"Please send me all the information you have about my grandfather who lived in your area in the 1800s."
What would you reply to such a query? County clerks and reference librarians frequently receive these requests with no name, vague dates and locale. When the poor, frustrated records custodian is unable to provide data from such scant information, the amateur genealogist complains "that his ancestor is not mentioned in the records."
Genealogists have to write letters. Our hobby requires that we search for information in many far-away places. Unfortunately, there are few guidelines on how to obtain information via mail. Most librarians hate to handle queries from family historians. Do you know why? Because we don't know how to write our questions so they can help us.
What do we do wrong?
We are so wrapped up in our families that we fail to understand the research problem. We have a tendency to think that the librarian knows our grandfather was Mordecai Hill and that he was the only Mordecai Hill who ever lived in Fulton County, Ga., and fought for the Confederacy--when, in fact, he may have been one of six men of the same name.
It is not the archivist's responsibility to decide which Mordecai Hill belongs in your family tree. That is your job. Provide enough information to identify yours.
For successful research via correspondence, keep your requests brief. If they are longer than three short paragraphs, they are too long. Be sure your letter includes the complete name being researched, plus specific dates and places. Always provide the county, in addition to town or city.
Whether your are hunting for a grandfather (on your mother's side) or your fourth-great-grandfather (on your paternal side) is unimportant to librarians and county clerks. They don't even care why you are requesting information. Don't bore them with long-winded explanations. Bored people do not answer letters.
In the early stages of our research we can be inconsiderate and simply ignorant of the extensiveness of genealogical research. Somewhere along the way we learn--after we have had to lift some 20-pound, dust-covered books from shelves in the pigeon's roost at a courthouse or have searched through 12 volumes of "Indexes to Marriage Records" discovering there are 37 brides named Catherine Pierson who might be our ancestor. Then we realize that genealogical research is hard work and appreciate all those who respond so graciously to our amateurish requests.
Type your letters. Or print neatly. Most librarians, historians, archivists and columnists receive an enormous amount of mail. Be considerate of their eyes -- use double spacing. Dot-matrix printers are handy for many things, but they generate hard-to-read single-spaced documents.
If you're going to a genealogist, buy No. 10 (called business-size ) envelopes and a roll of first-class stamps.
Many of my readers receive only a fraction of what information I might have because I find it impossible to fold several 8 1/2 x 11-inch sheets of paper into those small, odd-shaped, No. 6 envelopes they send.
If you play golf, you buy the best clubs and shoes you can afford. Invest in quality material to use for your genealogical research also.
When writing to libraries, archives and county clerks for genealogical information, request first a check of the indexed sources. Ask, "Does Hezekiah Harris appear in the indexes of tax records (1862-1872) for Pulaski County?" or "Please check the index to marriage records (1835-40) in your county for bridegrooms named John O'Kelly."
All inquiries should have your ancestor's name (first name and surname), dates (give a five-year span) and the county/state. If you need information about more than one ancestor, write separate letters and always include a self-addressed, stamped envelop with any request.