Collaboration and Sharing

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Computers and Genealogy

This article is part of a series.

Overview of Computers and Genealogy
The Internet and Family History
NGS Guidelines for Publishing Web Pages on the Internet
Family History Software
Collaboration and Sharing
NGS Guidelines for Sharing
Online Options for Family History Education
Security Concerns with Technology and Family History
Other Gadgets and Helpful Technology

This article originally appeared in "Computers and Technology" by Juliana Smith in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

User-Submitted Family Tree Collections

Among the most popular resources made available on the Web are collections of user-submitted family tree files. These collections are typically created as users upload their family data in the form of GEDCOM files. If you do not currently have a file in electronic format, many sites will also let you build your file online by entering your family information into forms.

There are, however, drawbacks to these collections. The quality of the information is often poor, and in many cases the sources for the information are not cited. Each fact should be verified before being incorporated into your family tree.

Adding to the problem is the ease with which individuals can graft entire branches onto their files. Huge files can be downloaded quickly and easily, and merged into existing databases. Because so many researchers do not take the time to seek out records to corroborate the information that they are importing, the spread of bad information can become viral.

Despite these obstacles, there is good information in these collections and many researchers have connected with long-lost cousins because of them. Providing that solid research methodology is employed, the clues in these collections can be very helpful and they are tools that should not be overlooked.

Mailing Lists and Message Boards

Queries and communication between genealogists was formerly limited to postings in society periodicals or magazines that often took months to reach their audience, which consisted of other subscribers, fellow society members, or individuals who took the time to seek out copies held in libraries.

Today's technology provides a way for genealogists to post queries, seek advice, and share information easily in real time in the form of mailing lists and message boards. All of this information can be saved in archives, to be searched days, weeks, months, and even years later, and the potential audience for these mailing lists, message boards, and their respective archives is global.

What Are They?

While mailing lists and message boards are similar in purpose, the difference lies in the way the information is distributed. With mailing lists, a copy of every message posted is sent to all of the list's subscribers. In addition, most lists have an online archive where past messages can also be searched. hosts nearly 30,000 mailing lists.

Message boards are online forums where each message is posted to the board. Users can choose to receive notifications when items are posted to boards of interest. Message boards are also searchable. The largest collection of message boards is available through and (the same boards can be accessed through either site.) Another popular service is GenForum, which is hosted at Cyndi's List has an extensive list of forums.

There are boards and lists for surnames, geographic locations, and for various other topics, and the content of each will vary in accordance with its purpose and the rules set by the administrator. Many of the posts are queries'messages from people seeking to contact others who may have shared ancestors, information on a particular line, or tips on how to go about a certain type of research.

More and more of these forums are also being used to archive transcriptions from records, newspapers, and other sources, and these archives are often indexed by search engines, increasing the exposure of posts. We all have tidbits on people who share our ancestors' surnames, but who we are not quite sure are related. By posting these tidbits to the list or board, you may be able to connect with a descendant of the person or people in the record. Information provided by others reading your post may even help you to either make a connection or rule them out as possible relatives. Even if you don't make any connections, using a message board or mailing list is a great way to help other researchers, learn new strategies, and share methodology.

Before You Post

Before posting anything, it is important to read the welcome message (sent when you sign up for mailing lists), or message board guidelines where available (typically found in a 'Links and Announcements' section of the message board). You'll especially want to look for a description of the focus of the list, and what constitutes an acceptable posting and what topics are not appropriate. While a list may focus on a particular country, it may only be for data and queries, and it may not be for the cultural aspects. Others may welcome recipes, traditions, and history. It all depends on the administrator's preferences and this information is helpful to you in deciding whether or not that forum is right for your needs.

Familiarize yourself with what is available and then decide where you will most likely find the answers you seek. There are boards for specific surnames, geographic locations, and specialty topics, such as 'Naturalization Records,' 'Mexican Revolution,' 'Emigration Patterns,' 'Icelanders in Dakota,' or 'Cherokee Nation,' to name a few.

Another important aspect that should be investigated is where your replies to a mailing list go. Some lists send responses only to the sender and to send a reply, you need to select 'Reply to All.' Others may have it set so that all replies go to the entire list. Be careful to note where your replies go. This type of information will also be included in the 'welcome message.'

Posting Effectively

To get the most from these forums, it is important to craft your message so that it will catch the attention of anyone who has information. Many mailing lists offer digest versions, where each message is attached and only the subject line is visible. In addition, many people simply don't have enough time in the day to read every message that comes through the mailing lists they subscribe to. Most people set up a filter to automatically move them from their inbox into folders that can be browsed when time allows. For busy mailing lists, which can generate hundreds of messages every day, this keeps inboxes from being cluttered and headlines can be scanned for items of interest. (For more on organizing with folders, see the previous section on 'Computer Organization.')

For this reason, a good subject line is critical. A subject line of 'genealogy' or 'searching for ancestors' for a posting to a genealogical mailing list is stating the obvious and won't have the desired effect. In addition, a post to the Kelly surname list should have a more specific subject line than Kelly ancestors. Presumably everyone on the list is looking for Kelly ancestors. A good subject line will tell which Kelly, when he or she lived (approximately at least) and where. The following is a good example:

Kelly, James, ca. 1813'1896, IRE>NYC>Brooklyn

Particulars can be filled in later in the body of the message. Your message should contain pertinent information but not the entire family history'just enough to help whoever is reading it to identify the person you are looking for. A brief message that is to the point, but that carries enough information to let people identify the individual should they have any related information is best. Most people don't want to take the time to read a long, drawn-out query. The first paragraph should contain the 'who, what, where, and when' of your request. Details can be filled in after you have gotten the attention of your targeted audience.

