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Archives - Research Tips - For Beginners: Writing a Query

Whether you are sending a family history query through email or through the regular postal service, there are a few guidelines to follow which will make it easier for other researchers to help you find the answers to your questions.

Special Tips to Consider:

  • To whom are you writing? Libraries, archives, or government agencies have limited staff resources and cannot "do" genealogical research. However, staff can look up specific information, such as births, deaths, marriage, or census records. Private agencies (and many public ones) rely on volunteers who may have varying levels of expertise. Professional researchers make their living by locating and interpreting information.
  • Inquire about fees for research services before asking questions. Information about the State Archives reference fees can be found on our website. Do not expect an institution or individual to provide research services for free because you ask for the reply to come via e-mail or fax. You are paying for the time, not just the copies.
  • Include your full postal service address so that researchers will know where to send any materials that are copied. Even in e-mail transactions, this can save a step. Also be sure to include your full name in e-mail queries.
  • Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) for reply convenience. Some organizations or individuals will not respond without one.
  • Identify the type of record to be searched. No query should ask for "all" the information on a family from anyone except another individual who is known to have a file on the family. There are no universal indexes.
  • Request information about a specific person. When the information you have is incomplete (as in the case of a woman's maiden name which you would like to learn), try to provide as much information as you can, which will help researchers determine if they have found the correct record.
  • Provide known spelling variations, especially if they differ greatly from the "standard" spelling. This will encourage researchers to look under those names as well.
  • List the place where the event occurred to help shorten the search time. For example, at the State Archives, vital records are organized by county and newspapers are organized by their community. Again, there are no universal indexes. If you don't know where an event took place, try locating the family in the federal census and start from there.
  • List the date to help shorten the search time as well. This tells the researcher that an event with similar names at another date is not of interest. The more specific the date that can be provided, the better.
  • Sign your full name, whether you are writing through regular mail or email.
  • Remember, your request should list the type of record, the name to be searched for, the date, and the place.
  • Be prepared to be surprised. You may find out why the family was so secretive about Uncle George.
  • Be prepared to pay for learning that the record you wanted cannot be found or does not exist. It can take the researcher even longer to find out there are no records than it does to find out that there are records.
  • It costs just as much in time and resources for a library or research center to e-mail or fax your answer as it does to send it through the regular mail. Do not expect to get research work and documents for free by requesting them in a "technological" format.

Sample query letter:

Your Street Address
Your City, State Zip Code
Date
Name of Agency
Street Address
Their City, State Zip Code
Dear Researcher:

I am researching the history of the Smith family, and I believe that your library/name of agency may have information

Specifically, I am looking for a marriage record for Wilbur Smith and his wife Sarah Elizabeth or Sally (last name unknown). They were probably married in Pembina County, North Dakota in the 1880s. The name was sometimes spelled "Smythe."

Also, I would like to have a copy of the Federal Census record for the Wilbur Smith family from the 1880 Pembina County Census.

Thank you for taking the time to look up these records for me. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,
Your full name
Encl: Self-addressed stamped envelope

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