Do you remember in the old days when we had to ask for help about an ancestor by submitting a written query to a publication like Everton's Genealogical Helper? The other direct way was to write to people who had the same surname and hope that they would respond and have a common ancestor.
Things have changed since then! So much of what we do as genealogists in now online. What hasn't changed is that we still need to ask people for help. We still need information that can only be found locally and we need information that is unpublished and resides only in personal family archives.
Asking for help online can be frustrating especially when you are crowd-sourcing, in other words asking a group of people to help you find an answer or give you suggestions.
When the internet first started, genealogists went in droves to forums such as provided by Ancestry.com and Rootsweb. While forums are still important, we are just as likely to make connections by posting on our Facebook wall or a Facebook group dedicated to a surname or a geographic location such as a county.
The great thing about asking questions online is that genealogists truly want to help. The trick is making a positive experience for both the person seeking the information and the person providing it.
Here are some tips to help make the experience a good one for both you and the people helping you. For the record, I have made all of these mistakes myself! I'm hoping after I write this post that I will get all those errors out of the way!
1) Ask a specific question
It's fine to start by saying that you want to research Pleasant Ann Clawson, born 1823 and died 1902 in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, that doesn't really tell people exactly what you are after. Pleasant Ann is my 3rd great grandmother. What I really need to know is who were her parents. Better to start with "Who were the parents of Pleasant Ann Clawson, (1823-1902)?" so that people can help you answer exactly what you are looking for.
Likewise, my 2nd great grandfather, Joseph Walleck came over from "Bohemia" around 1863. A specific question to ask would be "Where in Bohemia did Joseph Walleck (1841-1916) come from? That will tell people that you are focused on his ancestral origins rather than his history in the United States. This question will also alert Bohemian-experienced genealogists that you need help with immigration or information about the old country.
2) Provide an overview of what you know
The number one thing that happens when you ask people for help is that they want to help you! While this is wonderful it also begins the frustrating dance of watching people do the exact same research you have already spent hundreds of hours doing on your target ancestor. Then you end up, bit by bit, dripping out the details of what you have already found. Yes, there are two people in that county with the same name. No, they are not the same person. No, my ancestor wasn't married twice.
The best way to help yourself and those who want to help you is to provide to them what you already know. The thing is you can't easily do that in a Facebook post. There isn't enough space. The best solution is to write a profile of your ancestor in a blog post, preferably with citations, that lists everything you already know about them. That allows you to share a short link on Facebook. Anyone who is truly interested will click the link to find out what you know before they start helping you.
If you're not keen on writing a profile you could create a simple document list and sort it by source. For instance, you could list all the documents you found on Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org etc. and perhaps provide links to the documents. Then the people who want to help you will see what you have already found and skip those searches.
3) Thank everyone for their help
This may seem obvious, but be sure to thank everyone for their help even if they weren't able to provide any new information. This is the number one complaint I hear from volunteers who help others with their research. After the information is sent off not so much as a thank you is ever sent in reply. I can understand why this happens. Perhaps the person receiving the email got new ideas from the information and they went off searching again as genealogists are bound to do. Then they simply forgot about the person who sent the email. Try to send that thank you email right away. It will make a great impression and will encourage that person to help you and others in the future.