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By Ryan Taylor

How do you send a genealogical query to a church or historical society?

These are private organizations, unlike libraries or archives whose business is answering questions. Churches may be set up for receiving such letters, but it certainly is not their primary concern.

Sandy Christie of Guelph asks what to do, and especially what sort of donation should be included.

These kinds of queries have become so common, many churches and societies have rules about what they can do. So the first step is to look at their website, if they have one, where you will probably find instructions.

In many cases you will find that you can send your query via an emailed form on the site. Use this, because it is quicker and many places prefer to receive queries this way. They can be forwarded to the society officer responsible easily, and answering is also simple.

The key to writing your question is to keep it simple. It is unwise to include a lengthy account of your family history or your experiences researching. The person at the other end probably does not care that your ancestors were the first settlers in the valley.

Remember that genealogical queries consist of three elements: name, place and time period. It is amazing how often people forget the first one, referring only to 'my grandmother'.

You may well be unsure of the exact date, since you are sending a query, but give a span of years, as in, "She died between the birth of her last child in 1914 and the marriage of her eldest in 1922."

You should also give some idea of what work you have already done. If you are writing for the death date of Mary Smith around 1920 in Listowel, you do not want to have a letter back suggesting you consult the civil registration index when you have already looked there. If you have a good reason for thinking this church's records are the place, explain why.

Ask only one question at a time. This organization is not there to do your research for you. If you have a long list of questions for them, consider a research visit, or hiring a local researcher to do the work.

The whole thing should not take more than a single sheet of paper if a traditional letter, or its equivalent in email.

You could end up with something like this:

"I am hoping to find a burial record for Mary Smith. She died around 1920 (between 1914 and 1922, I think). She lived on Chestnut Street near your church. I know that two of her infant children are in your church cemetery.

"I have already tried the civil registration records, and the newspapers for that period are not available. Could you check to see if she appears in your burials?"

As for the money, the days of enclosing a dollar in the envelope are long gone-loonies don't travel in the mail the way paper did, anyway. With luck, the fee will be given on the website. At any rate, ten dollars is a minimal amount nowadays. Anything less is just postage.

With email queries, you'll have to send the money separately. If you don't know the correct address, look online at Canada411 or contact the local public library which will help you.

One thing to avoid: don't try asking your question over the phone. Organizations like these do not have the facilities for answering questions in this way. Both the church secretary and the historical society's curator have pressing things to do. Give them leisure to answer your query and you will likely get a more complete response.

Posted September 16, 2006
Column copyright © 2006 Ryan Taylor

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