Are you one of those competent capable efficient exemplary individuals? Who never needs to ask for help because you seem to know exactly where to find information, by yourself? Then read no further, because this article is for the rest of us mortal souls who stumble around trying to figure out where we could get some useful information!
As you begin to build your family tree, you will find many many opportunities to ask for assistance. Notice that I use the word “assistance” not “help”. For some reason many people have a negative attitude about asking for help, and I’m not sure why, but there it is. Assistance: this means you are perfectly competent, but may need the input of a knowledgeable expert, or at least, someone who has information you know you do not have. We ask for assistance from librarians in specialized libraries, we ask for assistance from professors about specific textbooks or resource materials. In genealogy, you will begin to learn the fine art of how to ask for assistance from many different groups of people, many of them strangers you will never meet.
You may well start with your own family, – both relatives you know well, and extended family members you have never met. And the reason you will ask, is that you know that they MAY have the details you are looking for. That great-aunt may have the only photos of your greatgrandparents, or may be the keeper of the family Bible. A second cousin may have momentoes from your grandfather’s military service, including medals engraved with various details you could use! Why does he have them, rather than someone else in your direct family? Probably because he showed interest when he was younger, or because his father received them as the only boy in the family. These things happen.
You often do not know what your family members may have in their files or boxes or albums. Here are a few ideas of the items which they may have (and which you might request they search for): medals, watches with engravings on the back, photos, jewellery – some rings or lockets may have engravings, letters, stitched samplers, quilts, original trunks, ship tickets, memoirs, an early family tree done by someone’s relative which is in a book form, momentoes of trips or special events, report cards, graduation certificates with programs, and more. The list goes on and on. But how can you ask for these things in a way that will be successful?
Remember that you may not be able to see the actual original – either because of distance, or cost, or perhaps because of strained or challenging family dynamics! Whatever the reason, remember that you are simply looking for details which do one of two things: (a) confirm or add details of your ancestor(s), and (b) enrich your family tree stories of your ancestor. Use an attitude of patient cooperation with your relatives. That is, pretend you and your relative are arm-in-arm in a friendly way looking at the items they have. Then “wonder” aloud about how you might be able to add that to the family tree… perhaps a quality photograph of the item could be organized, perhaps a written detail of the item, perhaps they could ship an item to you and you would promise to return it within a short period of time… Just wonder out loud with the relative(s) how adding their valuable information to the family tree could be accomplished. No pressure, no harassment, no argument, just… wonder how it might be accomplished. Then let a lot of silence go by, and finally say you will give them a call in a week or two if either of you can think of some satisfactory way this might be done.
Ahhh, it is an art to wait after asking for assistance. But if you will persevere in your cooperative and patient attitude, you may be very surprised to find that there is much less resistance and in fact the item may be shipped to you… or wonderful copies of your ancestors’ original photographs made with the back details on as well. Make sure you thank your helpful relatives for these items, and tell them that you will be sharing your family tree information with the family (including him or her). Then, do so.
In the same way, if you are hoping an organization or agency or society may have information on an ancestor in their files or archives, you need to use this patient cooperative attitude here as well. Most groups are very happy to send information to you, for a small fee to cover searching/photocopying/mailing. But always remember that the individual you are writing/phoning to is likely very busy, and sometimes is only a volunteer. Write if possible, on nice paper, easy to read font, in a very clear fashion including your details in a point-form format, so that it is immediately clear what you are looking for. Always ask for the probable cost of the information you are requesting to be sent to you so you can make a decision about paying, first. It could be that the cost is rather high for your budget, so get that information about fees/costs clear.
If the person you are writing to is in a different country, then take the time to use very interesting stamps on your envelope! This seems to be a small incentive and makes your request stand out in a very positive way. It is not at all a requirement, just a thought of how to improve your chances of success. Once you have your information from the archivist or librarian or volunteer, then always – always – send a thank you card, again using interesting stamps as well. If you ever go to the office/library/archive, and meet that person face to face – do you see how it could be highly likely that he/she will remember you quite easily? I have had tremendous success with this approach, with local as well as overseas organizations or societies.
Learn to ask for assistance. Start with your local librarian, and practice. Examples: “Where would I find information on (name of) Society?” “Do you know if (a particular company in the area) kept any records on their employees back in the early 1900s, and if so, where I could find them?” Etc. More examples: If your ancestor was a doctor, where was he educated? Write to that place, and ask for their information on him. If your ancestor was a member of an organization such as a Masonic Lodge, write to the Lodge or the Grand Lodge and ask for any information in their files. If your ancestor was a minister in a particular church organization, write them about where you might find details of his ministry. There is no end to the variety of rich details you may find this way.
Keep a Master Correspondence Log of your correspondence to/from relatives, organizations and offices about your requests. It will be wonderful when you can put a tick through each item because you were successful in your request! Happy searching.