Friday, June 02, 2006

Create a Surname List

Why would you go to the work of creating a surname list, for a rare surname? I feel that it is worth the work, especially if there are few other resources available. I've googled for some of my rare surnames, and found hardly ANYTHING. Imagine a brand-new researcher in the same position; they might just give up. Newbies don't know how important the locality is; they just know the surname, and hopefully, some dates. I started with two lists, for my mother's father and my mother's mother's surnames. Once I had my feet wet, and felt these lists were well started, I couldn't wait to start more! Now, look at all my lists: If you are there for your cousin researchers, whenever they happen along, they will be there for you, too. And they may just have the key to your locked door somewhere in their attic.

Start a Message Board as a companion for each list, as well. More people will find the boards than will ever find the lists. The boards I administer:

How do you start a list? Decide on exactly what your list will cover, and write a concise description. Look at the description of some of your favorite surname lists here: Of course, be sure that the list you want doesn't already exist! If it already exists, but seems "dead" -- no posts in the archives for months or even years, perhaps its listowner has lost interest, or even died! Write to '' (with the actual name of the list, no -L, no -D) and ask what's going on, and if you can help in any way. If that email bounces, ask the HelpDesk to find out for you whether that list should be "orphaned." Once it is orphaned, you will be able to 'adopt' it, rather than creating a new one. But you've checked, and there is no list for Schnicklefritz, so request it at You will hear back in a week or two, depending on staff workload. Once your list has been created, you will get an email from John Fuller, asking about how your list should be described. Remember that list description? Make sure his suggested text matches what you had in mind, and be sure to answer that email. He will make sure that your list is 1) announced in Rootsweb Review, 2) Listed on his website, Genealogy Resources on the Internet 3) correctly described in the List Index, and 4) announced on the New-GenList-L. Those four listings will get you your first subscribers, plus of course you will want to write to any fellow researcher-cousins you already know. Make a wonderful invitation letter, because you'll be sending it out a LOT. And make sure you keep track of whom you invite -- people do NOT list to be spammed! They may not have time right now to subscribe, but perhaps will file your invitation for action at a later time. Don't take it personally. Your list will eventually have just the right number of people subscribed.

Once the first flood (or trickle) of new subscribers has slowed down, though, what's next? How about challenging your members to post data to the Message Board? When people think hard, they realize that they have Bible records, Pensions, Wills and so forth already transcribed and in text files. When I point out that 1) posting them to the boards is a great back up and 2) will help them find cousins, they usually pitch right in and start posting. Ask them to write good clear subject lines, and index the surnames in each post. They can attach scans of the document to the MB post, so that others can help figure out bad handwriting and the like. The boards are gatewayed to the lists, so everybody gets to see the data this way, even people who have not yet subscribed to the list. Those how have access to good databases of obituaries, might search for obits and post them on the board. Again, good surname indexing is important. Often wills, pensions, old newspaper articles, county history biographies and obituaries have been put into the USGenWeb Archives. These can be posted to the boards too, with a proper link to the original file.

One of the best way to get a list going is to find some new subscribers. You can find prospective list members in the RSL (Rootsweb Surname List:, and through web searches. Finding new members was the reason I created webpages for each list -- to find the ones who are using the search engines. I use the search engines too, and when I find suitable content, I write to the webmaster to ask permission to post all or part of one of a page, and also invite them to check out the list (I include a link to the page for each list), and invite them to either subscribe or at least post on our Message Board. I usually add their site to the appropriate Resource page at Rootsweb too, if one exists for that surname.

The webpages for each list have a link to my List Rules, which are a bit long. I figure not many people read them when they are sent out in the Welcome Messages, but they can always be referred to later. I can still point to them as THE list rules.

If you have a REALLY rare surname, you may get discouraged. Sometimes you can't find any subscribers, and sometimes your list members just won't post. However, the only list that is DEAD is the list where nobody posts -- nobody at all. If the listowner or other single poster is the only one posting, it isn't dead -- it's just lonely. :-)

Never give up on your list as long as you are doing research. Every time you come across an exciting new resource on the web, tell your list about it, and maybe even list all of that surname you find there. Remember to use the Message Board The MBs are great in their own right, but are simply tremendous used in conjunction with a list, especially a rare surname list. You will have folks posting data and queries on your Message Board that will never subscribe to your list, because the information they have to offer is tangential to their main research.

If you have the MB gatewayed to your list, however, all of your subscribers get the queries and data from the board, as well as what they contribute on the list alone. You can cruise the web looking for births, marriages, burials, Bible transcriptions, wills, pensions, biographies, and so forth, and post them to the boards.

It may seem lonely, being the only person posting, but eventually, you will build up such a rich archive of material, ALL of the researchers of your surname will be drawn to your list. None of that effort is wasted. All I research is rare surnames, and I have lists and boards for most of them. I've followed my own advice, and believe me, it really does work. Almost all of my lists are GREAT, and have a solid base of researchers doing very high quality research. They are not afraid to challenge one another by posting yet another piece of data, and we are really making progress on some very obscure lines.

Never give up! Inspire yourself by finding a new database somewhere, and share your good news with your fellow researchers. Eventually you will wake them up.


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