Use These Five Simple Tricks to Get Research Assistance

What we want to do here is help you, the person with local history, family, or house history questions, get help from libraries, archives, museums, historical organizations, government record offices, and genealogical societies; all the organizations that might have old stuff. We’ll refer to them collectively as repositories.

Here’s a gentle reminder: 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 likely suffice. The repository you contact probably has to do in-person, by-hand retrievals and searches of pictures, letters, microfilm, maps, or other undigitized, physical artifacts to find your answer. Fortunately, they often know of online resources that aren’t found by search engines and may also be able to provide stuff in digital form as well.

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 prudently sheltering at 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.

Try This Rationale
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. It prevents erroneously conveying or transcribing an email address over the phone.When you call with an complex request, you’re not only asking for research assistance, you’re also asking them to serve as your stenographer and take dictation. Your email request will be more accurate and complete than sketchy, easily misplaced phone notes. Save the telephone requests for the computer-naive, people with disabilities, and those without internet access.
2. Not sure who can help you at an organization? Pick one or two likely-sounding departments or staffers to send your inquiry to. They will forward it if a co-worker can better answer your question. And give it a few days. Some questions take more time than others.We understand the temptation to Cc everyone at the Contact Us page as an insurance policy, but it 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 hear what you don’t know, not what you do know, in order to determine if they can help you. No need to have a lengthy family history narrative or other justification prepared. Reach out when you’ve identified which gap in your knowledge you hope to rectify.Government record offices which require proof of relationship to release certain records will require it in writing, not verbally. At non-governmental repositories, 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 is required.
4. Focus on one or two life events, or one or two names, or one or two documents per request. For example, “Do you have obituaries for John & Mary Smith?” “Do you have pictures of these two 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 is “Anything, anything!”, then you may benefit by 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 certain factory was and when it closed down, we encourage you to skip the “Do you have anything on old businesses?” opener. Indirect questions never produce worthwhile answers.

Published by Cynthia Van Ness

Librarian, author, webmaster. is an on-my-own-time project, reflecting my own views and idiosyncracies.

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