Mailing Lists - The Genealogist's Most Powerful Internet Tool


A version of this article first appeared in the September/October 2000 issue of Family Chronicle Magazine


By Mark Howells


I have an old claw hammer which belonged to my grandfather. To call it "well-used" would be too kind a description. It has driven nails in dozens of homes in many states over the years. It has connected with three generations of thumbs and stands an excellent chance of flattening the digits of further generations. It's scarred wooden handle and nicked metal head always remind me of grandpa's garage.

As a tool, the hammer is neither my newest nor my flashiest. My cordless screwdriver of bright red plastic makes a better show with its interesting whirring sound. The self-adjusting pliers with the ergonomically-correct hand grips are more fun to fiddle with. But it's my grandfather's claw hammer plain, age-worn, and simple-to-operate which I rely on most for household projects. Like all hammers, it works on the principle of leverage. Grandpa's hammer helps me put things together with more power and speed than if I used my hands alone.

For Want of a Nail

Internet genealogists have a similar tool in their tool box. This tool is like my grandfather's hammer it's rather plain. Visually unexciting, with no interesting noises nor other bells & whistles, this instrument is yet the most powerful in our online repertoire.

I'm referring, of course, to genealogy mailing lists. It still surprises me how many people who use the Internet as an aid to their genealogical research haven't yet explored genealogy mailing lists. Perhaps its because they are not flashy like the World Wide Web that mailing lists go unnoticed. This really is a shame because those who don't use mailing lists are only viewing a small part of the online genealogical community. Like the hammer, genealogy mailing lists also use the principle of leverage leveraging the research and knowledge of fellow researchers to build a more complete family history with more speed.

There are tens of thousands of general and topic-specific mailing lists available on the Internet which focus exclusively on genealogy. Chances are excellent that your areas of research or your surnames already have a mailing list dedicated to them. Genealogy mailing lists connect thousands of family historians together around their common research interests, be they geographical, ethnic, surname or ancestor-specific. Talk about leverage! With others of a like mind focusing on the same area of research, everyone expands their collective reach. Genealogy mailing lists let the beginner tap into the experience of the old hand. They transcend national and geographic boundaries by allowing the lone researcher in tropical Pago Pago to interact and share family information with their distant cousin on the wind-swept Outer Hebrides.

I'll use the remainder of this article to explore the ins and outs of genealogy mailing lists on the Internet. Those of you who haven't used them yet should be able to add them to your tool box with confidence by the end of the article. Those already familiar with genealogy mailing lists will also pick up an idea or two on how to maximize the benefits of our most powerful tool.

Along Party Lines What Are Mailing Lists?

Most of us are old enough to remember the days of telephone party lines. Several households would share a single phone line. Residents had to take turns using the phone. Party lines were cheap, but then everyone on the line could listen in to everyone else's conversations.

Mailing lists are similar to the old party lines but rely on electronic mail rather than telephones for communications. When one person on a mailing list has something to "say", everyone else on the mailing list gets to "hear" it. E-mails sent in to a mailing list are echoed out to all the other subscribers on that mailing list. As a subscriber, you get a copy of every message sent into the mailing list including your own. Some genealogy mailing lists have over 10,000 individual subscribers. That's quite a party! However, most are smaller than that, having from a few dozen to a few hundred subscribers.

The term subscriber can be a bit intimidating. Genealogy mailing lists are predominately free. There are no charges for subscribing. The mailing lists are provided by groups or individuals for reasons other than monetary gain. Often mailing lists are provided as an associated benefit of some other service, product, or community of interests. There is no limit (other than your own time devoted to Internet genealogy) on the number of genealogy mailing lists to which you may subscribe.

Some mailing lists can be joined "by invitation only". These are typically mailing lists which are limited to members of specific genealogy societies only or to groups of researchers who all descend from one common ancestor. The existence of this type of mailing list is usually noted in a society's publications as an additional benefit of membership. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to participate in these sorts of "members-only" mailing lists while doing your offline genealogy reading.

As a mailing list subscriber, you are a free guest of the mailing list's host or list owner. Remember those manners that your mother taught you and treat your host accordingly. You participate in the mailing list at the sufferance of its host. Your monthly payment to your Internet Service Provider does not entitle you to the use of any mailing list. Most genealogy mailing lists are not connected with a specific Internet Service Provider. Like any non-paying guest, your host may require you to depart if you violate the "house rules".

Getting There How Do You Find Mailing Lists Of Interest?

