When one thinks of useful tools for genealogy research, social media might not be the first thing that springs to mind. But social media in general, and Facebook in particular, can be a powerful addition to one’s genealogy “toolbox.” In this article, I’d like to explain how Facebook genealogy groups can be used effectively in genealogy research, as well as some “do’s and don’t’s” for participating in these groups.
Why Use Facebook for Genealogy?
If you’re not on Facebook, you might not realize that there are over 9,000 genealogy-related groups and pages on Facebook. And that only counts the ones where the primary language of communication is English! Genealogist Katherine R. Willson has done for Facebook what Cyndi Ingle (creator of the popular “Cyndi’s List“) has done for genealogy websites, by compiling and indexing a list of all the genealogy groups and pages on Facebook, and making it available in a searchable PDF form on her website. In addition to groups which focus on research in all fifty states, there are county and regional groups, groups, groups focusing on research in a specific country, and groups which focus on subjects like DNA, adoption, reuniting family Bibles with their families, strategies for getting organized, military history, lineage societies, and everything in between. If you can think of a special interest that falls under the larger umbrella of genealogy research, chances are good that someone has started a group or page for it on Facebook. Looking for an easy way to share your own research progress and family photos with interested members of your extended family? You can create your own Facebook group and invite them to join!
At this point, you may be wondering about the difference between a group and a page. Per Facebook’s explanation, pages are typically created and managed by an official representative of an organization. So if you’d like to keep up-to-date with the latest news, events and tips shared by the Polish Genealogical Society of Massachusetts, for example, you can “like” their Facebook page and their posts will appear in your newsfeed. Typically there’s not as much discussion on a page as there is in a group, which is a place where people can discuss a common interest, share photos, etc. Groups don’t usually represent an organization that exists outside of Facebook, and therefore they have no official representatives.
To give you an example of the power of these groups, last October, I posted in the German Genealogy group. I had decided to dust off my research on some of my German lines, so I posted a question about whether the church in Roding, Bavaria would have records for the village of Obertrübenbach, since I had discovered that there was also a church in Obertrübenbach itself. One of the group members, Klemens (Mente) Pongratz, commented on my thread. Mente is a local historian and part-time archivist for his hometown in Germany, and many years ago he had created an index for vital records in the parish of Roding. He happened to have this index on his home computer, and in a matter of minutes, he found the baptismal record for my great-great-grandfather as well as additional records for this family back to 1717, and was able to provide the specific record number and fiche numbers necessary for obtaining scans from the German archives! What a pleasure to find someone else researching in the same area, who really knows the local history, the archives, the language and the culture, and is so willing to share his expertise! This is exactly the kind of connection which Facebook groups facilitate, and the kind of magic which I find so satisfying to help create in the Polish Genealogy group.
Polish Genealogy on Facebook
I can’t write an article about using Facebook for genealogy without putting in a plug for the Polish Genealogy group, for which I’m an administrator. Polish Genealogy was founded in 2008 by Michael Mulholland, a librarian and avid genealogist from Arlington Heights, Illinois. In 2013, recognizing that the group was approaching 1,000 members and was getting to be too much for one person to manage, he added me and some others as additional admins. Michael is largely emeritus now and not actively involved in the day-to-day maintenance of the group, but the community he envisioned lives on. We now have close to 9,000 members from around the world, united in our common pursuit of our Polish roots, and active admins include Valerie Warunek, Beth Whitson, Waldemar Chorążewicz and Johanna Maciejczyk-Leck.
Group members in Polish Genealogy range from beginners to professionals, and offer free assistance with research direction, deciphering handwriting or translating records (English, Polish, Latin, Russian, German, Ukrainian, etc.), and locating vital records online or offline, as well as offering camaraderie. Facebook groups are a little like a genealogy conference or genealogical society meeting that’s taking place 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, where you can celebrate successes, brainstorm, learn new strategies, and vent about frustrations, brick walls, and DNA matches that never reply to your messages. A dedicated, core group of volunteers is typically on hand to offer assistance, as their personal schedules allow, but everyone is welcome to contribute to the discussion.
It’s not uncommon for a new member to post in the group with just a document or two, and maybe a vague recollection that, “Grandma’s family was supposed to be from somewhere near Warsaw,” and have the group work the problem collaboratively, so that by the end of the discussion, in real time, Grandma’s birth record from Poland has ultimately been produced. I can’t promise results like this, of course — some problems are more challenging than others. But at the very least, we can usually suggest next steps to take so that the group member can continue his or her research.
How do I join?
It’s pretty easy. If you’re not on Facebook, create an account at Facebook.com. Once you’re logged in, you can find groups by typing keywords in the search box at the top of the page, shown here:
If you type in “Polish Genealogy,” for example, it will take you to group’s page, where you’ll see a button that says, “Join Group.” Once you do that, one of the admins will have to approve your request to join. Polish Genealogy is considered a “Closed Group” on Facebook. Contrary to what one might think, that does NOT mean that we don’t accept new members. What it means is that posts and comments made in the group won’t show up in the newsfeed of group members’ Facebook friends who aren’t in the group, as can happen if a group is public. Here is more information about privacy levels in Facebook groups.
With 1.65 billion active monthly users, Facebook users represent a cross-section of humanity, and not everyone in that community is going to be benevolent. In our efforts to screen out the bad guys (fake profiles, spammers) we admins carefully review the profiles of new applicants to the group, looking for indications of an interest in genealogy. Sometimes profiles are set up to be very private, and they don’t give us much to go on. In those cases, I will often write a brief note to applicants individually to inquire further about their research interests. So if you apply to join the group, and it’s been a few days and you still haven’t heard anything, please check your Facebook messages.
Messages? What messages?
