Need to contact distant relatives? Got cold feet? Follow these steps and you’ll warm right up–and hopefully, so will those you contact!
Today, online trees, social media, and email make it easier than ever to find relatives you don’t know well (or at all). And there are SO many reasons to contact them: to collaborate on research, swap photos or stories, or even request a DNA sample.
In these cases, you may need to make what salespeople refer to as a “cold call,” or an unexpected contact to someone you don’t know. I’ve done it successfully many times myself, so I can tell you this: it does get easier. Follow these steps to make it a smoother experience.
1. Identify the person you want to call.
Common ways to identify a new relative include:
- Another relative tells you about them
- Family artifact, such as an old greeting card, address book, captioned photograph, letter, etc.
- On a genealogy message board
- In an online family tree (with enough information showing to identify them)
- As the author of a book, article, or blog post with information about your family
2. Locate the person’s phone number, address, and/or email address.
Here are some great websites for locating people you don’t know, or at least learning more about them (as you can on LinkedIn):
TIP: When looking through a geographically-based directory, don’t forget to search the entire metro area, not just one city. Try just searching their first name, particularly if it’s not a really common first name. Try and track down their number through other relatives or researchers.
3. Prepare ahead for making the call.
Every tough job gets just a little easier when you do your homework first!
- Take into account a possible difference in time zones.
- Choose a time when you are not too rushed
- Set yourself up in a quiet place, where there will be minimal background noise or disruptions
- Do a brief review of the family you are researching so it’s fresh in your mind
- Make note of specific questions you would like to ask.
- Have your genealogy software program open or your written notes at your fingertips
4. Adopt a positive mindset.
It’s natural to feel some apprehension when calling someone you don’t know. Before you pick up the phone, give yourself a little pep talk. Remind yourself how valuable this person’s information could be to your research. If he or she is quite elderly, remember that none of us will be around here forever so you need to make the call today! Say to yourself, “I can do this. This is important!” Be positive and remember, all they can do is say, “No thank you.”
5. Introduce yourself.
Give your first and last name and tell them the town and state where you live. Then tell them the family connection that you share. Tell them who referred them to you or how you located them. Cover these basics before launching into why you’re calling or what you want.
6. Overcome reluctant relatives.
Be ready to share what you’ve learned, and to share your own memories of a relative that you have in common. Mention something of particular interest in the family tree that might pique their interest. If they are very hesitant or caught off-guard, offer to mail them information and call back once they’ve had a chance to look at it. That way they can get their bearings, too.
7. Do these things during the call:
- Take notes: try a headset or use speakerphone, which will help to free up your hands for writing.
- Ask for new information and confirm what you already have.
If you have a way to record the call, then you won’t have to take notes and you can focus all your attention on the conversation. You can then transcribe the recording later. However, in some places, it’s illegal to record a conversation without telling them first and/or getting a person’s permission (not to mention discourteous). It can be very off-putting to start the first call by asking if you can record them. So, establish a connection first, make your request to record, and then press the record button.
8. Leave a detailed voice mail message if there’s no answer.
State your name clearly, and that you would like to talk with them about the family history. Leave your phone number and tell them that you will call them back. Consider leaving your email address and suggesting they email you with a convenient time to call back. These days many people are more comfortable with email for the first contact.
9. Ask questions like these:
- “Do you or anyone else in the family have any old family photographs or a family Bible that I could arrange to get copies of? (Reassure them that you are happy to pay for copies and shipping.)
- “Do you know anyone else in the family who has been doing family research?”
- “May I have your permission to cite you as a source in print in the future?”
- “Is it OK with you if I keep in touch from time to time? What is your preferred method of contact?”
10. Wrap up the call.
Offer to give them your address, phone number, and email address. Ask for their mailing address and email address. Repeat or state your desire to share information you have, and tell them how you’ll send it. Let them know you would be pleased to hear from them if they come across any other information, pictures, etc.
11. Document the call.
Keep track in your genealogy database of each time you call someone and the outcome (“left a message” or summary of conversation). Having a log of calls and voice mail messages you’ve left will help you know when it’s time to follow-up with whom—and who wasn’t so interested in chatting again.
After a conversation, sit down at the computer or your notepad right away and make detailed notes about the phone conversation while it’s fresh in your mind. Include the person’s name, address, phone number, and date of the conversation. Make notes regarding any items you think may be questionable to remind you to go back and do more research on those points. Enter their contact information into your genealogy database as well as your email contact list.
12. Enter new information into your genealogy database.
This is a must. Do it right away while it’s on your mind. Cite the conversation as the source of the information.
Remember to respect the privacy of those who prefer to remain “off-the-record” by not naming them in sources you post on public online trees.
13. Create an action item list.
Create action items based on what you learned. Ask yourself “What are the logical next steps to take considering what you’ve learned through this interview?” The call is not the end goal. It’s a step in the research process, and it can really help to make this list now, and while it’s fresh in your mind.
“The call is not the end goal.”
Lisa Louise Cooke
14. Follow up.
Send the person a written thank-you note or email. Remind them of your willingness to share your information, and acknowledge any willingness they expressed to share theirs (restate your willingness to help with copying expenses, postage etc. and consider including a few dollars). You never know: they might catch the genealogy bug and become your new research partner!
