Crowdsourcing: A Form of Collaboration that Helps Genealogists Break Down Brick Walls

Drew Smith

For years now the genealogy community has witnessed a shift from isolated research to online collaboration. Answers that took months by postal mail may now be found within minutes. As the community has been encouraged to reduce the duplication of effort, collaboration has been a key to success.Methods of collaboration may vary depending upon the circumstances. Historically, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encouraged its members to submit documented three- or four-generation charts to create a central resource for those seeking their family history. Through the distribution of microfilm to its family history centers throughout the world, researchers could find others who were working on the same lineage and potentially find a cousin or two. It was an early form of collaboration called crowdsourcing. Almost fifty years later, though the advances in technology and an increased interest of many people in coming to know their heritage, crowdsourcing through online mailing lists, message boards, and groups/communities had become an effective way to find an answer to a genealogical brick wall.

Crowdsourcing Your Brick Walls was the topic of Drew Smith’s presentation at RootsTech 2014, and his message was clear: using crowdsourcing to solve a genealogical problem is like putting a message in a bottle and sending it out to sea. One never knows when the right person will come along and assist in breaking down that genealogical brick wall.Smith first identified where genealogists gather online. He provided definitions of the three most common forms of crowdsourcing for genealogy:

  • Mailing lists: An electronic mailing list is a tool that allows you to send an email message to a single email address and have that message automatically forwarded to a large list of email addresses.
  • Message boards: An electronic message board (also called a "bulletin board") is a tool that allows you to post an electronic message at a particular online location where that message can be read by others.
  • Groups/Communities: A group or community is a specific area on a social networking site that allows you to post an electronic message where that message can be read by others.

One resource FamilySearch International offers is research communities on Facebook for every state in the United States and countries throughout the world. A list can be found on the research wiki. Other mailing lists, message boards, and groups/communities can be found using the search engine of your choice. One of the points made is that queries posted and the discussions that followed in the 1980s may still be available online. A researcher today may not be the first to stumble into a specific brick wall and the answer may be waiting to be found again.

According to Smith, online forums are organized by surname, geographic area, ethnic and religious groups. Geography, ethnicity, and/or religion may be combined in the query. Surnames may include many variations. He showed an example from his own research, the Boddies. Although admittedly an old joke, he says that he knows “where the Boddies are buried.”

When constructing a post for an online forum, whether it be a mailing list, message board, or group/community, Smith recommends the following:

  • Query must be relevant to the forum
  • Subject line should include who, when, and where
  • Surnames should be written in ALL CAPS
  • Be concise
  • Omit words like “help,” “looking for,” “researching,” “do you know” in the subject line
  • Be as specific as possible in the body of the post
  • Indicate what is already known (don’t waste another researcher’s time)
  • Indicate where you have already searched
  • Avoid or eliminate signatures; groups do not need a signature, while mailing lists and message boards may contain a name and email address
  • Do not list every surname you are researching as it interferes with the search results for other researchers

Once your brick wall is solved:

  • Let the group know that the problem has been solved
  • As part of the notice, thank the individual(s) who helped solve it
  • Send any additional thank you privately.

Crowdsourcing through mailing lists, message boards, and online groups/communities can be an excellent way to solve brick wall challenges. Crowdsourcing in its many forms continues to be the heart of the genealogical community.

Lynn Broderick ( is a writer by birth, a teacher by profession, and a researcher by passion. She enjoys researching individuals of the past in the context of family, community, and social history. Known as the Single Leaf, she combined her childhood memories of football and genealogy to create genealogy football and works with her team to win their family history bowl each year. She loves to coach people on how to enjoy pursuing their family history and has done so for over 25 years.

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