In order to join a mailing list which interests you, you have to find them first. The genealogy community is fortunate in that we have a single resource where we can find just about every genealogy related mailing list in existence.

Genealogy Resources on the Internet Mailing Lists at http://www.rootsweb.com/~jfuller/gen_mail.html is a web site index for genealogy mailing lists maintained by a single person on a voluntary basis. John Fuller performs the Herculean task of describing and categorizing over 18,000 genealogy mailing lists. We all owe John Fuller a debt of thanks for making the process of finding mailing lists so simple. As the vast majority of genealogy mailing lists are provided by RootsWeb http://www.rootsweb.com this article will use RootsWeb-based mailing lists for its examples. Many of the mailing list features described in this article will equally apply to non-RootsWeb mailing lists although the technical particulars may vary.

John Fuller has categorized the mailing lists into the following sections:

The first step in finding a mailing list of interest is exploring these categories. We'll use the example of looking for a surname mailing list for SMITH but the other categories work the same way. You would look at the Surnames category and find the letters of the alphabet which begin the name SMITH. That link will take you to a page of descriptions for the surname mailing lists beginning with the letters "SI" to "SN" - http://www.rootsweb.com/~jfuller/gen_mail_surnames-si.html.

At the top of this page, you'll find an index to the individual mailing lists described on that page. Be sure to allow the entire page to load first in order for the index to work properly. Find the SMITH name in the index and click on that link - http://www.rootsweb.com/~jfuller/gen_mail_surnames-si.html#SMITH. This will take you to the description and subscribe instructions for that particular mailing list.

Not surprisingly, there is more than one genealogy mailing list for the SMITH surname. There is a general SMITH mailing list, one each for SMITHs in Missouri and New York, one for the descendants of Nimrod SMITH, and one for the descendants of George Sterling SMITH. Picking the correct mailing list for your purposes is important. If you already know that your SMITHs were from Missouri, you'll be better served by joining the SMITH-MISSOURI mailing list than if you choose the general SMITH surname mailing list. This holds true for all mailing lists pick the ones you wish to join with care to ensure that they match with your research interests.

An Embarrassment of Riches What Types of Mailing Lists Are Available?

As previously indicated, there are many types of genealogy mailing lists to choose from. They can be grouped into some very broad categories of general, geographic & ethnic, surname-specific, common interests, and ancestor-specific. We'll have a look at each of these broad categories of mailing lists.

General mailing lists are the general purpose work horses of genealogy mailing lists. The great grandmother of all mailing lists is Roots-L see http://www.rootsweb.com/~jfuller/gen_mail_info.html#ROOTS-L - the original genealogy mailing list. Roots-L has over 10,000 subscribers and its topics include just about every imaginable aspect of genealogy. Roots-L is the epitome of general genealogy mailing lists. There are also several general mailing lists specifically oriented to beginners. GEN-NEWBIE-L - http://www.rootsweb.com/~jfuller/gen_mail_info.html#GEN-NEWBIE-L - is for people who are new to both computers and genealogy while NEWGEN is for those new to genealogy only http://www.rootsweb.com/~jfuller/gen_mail_info.html#NEWGEN. Both GEN-NEWBIE-L and NEWGEN are great mailing lists on which to start.

Dividing up mailing lists by geographic area and ethnic groups is a natural outcome of how we do genealogical research. People with research interests in Germany are going to want to discuss the peculiarities and particulars of German records, repositories, language, customs, and record-keeping traditions - http://www.rootsweb.com/~jfuller/gen_mail_country-ger.html. There are geographic mailing lists for nearly every nation-state (both past and present) which are exclusively for family history discussions. There are even mailing lists for specific states, counties, towns, and other administrative areas within nations. So there are mailing lists for the former German state of Prussia http://www.rootsweb.com/~jfuller/gen_mail_country-ger.html#PRUSSIA-ROOTS and also a mailing list for the Prussian province of Posen http://www.rootsweb.com/~jfuller/gen_mail_country-ger.html#POSEN. Ethnic-based mailing lists are similar to geographic area mailing lists but are focused on the ethnic group itself rather than country of origin. The Germans from Russia mailing lists - http://www.rootsweb.com/~jfuller/gen_mail_country-rus.html#GermanRussian and http://www.rootsweb.com/~jfuller/gen_mail_country-rus.html#GER-VOLGA are good examples of mailing lists for ethnic groups.