More tips for effective posting include the following:

  • Include only one request in your post. Too many requests may decrease your chances for a response. Other inquiries can be better targeted if they are posted separately.
  • Include a brief summary of places you have already checked for the information. This way you won't waste other people's time, and your own, as you receive and sort through half a dozen replies telling you to follow leads you have already followed.
  • Capitalize SURNAMES so that they are easy to pick out of the post and subject lines. (You should not capitalize an entire message as it makes it more difficult to read and is the online equivalent of shouting.)
  • Be careful with abbreviations in your query. Remember that many forums have members from all parts of the world who may not be familiar with the same abbreviations that we use. Spell words out whenever possible. This will eliminate the possibility of misinterpretation.
  • Familiarize yourself with online resources so that you don't post unnecessary requests. If you are looking for a geographic location, try some of the online maps that are available to locate an ancestor's town.
  • When posting to a mailing list, check your e-mail settings. Make sure to only send plain text to mailing lists. Others may not have the capability to read HTML-coded messages and you want your message to be readable by as many people as possible.
  • Do not send a query as an attachment. Many viruses are transmitted as attachments and as a result, most people wisely refrain from opening attachments on e-mail from people they don't know.
  • Sign your post with your name and e-mail address. Some e-mail readers don't show the address that an e-mail is received from and a recipient with the information you are looking for can't respond to you if they don't have your e-mail address. In addition, when the message appears in the archives, your contact information should be easy to pick out.
  • Reread your post carefully before you send it. Check for typos. Did you include all the necessary information? (Remember the four W's: Who, What, Where, When) Are all of your facts correct? Have you signed it properly?
  • Be careful of what information you post online, particularly when referring to living persons. Be sure to respect people's privacy and keep yourself and your family safe from those who might use information found online for fraudulent purposes.
  • If you find information worth sharing, post it to the appropriate list and share the source of the information so that others may benefit from your finds. As you help others, they will be more eager to help you in return.
  • Always be polite on the lists and refrain from flaming (angry or insulting messages). No one wants to help someone who is constantly complaining or is mean to others.
  • Keep a log of your e-mail messages so you know what requests you have already put out and when.

By using common sense and following simple guidelines, you can benefit greatly from genealogical forums. They are a great place to make friends, find relatives, and retrieve information.


With the large number of e-mails that many people have to go through, it can be difficult to monitor every e-mail that comes through mailing lists, particularly when one belongs to a number of them, or even just one very busy list. Deleting large numbers of messages can make a person feel that he or she has not adequately scanned everything that has gone through the inbox. When this happens, it can be beneficial to search the mailing list or message board archive to see if anyone has posted anything of interest for your area or surnames of interest. This is also a helpful option if you are looking for an answer to a question that has probably been asked before.

Mailing list archives. To search mailing list archives at, go to the mailing list main page and locate the list that you are interested in. With the subscription information, there should be a link to any archives that are available. Lists are typically archived by year so if this is your first foray into the archives, you'll want to do searches for each year so that you don't miss anything.

Message boards. message boards can be searched from the message board main page using the basic search box. You have a choice of searching for a particular surname board, or searching all the boards for a particular name or term. In addition, by clicking on the 'Advanced Search' link in that same line, you can refine your search. For example, search for the surname in the appropriate field and include a location in the space for 'Find Messages Containing.' This yields hits on any list where that surname and location appear. A Soundex option is also available. GenForum allows you to search for a particular board, but doesn't support the ability to search all of the message boards for a term, nor does it have an advanced search.

Other Considerations

As with other secondary sources, information found on message boards and mailing lists needs to be backed up with evidence, but the connections you make through these forums can provide clues that aren't available anywhere else. Family Bibles, records, photographs, and heirlooms may have traveled down other lines and it is only by connecting with these distant cousins that you may learn of the existence of such artifacts.

In addition, transcriptions posted to message boards and mailing lists make these resources more valuable all the time. After searching for years for my great-grandmother's death date, we were able to locate it after someone posted a transcription of some Brooklyn obituaries from an old newspaper to a mailing list.


The goal of family historians is often to publish their family history findings in some form. In some cases that form is electronic. With increased availability of Web space many genealogists are choosing it as the venue on which to publish their family histories. Content and quality varies on these sites, with some individuals only posting undocumented family trees, poorly and hastily thrown together, while others include well-documented findings, with creative text, photos, maps, and other images woven together to create an electronic heirloom.

As described in the section titled 'Communication and Sharing,' many family historians are also posting their findings by adding their family tree to one of several user-submitted collections of trees. Regardless of the format in which family history information is put on the Web, those who publish their information must recognize that the information will likely be downloaded by others who will possibly not give proper attribution, despite the fact that they may be in violation of copyright laws.

There are alternatives for those who would like to publish their findings in a more private manner. offers private websites by subscription where family historians can post family trees, electronic images and photographs, family recipes, stories, and news. Only those who have been invited by the site administrator can view the content and the administrator can manage the input of site members by designating them as either 'guest' (member can see content but not make additions) or 'user' (member can view and add to content).


Coming soon...

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