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One of the best ways to find information is to ask. Ask someone you met on a genealogy website if they have any information about your family; ask someone you found in the telephone book who lives in your ancestor’s hometown who has the same surname if he or she has any information about your family; ask the small public library in your ancestor’s hometown if they have any files on your ancestor including biographies; ask relatives if they remember any family stories.

One way to “ask” is to write a letter. Genealogists have been doing this for years and it is still one of the best ways to find information.

Here are a few general suggestions to get the best results from your correspondents:

  • Type your letter. No one wants to wade through pages of messy handwriting. A typewritten letter shows you have a neat and organized mind.
  • When writing to a business or an institution avoid being wordy. Clerical staff will take the easiest looking letter off the pile first. If possible, use a 14-point font. Indent and bold critical information. See sample letter to an institution.
  • Writing to relatives is a different story. A friendly letter, a bit chatty, with a personal anecdote will capture their imagination. Ask only a few questions in each letter; you can always write back, sharing your latest findings. See sample letter to an individual .
  • When writing to other genealogists, offer to share information and help research. Send family group sheets that include notes and complete source citations. Make sure copies of documents have proper citations.
  • Don't forget to include your address and the date on the letter itself. Envelopes are easily lost.
  • Flatter the reader, in a sincere way. Show you have a high regard for his or her opinion. Add a postscript asking him to recommend another person if he doesn't have the information you need.
  • Include a self-addressed stamped envelope (often referred to as an SASE) and offer to pay for copies, postage and expenses.
  • Send a thank-you note. Reply promptly.

Where to Write

  • Write to relatives. You'll find that even your siblings have different family stories than you!
  • Write to other researchers. Two minds can be better than one.
  • Try online bulletin boards and list serves. There may be one for your family or location. Start with Cyndi’s List and RootsWeb. Use your search engine to catch sites that those registries miss. Most towns and businesses have commercial sites now. Even cemeteries and churches have web sites.
  • Write to local sources:

Libraries, museums, archives

Churches, funeral homes, cemeteries


Genealogical societies, historical societies, ethnic societies

People in telephone books

Chamber of Commerce

City clerks

  • Write to government sources:

National Archives for military records, passenger lists, homesteads

Social Security

County clerks for deeds, probates, and other records

Vital records offices for births, deaths, marriages, divorces, naturalization records

Institutions for employment, business, medical, school transcripts

Help Me! Find the address of a library, society, institution, etc. where I may write for information.

Help Me! Compose a letter.

Help Me! To write a letter in Italian, Spanish, or another language.

To ask these or similar questions, click on Help Me!, fill out the form that comes up, and submit your questions.