Our previous example of the various SMITH mailing lists gave you a small idea of mailing lists devoted exclusively to surnames. This category probably accounts for the most individual mailing lists. Surname mailing lists (arranged alphabetically by beginning letters) may be found at http://www.rootsweb.com/~jfuller/gen_mail.html#SURNAMES.

Common interest mailing lists tend to focus on special niches within genealogy. Mailing lists for users of particular brands of genealogy software are probably the best example of this type of mailing list - http://www.rootsweb.com/~jfuller/gen_mail_software.html. Mailing lists for Adoption research also fit in this category - http://www.rootsweb.com/~jfuller/gen_mail_software.html. These types of mailing lists cover topics as varied as you can imagine under the comprehensive rainbow of genealogy interests.

Our SMITH mailing list example also showed us two mailing lists which were expressly for the descendants of specific individuals. Ancestor-specific mailing lists for all the descendants of one person or one couple are becoming increasingly popular. They are an excellent way to pool one's research knowledge with cousins and kin who are also working on the exact same lineage. Discussions of brick wall research problems, division of research tasks to increase efficiency & speed, and general information sharing are few of the benefits of these highly-focused mailing lists. If you've managed to connect up with a dozen or more researchers and you're all working on the same line, you might consider hosting your own ancestor-specific mailing list. Such a mailing list is certainly easier than trying to remember to e-mail everyone individually.

What To Know Before You Go What's This Mailing List For?

Let's look at the details given in the general SMITH surname mailing list description. The purpose of the mailing list is described: "A mailing list for the posting of queries and sharing of biographical and genealogical information regarding the Smith surname.". Will this mailing list fit your research needs? Use the description to ensure you have found the right mailing list.

"Discussion on the list is NOT encouraged!!!" the description continues. This may sound a bit unfriendly but in actuality, the host of this mailing list is making clear their expectations for the list. It is for posting queries only and not for the continued discussion of those queries. On a list such as this, you may contact the person who posted any query by writing to them at their private e-mail address shown in their query. The continued conversation between the two of you needn't be shared with all other subscribers on the entire mailing list. Remember to be a polite guest and obey the rules of your host. It really is THEIR party.

Some lists are "open" meaning that anyone subscriber or non-subscriber may post to them. Our SMITH example is a "closed" mailing list as noted in its description "You must be a subscriber to post to the list." This means that only subscribers may "speak" to one another on the mailing list. If you are not a subscriber, any message which you send to the mailing list will not be echoed out to the subscribership. Bear this in mind when selecting and using a mailing list for your research.

The final entry in the description of the general SMITH mailing list is the subscription instructions. You will notice that you have a choice of which form of the mailing list you prefer. The two choices are individual message mode and digest mode. In individual message mode, you will receive a copy of every e-mail posting sent to the mailing list as a single message. They will appear just like any other e-mail you receive except they will be from (in our example) SMITH-L@rootsweb.com . Individual message mode is excellent if you want instant access to the messages on the mailing list or if the mailing list has infrequent message traffic.

Digest mode is a different form of the same mailing list. Digest mode takes and holds recent messages sent to the mailing list (which are distributed immediately to individual message mode subscribers). Then, based on either time between digests or the size of the messages in the digest, the digest mode bundles these separate messages together and sends multiple individual messages to you in a single e-mail message. You see exactly the same messages as in individual message mode, just a bit later and bundled together in a group. The digest which delivers your bundle of messages also comes with a handy subject-line index at the top of the digest which includes the subject line for each individual message included within the digest. This is an excellent tool for quickly scanning subject lines for any terms of interest to your research. Digest mode is most convenient for mailing lists which have high levels of message traffic, if you subscribe to many different mailing lists, or if you pay for your Internet connection by the minute.

Two Addresses Which One Do You Use For What?

The most common problem experienced by first time users on genealogy mailing lists is understanding the difference between the command address and the posting address. Every mailing list has two addresses. The first one you encounter is the command address. This is the mailing list address which you must "talk" to in order to subscribe or unsubscribe from the mailing list. At RootsWeb, the command address takes a form such as SMITH-L-request@rootsweb.com . This command address is used to instruct the computer running the mailing list what you want it to do for you. Since you are talking to a computer, messages to the command address must be in exactly the right format. Computers take things so literally! Usually, you will only need this address when you subscribe and unsubscribe from the mailing list.

Once you send in your subscribe message to the command address, you should receive back a Welcome message. This is an automated message sent to every subscriber. In the Welcome message, your host explains the purpose of the mailing list, its rules and behavior expectations, and any other relevant information regarding the use of the mailing list. It is very important to SAVE the Welcome message in some convenient place. The Welcome message has all the information you need for unsubscribing when you wish to leave the mailing list but more importantly, it will give you the posting address to send your messages to.

