Learning from the “Lists”

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Self-Directed Learning is an important part of being a serious genealogist. Many genealogists subscribe to on-line forums or lists and receive email messages daily, even hourly from others with similar interests. Often long threads are generated as the topic is explored from various angles. Just as often these threads carrying a common subject, wander off on tangents and ar so off topic as to be meaningless. Other times responses the thread carries too many “me too” messages. How does the self -directed learner make the most of these lists?

Here are a few ideas. I’ll bet you have more suggestions.

Asking Questions

  • Avoid asking dictionary questions. You can pick up your phone and call your library for authoritive answers to these. Only if this fails, ask on the list. Older dialect terms like “kettlebender” may not show up in modern dictionaries. But many do.
  • When asking for expert advice, consider requesting off-list responses. Not everyone is intereted in the Scumbucket family research problems in Beaver County.
  • The lists are great for asking for search strategy,and methodology questions. On the APG list I’ve seen some marvellously crafted guidance from some of the best genealogists shared freely
  • Sometimes its useful to include background to your question. Be brief and concise to keep your question posting accessable
  • The magic words to get responses to our queries are, “Can you help me? ”  We seem delightfully addicted to helping!
  • Ask how and why questions. These draw out reasoned responses and procedural explanations. Be willing to rephrase your question or refine it.
  • Admit your ignorance, its usually not imaginary. And folks love to help you out.
  • Ask for references. “Can anyone recommend an article or book chapter that illustrated correlating indirect evidence?” You can build up a reading list to supplement the advice given.

Managing Discussion

About 15 ears ago I did some moderating on H-Local an academic list for people in local history research. My objective was to stimulate thinking and draw out talented people.Here are a few of ideas I tried.

  • Respond to discussion contributors with follow-up questions of the how and why type – not contradictory ones. Questions to clarify process, delimit scope, explain obscured meaning are helpful. Its wonderful to see folks respond when you tell them, “I really want to understand more fully what you mean.”
  • Ask for recommendations for books or articles that address the issue. Often this seperates the knowledgeable frm the others. And the books/articles they refer to help you greatly. I recall working on a project needing lots of local historical context. Three responses mentioned works by one author. These leads taught me a new view on geograohic contect. A WOW moment for me.
  • Sometimes reply off list to responders inviting them to share their understanding of the issue more fully to this list. This has paid off richly many times.
  • Be generous and specific in your thanks both on and off list as appropriate.This often leads to more learning. We can learn gems from the most unusual resource people this way. So find something in each response you can praise.
  • If things wander off the topic you want to explore in your question, gently steer them back. “I appreciated your comments on X, but would be very interested in how you apply x in combination with Y “
  • Sometimes write up a summary of discussion to that point in time, and insert followup issues you’d like to cover.

Check up on your responders. I frequently find myself consulting on-lin directories for the Association of Professional Genealogists and similar groups to see the qualifications of those who answer. I find many strongly opinionated interpretations come from those with few qualifications. Be cautious with these people. I’ve learned to ignore responses by some rgulars on m favourite lists because their values, motives and qualifications are suspect. Be cautious of argumentive responses.

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