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.
Read more: How to Record a Conversation on your Smartphone or Skype
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.
“This is really the first time a DNA testing company has so fully integrated genetics and genealogy. We can now find cousins in the database who do not share our particular genetics, but who do share some of the genetics of our common ancestor. This is huge.” -Diane Southard, Your DNA Guide
I blogged a couple of weeks ago about some changes taking place over at AncestryDNA. You will recall that they are planning to slash your match list to allow only “invited guests” to your personal DNA party. (Read that post to be reminded why this is a good thing.)
Ancestry has officially announced the launch of this feature update and reports that on average users will see an 80% reduction in the number of matches shown. I had a chance to look at the new site before it launched and one of my favorite features is the question mark that appears next to your match. Clicking on the question mark on your match page will bring up a menu of references to help you better understand the inner workings of matching at Ancestry, including those confidence levels that are a part of every relationship prediction. In this table below you can see that ancestry has tried to give you some fairly solid guidelines by which to assess the quality of your matches. You will want to focus on those matches with a confidence score of “High” or above to have the best chance of genealogical success. But an update to the matching feature is only the beginning of the new features at AncestryDNA. Today Ancestry announced “DNA Circles,” a tool that helps you identify others who share common ancestors with you. The new “DNA Circles” feature has the potential to impact the way you do genetic genealogy at Ancestry. Here’s why: Autosomal DNA (the kind that Ancestry is testing) has a spotty inheritance pattern. On average we only have half of the DNA of each of our parents, only 25% of our grandparents, only 12.5% of our great grandparents and so on. This means that AncestryDNA and its competitors (Family Tree DNA and 23andMe) are only able to genetically identify 50% of your genetic 4th cousins. This means that there could be 50% MORE people in these databases that you are actually related to, people that should have been invited to your DNA party, but didn’t have a ticket. Now with DNA Circles, there is a metaphorical “after-party.” After parties are “hosted” by one of your relatives. Ancestry searches your pedigree and that of your matches back 7 generations looking for suitable hosts. An ancestor qualifies as a host if they have two or more descendants who hold an invitation. At this after-party you can meet some of these long lost cousins that, while related to you, lost their ticket to your DNA party. After-party invitations are provided to those who meet three very important qualifications:
- They have their DNA attached to their PUBLIC family tree.
- AND that PUBLIC family tree has the name of the hosting ancestor on it.
- AND this person shares DNA with at least one other person who also meets the above two criteria.
Here’s an example. Below is an image of the new AncestryDNA home page. You can see I am a part of two DNA Circles (some of you will be much more popular and invited to several after-parties. For me–just the two for now). Let’s take a closer look at my DNA Circle hosted by my paternal 5th great grandfather Minus Griggs (who knew the guy liked parties?!). Clicking on the DNA circle brings up this page where there are three things I want to show you:
- This is your relationship to the host.
- This is a list of the individuals who have passed the three criteria listed above and have been invited to this after-party.
- This is the innovative part. You see that the first two matches (after me–I am listed first) have only “Tree Match” in this column. This means that these two people, both descendants of our host, Minus Griggs, didn’t ever appear on my DNA match list. We do not share enough DNA to be considered genetic relatives. However, the third member of the circle has the “DNA Match” designation, meaning that this match DOES appear on my match page. In fact, this is my ONLY DNA match in the circle (there are three others not shown here). That means that this DNA circle has connected me to FIVE other cousins. All because I share DNA and genealogy with the third member of this circle, and he shares DNA and genealogy with everyone else.
I can click on each circle member to see exactly how Ancestry THINKS we are related. This is my first opportunity to DOUBLE CHECK this relationship that Ancestry has handed me, to be sure that both my match and I really did receive tickets to the same after party.
Here is what that page looks like for me and one of my matches.
This is really the first time a DNA testing company has so fully integrated genetics and genealogy. We can now find cousins in the database who do not share our particular genetics, but who do share some of the genetics of our common ancestor. In my opinion, this is huge.
There is one catch, and it is going to be a big one for some of you. In order to see your DNA Circles, you have to be an Ancestry.com subscriber.
Even though I am excited about these changes, I can’t help but hope for just one step more. In order to identify these DNA Circles, Ancestry has identified pieces of DNA that can be fairly reliably assigned to a particular ancestor. There are likely others in the Ancestry database who have these pieces of DNA, we can call them partial tickets to the after-party, but who are lacking the second requirement: a pedigree documenting a relationship to that ancestor. I hope in the future the folks at Ancestry will honor those partial ticket holders, and allow them to the after-party, so we can sit around with our peanuts and pretzels and figure out how we are all related. Until then, I am going to enjoy the two after-parties hosted by my two generous ancestors.
Ready to walk through the process of using DNA for your genealogy? Let me be your guide! Check out my quick guides (left) Purchase each guide individually or pick up the bundle of all 4 for the best deal!
Visit my website to learn about expert consultations with me. You’ll get customized guidance on which tests to order and how to maximize your results for your genealogy research.
Every Friday, we blog about new genealogy records online. Might these collections include your ancestors? And does the Google search tip we’ve added at the bottom help you out?
