will really happen is that in the future, some new genealogist who found your ancestor’s Bible in their great-grandmother’s trunk will read some old post of yours somewhere in cyberspace and attempt to contact you and get a no-longer-valid error message. And because you didn’t include your name, they’ll never be able to find you.

E-mail Safety

There are some safety rules about e-mail you should observe:

  • Never open an e-mail attachment when you aren’t 100% sure of who sent it and why. If there’s any doubt, send a new e-mail to the person who sent the attachment and ask for clarification.
  • Never send financial information of any kind in an unencrypted e-mail.
  • Always use up-to-date virus protection that scans incoming and outgoing e-mail messages.

E-mail Courtesy

And then are some courtesy issues:

  • Don’t send any attachment without sending a message first to ask if your recipient wants it or can accept it. (Some organizations where folks work have policies that limit employee use of e-mail.)
  • Don’t send a huge attachment without announcing the size in kilobytes and asking if your recipient is on dial-up or if it violates their ISP’s restrictions.
  • Don’t pass on smutty jokes, religious diatribes, political statements, urban legends, chain letters or other cyber-garbage to people who haven’t asked you to share those things with them.
  • Don’t say something in an e-mail you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper. There’s nothing private about e-mail. Your recipient may forward your message to everyone on the planet.
  • Acknowledge messages even if you can’t supply whatever someone wants. How long does it take to type, “Sorry, I have no information on that topic”?

Technical Tips

If someone sends you an e-mail of lasting value, make it a practice to click on “save as” from the file menu in your e-mail program and save it as a text (.txt) file in a folder you regularly back up.  In the case of attachments you want to keep, right-click on the attachment’s file name and choose “save as” and put it in a folder with documents you’ll back up.

Periodically save your “address book” or “contact list.” And back up the resulting file.

If you feel more comfortable printing hard copies of important messages, by all means, do so. But in the print options box, choose the “two-up” feature to print two pages on one sheet of paper and you’ll save paper and filing space.


In the dark, pre-Internet days, we had to submit written inquiries (queries) to genealogical publications. There are some instances where you can still do that, but most queries today take the form of posts on message boards or lists related to the area or family you’re interested in.

The rules for writing an effective query still apply from the old days.

  • Be specific about what you want and who you’re talking about.
  • Keep your post to one family in one place at one time.
  • Keep the inquiry to dead folks. Don’t post anything about living people without their permission.
  • Give complete contact information, not just an e-mail address.
  • Adhere to all rules of the site where you’re posting a message.
  • Respond to all replies.

To get started with queries, go to RootsWeb.com and explore the links for beginners. Search the message boards and mailing lists to see the previous postings that might be of interest to you. Remember to search for place names as well as family names.

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