Message boards can be a great way to meet other genealogists, and to find out what research has already been performed (and what hasn’t). My favorites are those hosted by Rootsweb and GenForum, but there are many other message boards out there for genealogists.
Unfortunately, message boards are one tool in the genealogist’s toolbox that are highly underutilized, in part because their function is not understood, and in part because many users do not know how to write an effective query.
A message board functions as both a digital meeting grounds and a digital bulletin board. Like records repositories, they are a wonderful place to meet and greet other researchers, to exchange information gathered, and to extend one’s knowledge of a family. Unlike records repositories, which may house both original and derivative information, the information contained in message board posts is always derivative and should be treated as such (that is, it should be verified independently, preferably using a variety of original records).
It is not enough to know that message board posts should be taken with a grain of salt. One must also know how to write an effective query post in order to reach the right researcher. Here are a few examples of poorly written queries:
I am looking for information on James Morgan. Please list everything you have.
Or another post that’s even more broad in nature:
I have just started researching the Morgan family. Please help.
How are other researchers supposed to know to which Morgan family these posts pertain? There simply isn’t enough detail in the post for other researchers to know if they have information on the subjects of these posts or not.
An effective query contains a minimum of the following: the exact name of the individual(s) being sought, dates of any pertinent events along with their associated places, known associates of the individual, the sources of the known information, and the information being sought. Here’s a better example:
I am searching for information on James Morgan, who was born circa 1788 in North Carolina. He appeared with his wife, Elizabeth (maiden name unknown), who was born circa 1780 in North Carolina, on the 1850 and 1860 US censuses for Rabun Co., GA (free population schedules). I also believe this James Morgan was the same James Morgan whose name was drawn to serve as a juror during the June Term, 1848, Inferior Court in Rabun County (see http://usgennet.org/usa/region/southeast/garabun/court/jury4649.html). James and Elizabeth’s children are believed to be:
1. Elizabeth Morgan, born circa 1814 in NC, married Joseph Hial Fletcher on February 27, 1848 in Rabun County;
2. Polly Morgan, born circa 1815, who was living with James and Elizabeth in both 1850 and 1860;
3. Martin Morgan, born circa 1820 in NC, married Priscilla Jennings on February 17, 1848 in Rabun County;
4. Jane Morgan, born circa 1824 in Polk Co., TN, married James Fletcher (a possible brother to Joseph Hial Fletcher) on September 5, 1839 in Green Co., TN;
5. Dicy Morgan, born circa 1825 in NC, married Joseph E. Jennings on February 24, 1848 in Rabun County;
6. Beverly Morgan, born circa 1826, married Malinda Bullard on November 29, 1853 in Rabun County.
I am specifically seeking information connecting the suspected children to James and Elizabeth.
The above post is much more effective than the previous two posts because it includes the names of the individuals being sought, enough detail to distinguish this family from other families with similar names, and some of the sources used. It also includes the all-important reason why this query is being posted.
Unlike query letters, message boards are the perfect place to list detail, and lots of it. There is a limit, yes. For instance, posting transcriptions of all known records for one family in a single post might be a bit much (perhaps those should be placed in individual posts under the original message), but a long list of sources used (both original and derivative) would be perfectly appropriate. This is also the place to say I don’t know. For instance, in the above query, one might have added:
Information on the James Fletcher and Jane Morgan family came from another researcher (name and e-mail address available upon request). I presume from the information this researcher sent that the James and Elizabeth Morgan family were in the Polk Co., TN area in the late 1830s, and possibly in adjacent Western NC before and after, but I have not yet verified this.
See? A simple, painless, and honest I don’t know that lets other researchers know what avenues have and have not been explored. More importantly, it shows that a basic analysis of the gathered material has taken place.
Message boards offer endless opportunities to the savvy researcher who remembers to be specific and include details. Plus, the posts remain open indefinitely, allowing future researchers to find and contact past ones, as long as e-mail addresses are maintained and kept current.