Sunday, May 22, 2011

Finding It In The Forum

Some jobs are just too messy for the Lone Ranger. Some jobs require the hunting and pecking of a collective effort—the hundreds of hands and eyes from which minute details cannot escape.

Forums have always been gathering places. Whether the ancient setting of Rome, for whom the term “forum” actually meant “marketplace,” or the town squares of colonial America, these were public places set right in the middle of everything. People came to buy and sell, debate political issues, socialize and gossip. In the online world of genealogy, forums are much the same, though in this case, divided into categories where conversations center on specific topics.

Today, I’d like to take you on a brief tour of the forums which have made research a lot easier for me. Hopefully, you’ll see some sites that pique your interest and bolster your confidence that you can do family history research, too.

One of the first places I started my research was at Rootsweb. As I explained in an earlier post, Rootsweb was a non-profit group founded on the vision of providing people a way to access and share data via the internet.

Rootsweb developed an archived, subscription-based system of mailing lists, divided both by geographical area and surname. Though the hosting is now provided through, the original search page can still be accessed here.

One thing about the Rootsweb lists was that you needed to subscribe—but that was no object, as the subscriptions were free. Once on the list, any time someone posted to that list, you received a copy of the e-mail, either singularly or in digest mode. I started out subscribing to some of my target surnames—for instance, Tully—but soon realized the cumbersomeness of reading every post of every person in the world seeking information on the Tully family. I then switched research strategies and zeroed in on specific counties where I knew family had settled. For my Tully family, it was the Chicago area. For my Flowers and Metzger in-laws, it was Perry County, Ohio.

Whether subscribed or not, anyone could search the archive of any particular list, either by browsing or by entering keywords. I played around with that, searching for the proverbial distant cousin who might also be researching the same families.

Since I had purchased the database management system, FamilyTreeMaker, I also accessed the forum services linked to their company: GenForum. Laid out in a similar manner to Rootsweb, this site gave me an alternate location to post queries when I was stuck on a particular research problem.

I’ve already mentioned how much things change in the corporate world and how it impacts the products we use, and using these lists was no different. Rootsweb entered into a hosting agreement with, which required Ancestry to develop a plan to provide Rootsweb’s mailing lists while also continuing to feature their own message board system. Anyone can post now on Ancestry’s message board system through Rootsweb, with a “gateway” to having that note simultaneously posted on the corresponding Rootsweb mailing list, even if the writer didn’t hold a current subscription to the list. About the same time, the GenForum site became part of, increasing the search capabilities there.

I learned a lot as a subscriber to the original Rootsweb lists for Brooklyn, New York, and Chicago, Illinois. From time to time, depending on where I was “going” in my research, I’d also subscribe to various United States county lists, unsubscribing when I no longer needed the help or could no longer offer my own input. I’m still on the Perry County, Ohio, list, and have run into several of my husband’s distant relatives there. After all this research, I think I know more about his extended family than he does!

Each step of the way was part of an easy, incremental learning curve. For every newbie question I posted, there was usually some kind soul who was willing to help me learn about a new resource or technique for furthering my own research. I’ve learned stuff as widely varied as the few Polish words I picked up while working on my father’s ancestry, to the source of dot-matrix era “ftp” files of death records for my maternal grandfather’s family in the hills of eastern Tennessee.

Getting started is as easy as locating the surname or geographical location of the specific ancestor you want to research. Get on the site, take a look around (“lurk”) until you get a feel for what is happening there, then introduce yourself and ask a research question. Just reading what others have posted is a great start to your own learning curve. And who knows—you may meet a distant cousin in the process!

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