Every Facebook user has three message boxes, all of which can be accessed by clicking on the little speech bubbles icon, shown here:
Once you click that, you’ll see two of your message boxes:
The “Recent” box is where messages end up from people who are already your friends on Facebook. The “Message Requests” box is (ideally) where you can find messages from people who aren’t already your friends on Facebook. You have the option to read those messages, and then accept them or delete them. However, within “Message Requests” there’s another box that even many Facebook-savvy people don’t think about, which is the “filtered requests” inbox. This is where messages are sent when Facebook algorithms determine that they’re likely to be spam. Unfortunately, that’s often not the case, and it seems as though every time I think to check it, there’s at least one legitimate message in there.
With so many groups to choose from, how do I decide?
Facebook groups can be a fantastic asset to your research, but it’s impossible for anyone to keep up with a hundred different groups. So you might want to pick a few to start with and focus only on those. When choosing which Facebook groups might be most beneficial to your research, be sure to check out the group’s description, shown here, prior to clicking “Join Group.”
Sometimes these descriptions contain special instructions, such as a request to message one of the group admins when you submit your request to join, if your profile has high privacy settings. Following these instructions will expedite your admission to the group and make the admins’ lives easier. Trust me on this one, admins spend a lot of time vetting new members and screening out spammers, and I’m thrilled when applicants actually follow those instructions and contact me first, so I don’t have to write to each and every person with a private profile who would like to join one of my groups.
So maybe now you’ve selected a few Facebook genealogy groups and have joined them. What should you do to derive maximum benefit from them?
The “Do’s” and “Don’t’s” of Facebook groups
1. Do read the pinned post.
The pinned post is found at the top of the group’s page, just under the cover photo, and contains the rules for that particular group. Most admins have the goal of maintaining a respectful, friendly environment, and keeping posts on topic, but some are more specific than others about how this is to be achieved. In the Polish Genealogy group, for example, our focus is genealogy, so questions about Polish culture are more appropriate for our sister group, Polish Culture, Food and Traditions. Similarly, discussions of Polish genetic genealogy are tolerated, but they’re more appropriate for the Polish Autosomal DNA group, or one of the other genetic genealogy groups.
2. Do check out the group’s files
Files can be found here:
The files contain lists of valuable websites for Polish research, tutorials on how to use those websites, lists of professional researchers in Poland, online translation aids, the group’s alphabetized surname registry documents (where members can list their surnames of interest and the geographic areas associated with those names), and more.
3. Do search the group’s history
You might find that your question has already been discussed previously, or you might find others who are working in the same parishes or on the same families. I can think of several occasions when group members have discovered that they’re related to one another, and it could happen to you!
4. Do be sure to get your data organized before you post, and give us specifics.
Example of a good post: “My great-grandfather was Joseph Zielinski, born abt. 1892 in Poland. His passenger manifest says he was born in Miszczewice but other records say Warsaw or Sochaczew. He immigrated to North Tonawanda, New York and his marriage record gives parents’ names as Stanley Zielinski and Mary Kalota. I’m trying to find his birth record and any other records for the family in Poland.”
Example of a poor post: “My great-grandfather was John Kowalski. Has anybody heard of him?”
5. Don’t expect others to do your research for you.
Although group members will often bend over backwards to help people, we are all volunteers. Everyone has jobs, families, lives outside of Facebook, and his or her own research to attend to. It’s possible that someone might find you several records for your family in Poland, but it’s also possible that he will give you a link to the appropriate vital records collection online and you’ll have to do the research yourself. Many group members have learned to translate documents in Latin, Polish, German and Russian, at least well enough to pick out the names of their ancestors. If you get stuck, you can always post again and ask for further assistance. But mostly the group is about giving people fishing poles and teaching them to fish, rather than handing them their fish on a silver platter. Attitudes of entitlement don’t engender much sympathy.
6. Don’t be thin-skinned.
Online interactions are always fraught with a bit of peril, because they lack the tone of voice and body language that allow us to distinguish between gentle, good-natured teasing and frank hostility. I always try to read people’s comments in the best possible light, and recognize that in Facebook groups, as in life, there are some people I’d enjoy having a cup of coffee with, and others I’d prefer to avoid. If someone rubs you the wrong way, let it go and move on. Also, be aware that some of our group members don’t really speak English — they use Google Translate for all their comments. Because of that, they try to keep their comments brief and to-the-point, which can sometimes sound harsh. Be as patient with them as you’d like them to be with you in a foreign-language group.
7. Do get to know the group’s “regulars.”
If you lurk in the group for a while, even when you don’t have a specific question to post, you’ll get a sense about which members are most knowledgeable and offer sound, reliable advice most consistently. Occasionally it happens that a relative newbie will offer advice or make a statement that maybe isn’t sound, well thought-out, or factual. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but not all opinions are equally well-informed. You are the ultimate authority on your own family history, so you should take whatever advice you receive and evaluate it critically to see if it makes sense.
8. Do remember to thank those who helped you.
It sounds like a simple thing, but we’ve all had it happen that we share our time and expertise with someone who never even bothers to say “thank you.” This is especially irksome when a volunteer has gone so far as to provide scans of records, or translations. Be gracious and grateful, and you’ll find that people will be more willing to help you again in the future.
Facebook groups really offer something for everyone. You might break down a brick wall or two, or even meet some cousins. No matter what your level of proficiency, you’re sure to learn something new, and maybe even make some new friends. In particular, I welcome you to check out Polish Genealogy, Genealogy Translations, and the Polish Culture, Food and Traditions group, which are three of the groups I admin. And if you’ve got a success story about how Facebook genealogy groups have helped you, I hope you’ll share it in the comments. Happy researching!
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2016