What we want to do here is help you, the person with local history, family history, or house history questions, get help from libraries, archives, museums, colleges & universities, historical organizations, government record offices, and genealogical societies; all the organizations that might have old stuff. Especially those located somewhere other than where you can visit in person. We’ll refer to them collectively as repositories.
What you think of as a simple request for information is actually a request for labor. If everything was digitized and online, then your search engine results would suffice. The repository you contact probably has to do in-person, by-hand retrievals and searches of pictures, letters, microfilm, maps, or other offline, undigitized stuff to find your answer. Fortunately, they often know of online resources that aren’t found by search engines and may be able to refer you to stuff that you didn’t know was online. Large institutions can tap into proprietary databases to which they subscribe.
Most historical & genealogical organizations are small and have no paid staff. Sometimes they don’t have enough volunteers to keep up with inquiries. Their volunteers may be staying home in the pandemic.
Having a big budget doesn’t always solve this problem. Large, high-profile institutions get a correspondingly high volume of requests. Their staff may be laid off or working from home during the pandemic. We know of an Ivy League university who rations the time librarians spend on outside inquiries to 20 minutes per request. They actually use timers.
The desire for free labor will always exceed the supply. Here are five simple tricks to make the most of the limited time that someone can commit to your question.
|1. Reach out by email if possible. The information you seek probably has to be delivered electronically anyway, so you might as well start out electronically. Google the repository and use their Contact Us page. The repository will then have a legible, searchable written request to work from. They will have the correct spelling of your name and the names of the people or things that you’re researching. It prevents bouncing emails because someone incorrectly spelled out or wrote down an email address over the phone.||When you call with a complex request, you’re not only asking for someone to analyze your needs and determine on the spot if their repository can be of help, you’re also asking them serve as your stenographer. Save the telephone requests for the computer-naive, people with disabilities, and those without internet access. A repository can always ask to speak with you on the phone if it would work better for them.|
|2. Not sure who can help you at an organization? Pick up to three likely-sounding departments or staffers to send your inquiry to. Trust them to forward it if a co-worker can better answer your question. And give it a few days. Some questions take more time than others. No one has an empty In box.||We understand the temptation to Cc everyone at the Contact Us page as an insurance policy, but it increases the chances that your inquiry will land in spam folders. It also creates extra labor for the person whose help you need. Now they have to acknowledge all the forwards from peers & superiors, which cuts into the time they could be using on your inquiry.|
|3. Repositories need to figure out what you don’t know about X, not what you do know, in order to determine if they can help you. You do not have to have a lengthy family history narrative ready. Reach out when you’ve identified which gap(s) in your knowledge you hope to rectify.||Government record offices which require next-of-kin relationship to release certain records will let you know. At non-governmental organizations, the individual you’re researching can be your ancestor, or not. The building you’re researching can be your property, or not. No personal connection or recitation of the forebears is required.|
|4. Focus on up to three life events, or up to three names, or up to three documents per request. For example, “Do you have obituaries for John & Mary Smith?” “Do you have pictures of these three addresses?” Less is more when it comes to getting your request filled.||No one is born knowing how to do family or house history research. Repositories know that and want to help you anyway. But if the only way you can answer questions about what you’re trying to find out about X is “Anything, anything!”, then we suggest starting out with a researcher for hire.|
|5. When you can finish the sentence, “Well, what I’m really looking for is…”, then you’ve greatly increased the chances that someone can help you. You may even get a hug.||Example: if you want to learn where a factory was located and when it closed down, we encourage you to skip impossibly broad openers such as “Do you have anything on old businesses?” Indirect questions produce indirect answers.|
Bonus tip: Our Guide to Vital and Archival Records in Buffalo and Erie County will help you identify which repository has what you’re looking for.