Alt banner image

How to Ask an Expert :: Help them help you

So you’ve got an opportunity to ‘Ask an Expert’ a burning question about that stubborn brick wall stunting your family tree – what next? Inside History‘s own resident genealogical expert, Shauna Hicks, says getting the most out of this exciting opportunity takes preparation and organisation. Here, she shares her tips on how to maximise your one-on-one help from a genie expert. 

Genealogists and family history is a past time well known for its practitioners’ generosity in sharing information. There are many ways beginners and more advanced researchers can ask for assistance for free.

Inside History magazine has a dedicated spot for expert questions, which has helped readers with queries ranging from photo-dating to family tree brick walls to analysing military uniforms.

The local genealogy or family history society has a journal or newsletter which publishes members’ queries and there are numerous email lists, online forums and other similar places where researchers can ask questions and receive assistance.

At most genealogy events there is time to ask the speaker/s questions. This may be at the end of the presentation, during the day at morning or afternoon tea, over lunch or at the end of the day.

On Unlock the Past genealogy cruises, attendees can book one-on-one sessions with some of the cruise presenters or visit the Help Zone and ask their questions there.

As a regular participant in many genealogy events, I have learnt how to make the most of the limited time on offer. All too often, people do not have the relevant information with them or they have not thought clearly about what they want to know. This means that their query may be confused and take too long to explain or it may contain irrelevant information that can be confusing.

This also applies to any written requests – if it is not clear and obvious what is being asked, other researchers may not take the time to provide advice.

What is an expert session?
If you are writing your query whether online or for publishing in a magazine, it cannot be too long or complicated as people will not read it, or take the time to reply choosing the delete button instead and magazine editors are always conscious of space requirements.

At events, the format of an expert session can vary, but usually only a limited time is on offer, such as 15 minutes with four sessions in an hour for a speaker at a genealogy conference or one-day seminar.

It may also be some one on one time with an expert demonstrating one of the paid subscription databases such as findmypast, Ancestry or ScotlandsPeople.

These sessions are free and experts usually give their time and knowledge without charge. Some of them may be professional genealogists who usually do charge a fee for their services while others may be experienced genealogists and family historians who like to help others.

Usually there are lots of people who want to take advantage of these research opportunities so the experts need to be strict on time limits and get to the essential query quickly. This is where it is important that researchers have defined their query clearly and concisely.

Here are my tips for your next Ask an Expert session regardless of whether it is in Inside History magazine, in person, an online mailing list or forum, on Facebook or appearing in a newsletter.

How to define your query?
This depends largely on the nature of the query but there are a few guidelines to keep in mind in order to help you make it clear and concise:

  1. Do one query at a time otherwise it may be too confusing especially for the expert – remember, they are seeing your research for the first time whereas you are very familiar with it. Also it is hard to fit more than one query into a 15 minute session.
  2. Have all the key information with you. Do not rely on memory as that could be faulty and add a red herring or two or simply mislead the expert.
  3. Write down what it is you want to know in advance. This can help to make it really clear.
  4. If there are spelling variants for a given name or surname, list all the ones you have tried so that the expert does not waste valuable time suggesting things you may have already tried.
  5. Use a timeline as this can often highlight missing information.
  6. Take along a family tree chart as that can assist in understanding the generations of the family and who is related to whom.
  7. Have copies of key documents with you – do not take originals as you may lose them or they may be accidentally damaged.
  8. Outline what you have already done and when – remember most online sites are continually updating and there may be additional information since you last looked.
  9. Be prepared to hear suggestions which you might not have considered or might not even want to hear. For example, people who seem to disappear may sometimes be found in prisons or asylums or may have left with another person. Remember, skeletons can be found in most families but they usually have more interesting stories.
  10. Experts cannot do the research for you so be prepared to go home and carry out the various suggestions yourself. An exception would be if the session is a live demonstration with a paid subscription database, in which case the expert may do it for you on the spot.
  11. Sometimes an expert may send an email follow-up if they do not have the exact reference to a resource with them. This is more likely if the session is occurring without an internet connection.
  12. Be respectful of others and do not try and go over your allotted time even if you are the last person in the session. Often the expert has to give another talk or may need to attend some other activity at the event.
  13. If you do want an expert session with a particular speaker, make sure you put your name down early as some speakers book up early and there are only limited sessions.

Online or in a Magazine
If you have outlined your query as suggested above, then those reading it should be able to quickly scan the query and determine what information you want. They can then either provide the answer if it is simply asking for a specific piece of information or start to suggest options for further research. Make a note of all the replies if it is a mailing list, online forum or Facebook page and follow through the various suggestions.

For Inside History magazine Ask Our Experts questions, send your question as suggested above either by email to experts [at] or by post to PO Box 406, Erskineville, NSW, 2043. You need to supply photos that support and help to explain your question at 300dpi via email or as copies in the post. Please don’t post original photos to us.

If you have any questions about Ask Our Experts, please call the Inside History magazine team on +61 408 004 090.

During the expert session in person
If you have outlined your query as suggested above, then the expert should be able to quickly read the query and scan any accompanying photocopies. They can then start to ask questions to learn further information or may start to make suggestions for further research.

Have a notebook and pen ready so that you can jot these ideas and follow ups down. Again do not rely on your memory as by the time you get home, you may have forgotten a key idea, especially if you have also attended a number of genealogy presentations over the day. I often like to write my ideas or questions down on someone’s query outline. This also provides a record for them when they get home. I am a visual person and think with a pen in my hand – sure, it’s not really 21st century, but it works for me.

Help the expert help you
Ask an Expert opportunities are a great way to seek assistance with a genealogy brick wall or obtain some information to help you progress your research. Remember Google can often assist with simple queries for information on archives, libraries, genealogy and family history societies so try to answer your own questions first before seeking help on your really difficult ancestors.

If there is an genealogy event near you, take advantage of question time or expert sessions but remember to prepare carefully before you go.

Similarly, if you are submitting an ‘Ask our Experts’ request to Inside History magazine or a society newsletter, take the time to organise your research and clarify your question. That way you will make the most of the opportunity and hopefully get some new ideas on how to progress, whatever your research issue may be.

And remember to thank people if they have tried to assist with your research. Good luck!

Shauna Hicks is the director of Shauna Hicks History Enterprises and has more than 35 years’ experience in Australian, English, Scottish, Irish and Norwegian research. 

Click here for details on how to ‘Ask our Experts’ at Inside History.

A sneak peek of Inside History’s Ask our Experts column. Click on the image for more from issue 22.

Join our mailing list