This week: Kansas newspapers, WWI records for the U.S. and Canada and a unique collection of mid-1800s Shaker photographs.
KANSAS NEWSPAPERS. Subscribers to Newspapers.com can search a newly enlarged database of Kansas newspapers. It “currently has more than 190 papers from almost 90 Kansas cities for a total of 4.3 million pages.” One paper dates to 1840, 20 years before statehood.
SHAKER PHOTOGRAPHS. The Shaker Museum Mount Lebanon (New York) “has launched a newly digitized online catalog of historic photography as a part of its ongoing effort to make available online a full catalog of its collections,” says this press report. Photos include “scenes of Shaker villages from the mid-late 19th Century, as well as a collection of stereograph images from this early period.”
CANADA WWI MILITARY RECORDS. Ancestry recently posted a new collection of “more than 17,000 historical military records (featuring more than 470,000 images) revealing the First World War military experiences of many Canadian soldiers. The Canada, Imperial War Service Gratuities, 1919-1921 collection contains records of Canadians who fought and served in the British Imperial services.” Note: the above link goes to Ancestry.com but the database is also available on Ancestry.ca.
U.S. WWI PHOTOGRAPHS. The National Archives (U.S.) has a newly digitized collection online: American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918. According to the site, “This series contains photographs obtained from the U.S. Army Signal Corps, Federal and State government agencies, as well as private sources, such as the American Red Cross and the Central News and Photo Service. The photos depict the unity of the nation and how overwhelming the war effort was, including pictures of public gatherings, peace demonstrations, parades, and activities of libraries, hospitals and first aid stations.”
Google tip of the week: Some databases are hosted on multiple genealogy websites. For example, The New England Historical and Genealogical Society has been receiving a lot of new databases from FamilySearch. Ancestry has recently posted several databases from JewishGen, which also hosts them on their site. One site may have the search tools you prefer; another may be more convenient because you can attach records to your tree on that site. Use Google’s site search tool to see if the database is on a particular site. Enter the keywords in quotes, then the word “site:” immediately followed by the URL without the www. (There is no space between site: and the website address.) A search for the Canadian database above in Ancestry.ca looks like this: “Imperial War Service Gratuities” site:Ancestry.ca. This tip is brought to you by the newly-revised 2nd edition of The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox by Lisa Louise Cooke, which has an entire chapter on site searching and resurrecting old websites.
What Has Replaced Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness? It’s a question on many family historians minds, include Genealogy Gems Podcast listener Richard who wrote in with this question:
“Many years ago Bridgett Schneider hosted the Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness website (RAOGK). This was one of the best sites to get assistance from people willing to give back at a free or very nominal cost (reimbursement). I know someone has attempted to create the same type of page using Wikia (RAOGK wiki) and I have just started working with it, but there are not many volunteers for this site yet.
I was a volunteer for the original RAOGK and will attempt to do the same with the wiki page, but I was wondering if you could point me in the right direction for any other types of pages like this. I depend on others so much because my parents’ families are from all over the U.S. My father was career Navy, joining in Minnesota going to Colorado, where my parents met, then moving to Washington DC area, Florida and back to DC. My mom’s family are all from the Minnesota and Oregon areas, so traveling to find information is not always easy. Any pointers would be greatly appreciated.”
Here’s the scoop on RAOGK:
You’re right, no other website has really taken hold to replace RAOGK. And that’s because Facebook has filled the bill. Genealogists are joining in droves, and many create Facebook accounts strictly for their genealogy efforts. You certainly don’t have to have personal information posted in order to take advantage of the “genealogical crowd sourcing” ability of Facebook.
By “friending” other genealogists you start to build a group of ‘genealogy friends’ you can turn to with questions. But when it comes to specific areas, I go to the Facebook search box and search for Facebook groups on the topic I’m interested in.
For example, I am researching the Munns, Bax and Dixon families of Margate, Kent, England. A search or “Margate History” brought up a fantastic group devoted to the history of Margate. They have amassed an unbelievable amount of shared info, photos, postcards and documents. Not everyone is a genealogist, but everyone is interested in the history of Margate. It’s the first place I would go to post a question or request for help, and inevitably someone will have the answer or be in a location where they can help me.
Although the Margate group is “history” focused, you can also search adding the word Genealogy to your location search for a group.And if you don’t see a group that meets your needs, create one! From your Facebook account:
1. on the left side of the page under GROUPS click “Find New Groups”
2. Here you can join groups (Facebook will likely recommend some based on your profile interests)
3. In the upper right corner click the green + CREATE GROUP button
4. Give your group a name and select whether it is public or private
5. Start posting content to your group page
6. Start promoting the page on your profile page while also friending other genealogists and soon you will likely have a vibrant group that can assist each other based on a shared interest.
Bottom line: Facebook is the new RAOGK. And the upside is that Facebook expands the resources to folks who may be in a position to help through a shared interest while not necessarily being a genealogist.
I hope that helps. Let me know how it goes, and thanks for being a part of the Genealogy Gems community.