The posting address is the address you send your messages to which you want all other subscribers on the mailing list to read. It will look something like SMITH-L@rootsweb.com. Now remember that you are sending your same e-mail message to dozens, possibly hundreds or thousands of people. It's like talking to a large room full of people. You want to get their attention but you don't want to shout. You want to be clear and succinct so that you get your message across without wasting anyone's time. You want to make it convenient for them to talk back to you if they have something to say. This leads us to some basic ideas for good communications on mailing lists.

Netiquette for Genealogy Mailing Lists What To Do Once You Subscribe

Just as if you entered any new social situation for the first time, it is always a good idea to "get the lay of the land" by observing how the other members of the group behave. This helps you to understand what "unwritten" group norms are expected before you commit any social faux pas. On a mailing list, "listening" for a period of time before you send in your first message to the mailing list is called "lurking". Lurk for a few days or a few weeks to make yourself comfortable with the mailing list before joining in the conversation. Observe how others interact by paying attention to the form of their e-mail messages, their tone, and their content. Are the mailing list messages silly or serious? Are individual messages addressing the whole group or are they targeted for individual subscribers? Are the messages long stories or short queries? Are people friendly or furious? Does your host intervene in disagreements between subscribers or are verbal fisticuffs not refereed? Get the feel of the mailing list before jumping right in.

When you're ready to take the plunge and post your first message, a short introductory message is a great way to begin. Mention that you have just joined the mailing list and briefly note your research interests surnames, years, and localities. Don't give your entire life story out with your first posting. If your fourth great uncle was the first person in New Jersey to successfully have his large toe transplanted, you might want to save his fascinating story for your later messages to the mailing list. Keep is short, simple, and clear on your first foray into a new mailing list.

On mailing lists, TYPING IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS is considered to be SHOUTING. There's no need to shout on a genealogical mailing list. The only exception to this is that it is always appropriate to capitalize SURNAMES so that they are easily spotted. When sending a message to a mailing list, it is always good form to use correct spelling (for your country), full punctuation of sentences, and to avoid abbreviations and slang. That mailing list subscriber in Uruguay who has English as a second language may turn out to be your long-lost cousin with the family bible in their attic. You want to make yourself as clear as possible to as many subscribers as possible.

Make the subject lines of the messages you send to the mailing list clear and interesting. Some subscribers simply scan the subject lines of the messages which they receive and read only those messages whose subject lines indicate that they may contain information of interest to their research. Remember that you want to get people's attention so that they will note your research interests. "Calling all SMITHs" isn't very descriptive for a subject line. The words "genealogy" or "family history" are also rather assumed to be part of the subject matter on genealogy mailing lists and may be avoided. "Hekubah SMITH 1875 Hottentot County, Terra del Feugo" is a much better choice of subject line to attract the appropriate attention for your research interests.

Be sure to sign the messages which you send to the mailing list. Not every subscriber's e-mail software works just like yours. They may not be able to see your name as part of your e-mail address or other feature of your particular software. Sign your e-mails as you would sign your letters. Genealogy is about making connections with people. Anonymity or noms de plume are counter-productive.

Remember that your e-mail message sent to the mailing list will be echoed out to other subscribers as coming from the e-mail address SMITH-L@rootsweb (in our example). Because some e-mail software programs only show this actual "From" address, your original address e-mail might not be displayed to all recipients of your message on the mailing list. Include your personal e-mail address in the body of every message which you send to the mailing list.

Follow the other rules and expectations as provided to you by your host in the Welcome message you received when you first subscribed. When in doubt, e-mail your host and ask for some directions. You should find their direct e-mail in the Welcome message.

Some Tips & Tricks Flames, Replies, Sharing, and Archives

We're often intimidated by the loud, obnoxious, or aggressive members in any community. You will find these sorts of people on genealogy mailing lists just as you will find them in other walks of life. When arguments and insults are delivered by e-mail in a public forum such as a genealogy mailing list, they are known as "flames". The best way to handle receiving this sort of e-mail is to ignore it. If you've been seriously offended by a flame, report it to your mailing list host. It is their place to handle such complaints. Continuing an electronic argument on a genealogy mailing list even one which you did not start is unseemly and does not fit the purpose of the mailing list.

