January 1990

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Genealogy Etiquette


Helena Howard

After you have collected all the family records that you can find from close members of your family and from old Bibles and letters, and you have completed as much as you can in pedigree or lineage charts, you may decide to write to some distant relative that you have heard is interested in your family history. Or you may learn of a local historian who lives in a place where some of your family once lived and you may consider sending off for information that this person might have about your early relatives. You can go to libraries or offices where public records are kept and search for names and dates; or you may even consult a professional genealogist for help in tracing your ancestry.

When you write a genealogy buff or to a person who is interested in local history, send him, along with your request for specific information, a chart of your lineage. Include, if you can, family information that is documented or is in some way corroborated and you are reasonably certain it is accurate.

A family chart will show this person the identity of those you are asking about and save the genealogist time in understanding your letter of inquiry. Sending the good information you have not only helps this person to answer your query, but it also adds to her reserve of information for her own use or to help some other questioner.

Send all this material in an envelope that is large enough to contain a return envelope that is already self addressed and carries adequate postage. Do everything you can, such as not folding the return envelope when you send it, to make replying to your inquiry convenient.

If you request help from a genealogist, realize that he will expect payment not only for the time it will take for him to find what you want, but also for his experience in knowing where to look for information.

It is often necessary to go to a library or an office where records of deeds or births are kept to look for information about some missing ancestor. Usually the people who work in these offices are helpful and will show you where to look and how to use what you find in one book to look for other records.

Don't ask the attendant to make the search for you; and don't tell her your family history. She is working and probably isn't interested in genealogy. Try not to interfere with her work and be as inconspicuous as possible. Avoid annoying other people with unnecessary noise from clacking high-heeled shoes or jangling jewelry. Don't chew gum or bring food with you. And of course, be very careful with the documents and never mark on a book.

Most of the people you meet or write to for information will be just as considerate as you are.

There are some people who advertise in genealogy journals who may be interested only in taking your money. You need to be cautious about sending off for family histories or sending money for advertised services.

If you know someone in a local genealogy group who has had experience, ask for advice about reputable advertisers. Several genealogy newsletters have recently published lists of names that you should beware. The great interest in ancestors has made genealogy an attractive field for swindlers.

You always have the right to request what fees are charged. Some local government officials such as town clerks are entitled by law to charge just for looking in a book for a name whether it is found there or not. Some do not charge for looking for you, or will allow you to examine the town books. Ask their policy first. Reasonable charges for help are justifiable, but arbitrary fees you may wish to avoid.

The people who deserve our kindest considerations are the dedicated local historians and genealogists who, usually without any thought of remuneration, give so much time to help people searching for their ancestors, or for an old homesite, or for a gravestone in a forgotten cemetary. We need to preserve and thank these people.

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