Thursday, February 14, 2013

Remember - I am not psychic and I don't know everything

The Help Desk
How To ... Advice
Many people fail to include relevant details when they ask for help on the internet - because they are so deeply involved with their own family that they unthinkingly take it for granted that everyone know what they are talking about. The instructions on my web site indicate the importance of giving information on the background to the query and the sources which you have already checked. It is also important to realize is that for the vast majority of  "Ask Chris" queries I know nothing in advance about the family you are asking about - my expertise is in knowing how to find out ...

I recently had a query where the question was clear and appropriate but there was a complete absence of supporting information. The questioner gave the name of a couple and said they had been unable to trace the death of the wife. Fine except that they did not mention where the couple lived (or even whether it was in Hertfordshire). Not only did they not give any ages or date clues but they did not even identify the century. And of course they didn't mention any sources that they had consulted - which might have given some clues as to both the date and the questioner's experience (or lack of it) ...

As most of the queries I get relate to the 19th century I did a quick check of one of the census returns and the husband's name was not very common. In fact there were only two anywhere near Hertfordshire - living within 2 miles of each other. Allowing for the normal variations they had wives with effectively the same given name, and  virtually the same age, and both the wives were local, having been born within about 3 miles of where they were living! Not only was the question vague - but it was ambiguous as there was no way I could know which of the couples was the subject of the query without more information. Clearly there was no point in trying to answer this question without some clarification from the questioner. As those of you who follow this newsletter know I have been very busy recently and as a result I replied suggesting several sources the questioner might try and if, after checking these sources, they were still stuck, suggesting they should come back with more detailed information.

This is an appropriate time to remind everyone of the advice page "Right Name, Wrong Body". Unless you are on your guard it is easy to chase up the wrong family tree unless your realize that, even with rare names, there may be several people with the same name, and about the same age, living in the same area, and possibly married to partners with the same name. If you ask questions on the internet (particularly if you are only wanting a "free" look up from a "pay" web site) it is very easy for some "helper" (whose knowledge of genealogy may sometimes be limited to little more than being able to take out a subscription to the pay site) to give you the first named person they find as an answer. If you blindly accept what they say your family tree could end up with serious errors.  Way back in the 1990s I started trying to give more professional advice, and the purpose of this web site is to encourage people to think and research for themselves - and not simply be spoon-fed with answers to inadequately worded question - without understanding the dangers.

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This is the newsletter for the Genealogy in Hertfordshire Web site. Comments on this blog are moderated and may be transferred to the web site where appropriate. If you have a local or family history query you want answered you must use "Ask Chris" - See box in right hand column. Anonymous comments cannot be answered.