Writing Effective Letters – An Important Genealogical Skill

By Carolyn L. Barkley

When librarians meet at conferences or training programs they often trade stories about the well-intentioned, but humorous letters they receive seeking genealogical assistance. While many stories may be apocryphal, they illustrate how many researchers defeat their purpose when they send inquiries to institutions. Perhaps no one actually wrote “I’m looking for my grandmother, is she in your library,” or “please send me everything you have on____,” but these words provide perfect examples of the problem faced daily by librarians and archivists. With the current move away from written letters in favor of email correspondence, I believe our collective ability to express ourselves well in writing will only deteriorate further.

This article focuses on requests for specific documents from institutions. You will definitely encounter the need for a variety of other types of correspondence during your genealogical research. Vera McDowell’s When Your Ox is in the Ditch (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1992, reprinted 1997) is one of the best sources of sample letters, providing a wealth of examples of correspondence to help you resolve genealogical problems.

It is essential that as researchers we learn how to word a request for information in such a manner that we can increase the chances of a successful outcome. If we can master a few basic skills we will be able to apply them, whether the resultant writing is on paper or in electronic format.

1. Do your homework!

Asking for assistance is not the first step. In fact, preparing to write your request is no different than preparing for a research trip. You must analyze your previous work and decide what your next step will be. You should be able to state succinctly who the one person is, or what the one event is, that you want to know more about. Even more specifically, once you have developed that research problem statement, you will need to determine where the documents you need to resolve the problem are located.

Are you looking for a birth, marriage or death record, a will, a family history, a genealogical chart, a pension record, a family Bible page, or a deed? Use a variety of reference books from your home collection or your local library to identify the institution holding the records in which you are interested. Several such titles include Elizabeth Petty Bentley’s County Courthouse Book (2nd ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 1995, reprinted 1996) and The Genealogist’s Address Book (5th ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 2005); and Thomas Jay Kemp’s International Vital Records Handbook (New 5th ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., February 2009). If you are making a request to a different state than the one in which you normally research, this step is particularly important. Records that in Virginia and North Carolina might be housed in the county courthouse may be in the town clerk’s office in New England. In another example, I was researching marriage records in Scranton, Pennsylvania, for a client and was surprised to find that the Marriage License Bureau is a division of the Clerk of the Orphans’ Court.

Visit the websites of institutions to determine what materials are in their collections. Verify that they should have the document you will be requesting. If they do not have a web-site, locate a telephone number and make a quick call to verify that the type of information or document that you are requesting is in the scope of their holdings. Determine the conditions under which the institution accepts requests for copies of documents. Does the website provide a chat-style “Ask a Librarian” service, an e-mail reference service, or an online document ordering service? Do you have all the information required to complete the online form? Does the institution require a written request (not e-mail) only? Are there charges or other restrictions that will affect your request? Is it necessary for you to prove your relationship to the person about whom you are inquiring? What is required to meet this relationship requirement?

At the end of this step you will have both a research problem statement and will have chosen an institution and a specific document that can resolve the specific problem. For example, “I would like to contact the North Carolina State Archives for a copy of the will of George Barkley who died in Northampton County, North Carolina, in 1788.”

2.  Draft Your Request.

Only after the completion of step 1, is it time to begin to draft your request to the institution you have chosen. Remember that your request should be for a copy of a specific document or specific journal article. Institutions are not staffed to do the actual research for you – that’s your job!

If you have the ability to request the information via an online service provided by that institution, complete the online request form providing all of the specific information that it may require. If there is a box for further text comment, you may want to add where you might have looked for this information previously in order to save the researcher’s time. You may also want to add any supporting data that might clarify their understanding of your problem. Be succinct.

If you are required to submit your request in writing, I recommend that you do not submit a hand-written request. The idiosyncrasies of handwriting provide the opportunity for misreading or confusing names, places and dates. Produce a professional-looking letter on your computer or have a friend format and print it for you on 8½ x 11 white paper. If it is not produced on personal letterhead, then make sure that your return address, e-mail address, and phone number are clearly indicated at the top or bottom of the letter.

Clearly state your request (that you developed during step 1): “I would like to receive a copy of the will of George Barkley who died in Northampton County, North Carolina, in 1788.”

Provide additional clarifying information that might help pinpoint the appropriate will in the event that more than one George Barkley died in 1788: “George Barkley’s wife was named Catherine and his sons included Rhodes Barkley, Allen Barkley, and John Barkley,” or “Barkley is often spelled as either Barclay or Berkley.” You may also include where you may have previously searched for this information or the source of your documentation.

Enclose the fee for the record copy (information obtained from the web site or from a phone call to the institution). If you cannot determine the cost, offer to pay all costs involved in making copies, mailing the documents, etc. and request that the institution include a bill with their response. (Pay promptly.) If the service is free, enclose a small donation for the staff work involved in responding to your request. This donation is particularly welcomed by historical and genealogical society libraries who may have limited staff resources. Be sure to thank the staff in advance for their time and effort expended on your request. Enclose a self-addressed and stamped envelope.

Do not combine requests for more than one type of record. For example, a copy of a will and a copy of a deed may be located in more than one office of a court house. If you rely on the clerk to locate one document and then forward the letter to another office for the second, you may significantly delay your response. Write separate letters for each type of document.

3.  Proof Your Request.

Reread your request; better yet, have a friend read the request. Have you been clear and specific about what you are requesting? If something is confusing, reword your request. Proofread the request and use your spell-checker to catch any spelling or grammatical errors. A well-written letter prompts a more timely response.

4.  Keep a Correspondence Log

You probably already keep a research log detailing the work you accomplish during a research trip. In much the same fashion, establish a correspondence log detailing all of your requests for documents and information. While it is possible to find correspondence log forms in various locations on the Internet, a simple table will serve just as well. Include columns for the date on which your correspondence was sent, to whom it was sent, the content of the request, the date of the reply and the results (as simple as positive, negative, or especially in Virginia, “burned”). You may also want to add a column for any fees paid, particularly if you are using the log as documentation for a client invoice.

Your log is your reminder about outstanding requests. I recommend reviewing your log at least monthly to see what correspondence is still unanswered. Follow up on these outstanding requests with a telephone call to the agency. You may want to ask if there is any other information needed to complete your request, or if a payment is required before your documents can be mailed. If you are uncomfortable about the responses you receive during this telephone call, you may want to ask to speak to a supervisor to discuss your request further. Be courteous and tactful in your questions and emphasize what you can do to help them.

5.  Unusual Circumstances

As with any research, difficulties or unusual circumstances can be encountered.

Has your research taken you to a county whose language you do not speak or write? Genealogy.com includes form letters for requesting genealogical information from an institution in French, German, Italian, and Spanish (as well as English). You may also want to use the translator available at Yahoo! Babel Fish. At this site you can type in a block of text and it will provide you that same text in your choice from a long list of languages. You can copy and paste this text into your letter. You may also go to the Family History Library site, choose the “Research Help” tab and then look for the country in which you are interested. In addition to a research outline for that country, you may also find a publication such as “Polish Letter-Writing Guide” or “Portuguese Genealogical Word List” that you can download in PDF to assist you in drafting your request.

Does your request fall under the Freedom of Information Act? Some years ago I wanted to obtain copies of my grandmother’s Alien Registration File. The pertinent agency had a FOIA office and provided an on-line form letter that I could use in requesting this information. More information on the request of documents under this act can be found at the U. S. Department of Justice web site.

Our skill in present ourselves through our writing reflects our skills as researchers. A professional image invites a professional response. Success depends on how well we can express ourselves in our correspondence with institutions and researchers as we seek to resolve our research problems.

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