To assure that you never receive such flames, it's wise to never send any yourself. If you are angered by something you read on a mailing list, go ahead and write a reply but then don't send it. Just save it for a day or two. Revisit your reply and see whether you still feel the same way as when you wrote it. Remember that once you send such a reply, it may travel the Internet much farther than you ever intended. Would you want your grandchildren to read your reply? What would the neighbors say about it?

Speaking of replies, it is important to understand where your replies to messages on genealogy mailing lists go. Some mailing lists are configured to have replies sent directly to the original poster of the message. Other mailing lists have replies sent back to the entire mailing list, regardless of who posted the original message. Because this is a variable feature (and your specific e-mail software may also effect where replies are sent), be sure to understand how it works and what the mailing list host's expectations are for replies. Some mailing lists can be quite chatty with replies going back to the list as a whole. There are other mailing lists where personal replies back and forth on the mailing list are not discouraged. Know the norms for that particular mailing list before you reply.

Once you've acquired your sea legs on a particular mailing list, you will want to share your own expertise with others. Everyone has some part of genealogy research a specific area, a research technique, or perhaps a record type in which they have experience and expertise. If you see a question a mailing list which you can answer, by all means chime in! The poster of the query needs assistance and you can help. Remember, the best way to get help is to first be helpful.

With new subscribers joining the mailing lists, you should be aware that the audience which you "talk" with is constantly changing. This means that new subscribers haven't seen what you posted last month regarding your research interests. Periodically sending a message to the mailing list which repeats your research interests will ensure that new subscribers will become familiar with your interests. Keep a copy of your standard e-mail message with your research interests listed. Then just reuse this message on a periodic (say monthly) basis to catch the eyes of the new subscribers.

One of the best kept secrets of genealogy mailing lists is the archiving of past messages. If you have discovered the existence of a mailing list for your areas of research interest and have only recently joined in, you may wonder if you've missed any relevant discussions in the past. Perhaps someone with your exact interests join some months ago, posted some queries that mentioned your ancestors specifically, and then unsubscribed from the list before you joined. How would you ever know about them or contact them? They're not on the mailing list anymore so you can't get their attention that way. The answer is in the mailing list archives.

Most genealogy mailing lists at RootsWeb are archived. Some lists are not archived due to the nature of their subscribership (such as for genealogy society members only) or because of the preferences of their host. Some genealogy mailing lists may only have a portion of their past messages archived since not all mailing lists have been archiving messages since their inception.

There are two forms of archives for genealogy mailing lists at Rootsweb. Both are accessed using your browser on the World Wide Web. Interactive searches see http://searches.rootsweb.com/cgi-bin/listsearch.pl - require you to know the name of the mailing list whose archives you want to search. Once you enter the name of the mailing list, you can search by any keyword of your choice in messages on a year by year basis.

The threaded mailing list archives see http://archiver.rootsweb.com/ require you to pick a user name and password before you are allowed to access them. This free user account is required to ensure that electronic junk mailers (spammers) can not use these archives to harvest e-mail addresses. The threaded archives are organized by mailing list and within each mailing list by topics of conversation (known as threads). The threaded archives are more convenient to use when you wish to follow an entire line of discussion held on a mailing list in the past. It makes finding both questions posted to the mailing list and replies with the answers to those questions much easier.

When Your Only Tool Is A Hammer Every Problem Looks Like A Nail

Genealogy mailing lists are an invaluable tool for Internet genealogy. If you're not using them yet, you're not bringing the full benefit of the Internet to bear on your research. Like my grandfather's hammer, mailing lists extend your reach and use leverage to increase the power and speed with which you can build your pedigree. However, just like that old hammer in my tool chest, genealogy mailing lists are only one tool out of many in your comprehensive tool box of genealogy research aids.

You won't solve every research problem you have using mailing lists. They may just help you solve your research problems a bit faster. Collaborating with others around the globe can provide that much needed "whack on the thumb" which gets your attention, helps you approach your project from new angles, and increases your enthusiasm. By combining participation on mailing lists with visits to genealogy web sites and using person-to-person electronic mail, your time spent on the Internet will be more productive. Most importantly, by putting all your Internet research tools together with your offline research in archives and libraries (remember books & microfilm?), you can utilize your entire toolbox to build your family history.


Key Mailing List Concepts:



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Mailing Lists - The Genealogist's Most Powerful Internet Tool
Created & maintained by Mark Howells.
For information about this article, please send email to markhow@oz.net
Updated January 8, 2001

Copyright © 2000 - 2001 Mark Howells, all rights reserved.