Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Using Genealogy Message Boards

On Saturday, I taught a computer class to members of the Eastern Washington Genealogical Society on the topic of "Using Genealogy Message Boards." This is a part of our society's educational sessions, in which members learn about genealogy as it relates to the Internet or computers in general. Different members take turns presenting the classes. Most of us are familiar with our topics, but a few have been very brave and chose to teach a subject on which they knew little, for the purpose of educating themselves. In the educational field (my real-life career), we have a saying, that the one who learns most is the one who teaches. True, that!

The classes are presented three times each, on the third Saturday of each month, excepting December, in the Gates Computer Lab of our public library, downtown branch. Each session can seat up to 15 people at the computer stations, with room in the back for those willing to simply view the overhead on-screen presentation. The classes are normally filled to capacity (summertime attendance has been down a bit, understandably), and since this is a members-only privilege, we've had a number of people join the society in the last couple of years, expressly for the purpose of taking advantage of these classes!

In teaching this class, I have had some experience using message boards, and even am an administrator for the WESTABY, SWEERS, and TUINSTRA boards at RootsWeb/Ancestry (the sites' boards are duplicates of each other). But I realized that I, like probably many of you, do not utilize these boards to my advantage as often as I should. I was also pleasantly surprised several months ago, as I prepared my syllabus, to discover that RootsWeb/Ancestry have streamlined their message boards and made them much more navigable and user-friendly. While The Generations Network, the parent company of these two websites, also owns Genealogy.com, I found that the message boards on that site don't have quite the clean and high-tech looks as its sister sites. Nevertheless, the system works well, and is obviously well-used.

I demonstrated how to search the messages boards, reply to existing messages, start a new thread (conversation), and use the various views (thread vs. flat) of the message boards that RootsWeb/Ancestry offer. Both RootsWeb and Ancestry require that you register (for free) in order to leave responses or new threads on the boards; when you attempt to post a message, you'll be prompted to do this. If you already have an Ancestry subscription, you can use your login information instead of registering. Not renewing your Ancestry subscription will not prevent you from utilizing the boards later; you will simply need to create a free registration message board account instead.

Some of the members who attended were not quite sure what a message board was, so right from the beginning, I gave an analogy of a message board's physical counterpart: a bulletin board, on which all the messages relate to a single topic, whether it is a surname, a location, or an interest group (DNA, Civil War, adoption, etc.). Unlike a mailing list, a message board doesn't have to be limited to queries. They can be used to post transcriptions of tombstones, obituaries, Bible records, etc.

A few members also did not know what a mailing list was, so my best analogy was likened to belonging to a genealogy writing club, where a member would send out a query about an ancestor, or location, or topic of genealogical interest, and each member of that club would receive a copy of that message. Someone else brought up a blog (a new idea for many of our members) and I responded that a blog was like a newspaper...informative, but not so interactive as a mailing list or message board. Just as you can write your editor and comment on the content of your local paper, readers of blogs may comment (usually) on the content of a blog. Sometime, I'd like to expand this presentation to include mailing lists and blogs, because I can see that many of our older society members aren't as familiar with these resources as they could be.

If you would like a copy of my syllabus for "Using Genealogy Message Boards," which includes links to many popular, well-used message board sites, please e-mail me (click on "View my complete profile" in the right-hand menu).


Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

Message boards were actually one of the first resources I discovered on the web. You're right, I should use them more. I like that I may have posted something years ago but I still occasionally get responses.

Miriam Robbins said...

You've brought up a great point, Apple, one which I mention in my syllabus, but didn't in my post. Unless a message board administrator deems your message inappropriate and removes it, your message will remain on the board, indefinitely, for any future reader to discover. This is why it's important to keep your e-mail address updated on these boards.

Also, the content of message boards, unlike databases, show up in search engine results (Google, Yahoo!, AltaVista, etc.).

Barbara said...

Hi Miriam,
Glad to know that you had a nice summer.
Yes ! You are right in pointing out the use of message boards.I think that everyone should try.

In addition to queries, don't forget about e-mailing on surname message boards general announcements relating to websites,blogs, associations & the like.That's what I did for my blog (twice).

You have a nice day.

Miriam Robbins said...

That's a great idea, Barbara! Thanks!

Janice said...


What was the single most important "helpful hint" that you taught about using message boards?


Miriam Robbins said...

Well, Janice, I suppose there would be varied matters of opinion on that by the attendees. Each session brought up different questions and comments, depending on the attendees' levels of experience.

As a presenter, what was clarified for me was the difference between thread and flat views at RootsWeb & Ancestry's message boards. In my syllabus, I wrote:

"Thread view helps you determine the original message, and each response and comment – you can see the “thread” of conversation. You must click on each heading to view the text for every message and response.

"Flat view allows you to see the entire conversation (all the text) at once, but it is much harder to follow the conversation—who’s responding to whom."

(I recommended toggling between the two views to get the best of both worlds.) I believe when the message boards were streamlined, the purpose--and ease of use--of the two views became more obvious. Before all this was updated, I found the different views very confusing and complicated--not so much to use myself--but to explain to others how to use.

Thanks for your excellent question!