Next, put their birthday on your calendar and send them a card on their next birthday. Try this service: Birthday Alarm. If you don’t know their birthday but do have an address or email, send a greeting card for the next major holiday or on your shared ancestor’s anniversary or birth date. It’s another way of keeping the connection alive and expressing that you really do appreciate their help.
Occasionally make a follow-up call. See how they are doing, share any new family items you’ve come across recently, and ask whether they have they heard or found anything else.
Resource: Genealogy Gems Premium Members can learn strategies for finding living relatives with their exclusive access to my video class, “Unleash your Inner Private Eye to Find Living Relatives.” Class includes:
- a handout summarizing 9 strategies and resources
- a resource guide for online public records (U.S.)
- a downloadable Living Relatives worksheet you can print (or open in Word) that will help you capture and organize what you learn about them
Click here to learn more about Genealogy Gems Premium website membership.
Have you met PERSI? You should! PERSI is the Periodical Source Index. Use PERSI for genealogy and you may discover your ancestors in thousands of articles you never knew existed.
You may have heard me talk in the past about PERSI. In case you haven’t…PERSI is not a person—it’s the acronym for the Periodical Source Index. PERSI is THE master index for periodicals with over 2.7 million entries. Thousands of magazines, newsletters, journals, and other periodicals from the U.S., Canada, Britain, Ireland, and Australia are indexed here.
PERSI is maintained by the Allen County Public Library’s Genealogy Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. They have the equivalent of 6 full-time staff who are dedicated to subject-indexing every issue of every known genealogy or historical periodical and even the tiniest society newsletter.
Curt Witcher, who runs the Genealogy Center at Allen County and who has been a guest on the podcast in the past, estimates that if you don’t consult periodicals in your research, you could be missing up to 30% of your research leads! That’s a lot of leads! PERSI has long been a staple resource for advanced and professional genealogists to help them break through brick walls. With its help, you can much more quickly locate articles like biographical sketches of ancestors (or people they knew), transcribed indexes to naturalization or probate records, church records, school records, and the like. There might be just-what-you-need histories of places or the organizations your ancestors belonged to.
These key articles are often buried so deep in back issues of little local genealogy newsletters that you may never come across them on your own. Sometimes, they’re what we call “orphaned” content: articles we’d find in totally unexpected places.
HOW TO SEARCH PERSI ONLINE
PERSI used to be searchable on Ancestry, but it isn’t there anymore. The current version of PERSI is exclusively on Findmypast and they’re doing something really cool with it: they are gradually adding digitized articles to the index! They are doing this by signing contracts with each individual society or journal publisher, so it’s not a fast process. The vast majority of entries on PERSI do not have digitized articles linked to them yet. It’s a bonus when you do find them.
To search PERSI at Findmypast you do not actually need a subscription. They allow anyone to search and see the list of results. To see details about specific search results (including any digitized images), you will need a subscription OR you will need to purchase their pay-per-view credits. Findmypast does offer a 14-day free trial. You can also use Findmypast at Family History Centers and at many libraries that have institutional subscriptions.
Once you have located an article, it’s inexpensive to order a copy directly from the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center. Simply download the order form PDF from their website, fill it out, and mail it in. Last we checked, you can request up to six articles for only $7.50, which you pre-pay and then they bill you separately for copies at 20 cents per page.
Sometime soon, why not take 15 minutes—or your next lunch break at work–and search PERSI for your top surnames and locations? Again, the database is PERSI, it is at Findmypast, and the chance to discover is all yours.
MORE GEMS ON PERSI
If you have Mayflower, Pilgrim or Puritan ancestors (or want to confirm the rumor that you do!), you’ll want to take advantage of this offer from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. For many years the society has been researching “the 20,000 men, women, and children who crossed the Atlantic between 1620 and 1640, seeking opportunity and relief in New England.”
The Great Migration Study Project, as their work is known, has resulted in several databases, nine of which are open to the public for FREE during the first week of July 2015:
The Great Migration Begins. This database “attempts to identify and describe all those Europeans who settled in New England prior to the end of 1633,” states an NEHGS press release. “As a rough estimate, about 15 percent of the immigrants to New England arrived in the fourteen years from 1620 to 1633, with the remaining 85 percent coming over in half as many years, from 1634 to 1640.”
The Great Migration Newsletter. “This database comprises Volumes 1 through 20 of the Great Migration Newsletter, published between 1990 and 2011. Each 32-page issue contains one or two feature articles, a column with editor’s comments, and a review of recent literature on the Great Migration. Each issue also contains a section with detailed coverage of one of the towns settled during the Great Migration, or of a specific critical record, or group of records.”
The Great Migration: Immigrants to New England, 1634-1635, Volumes I—VII, A-Y. (7 separate databases) “As many as 2,500 people immigrated in 1634 and again in 1635….In May 1634, the population of Massachusetts doubled in just one month….Each alphabetical entry for a family or individual includes:
- Place of origin, if known
- Date and ship on which they arrived in New England, if known
- Earliest known record of the individual or family
- First residence and subsequent residences, when known
- Return trips to their country of origin, whether temporary or permanent
- Bibliographical information such as birth, death, marriage(s), children, and other important family relationships, church memberships, and civil and military offices held.”
Click here to access these databases for free between July 1-8, 2015. (Registration at AmericanAncestors.org is required as a FREE Guest Member.)