There’s a story, no doubt apocryphal, about a man who bought a rural property in upstate New York. He soon discovered there were fireflies in the garden, which fascinated him, so he tracked down an entomologist at a nearby university who was a specialist in fireflies, and made an appointment to visit him. The scientist spent a good hour or more with the man, answering his questions. As he left, weighed down with photos and printouts, the man thanked his informant profusely for his generosity. ‘That’s okay,’ said the academic. ‘I’ve been working on fireflies for 30 years, and nobody has ever wanted to talk to me about them before.’
Maybe it’s the Internet. Maybe it’s the relative charms of insects and history, but this has not been my experience. Every few weeks or so, I get an email out of the blue from somebody I don’t know, asking for help with some historical question. Most academics get these sorts of queries, and most of us are generous with our time (if we have any), mostly because we love what we do.
With most of the emails I get, the enquirer is researching family history, like an undergraduate recently, who wanted help with an odd ancestor-by-marriage whose marriage certificate said ‘born at sea’. An English woman wanted advice on books to read to find out more about the historical background of her convict ancestor. And then there was the following email, which arrived last Tuesday:
I am trying to locate some information about convicts in Sydney before 1830. Is there anyone in your University who is expert on this subject?
Thanking you in anticipation.
John Smith [not his real name]
Who is John Smith? No idea – and the email address gives no hint, except that it’s a yahoo address in the UK.
I’ve received many emails like this over the years, and the rule of thumb is: the shorter they are, the longer they take to deal with. First, there is the irritating decision as to whether to bother answering something so peremptory in the first place – but emails can give the wrong impression, and sometimes there is a perfectly pleasant person hiding behind the brusqueness, who genuinely wants help, but doesn’t know how to go about asking for it.
So here are my rules of engagement. I’d be very interested to get other people’s thoughts on asking for information, both givers and receivers (and most of us are both at different times) and I’ll add whatever other suggestions come in, for a general page. For convenience, the rest of this post is addressed to a putative John Smith.
1. Who are you? It’s a basic courtesy to introduce yourself to someone you are approaching for the first time, but it’s also a matter of self-interest, because I’m much more likely to respond to your request if I know who you are. I’m trying to get a handle on you, so that I know how to pitch my reply, and I need to know where you’re coming from.
2. Where are you? There’s no point in my suggesting you visit the NSW Archives if it turns out you live in Massachusetts or Manchester.
3. Do you have a link to an institution like a university? This isn’t (just) academic snobbery; if you are attached to a university, I can recommend various databases that you can access with your student username and password.
[It’s a sad fact that while academics may give advice freely, a lot of information these days is only available by subscription, either individually or by institution.)
4. What is your research for? Is this for a school project, a family history, or a PhD? Do you want background information about convicts, or a way of tracing the name of one particular convict? These are all different sorts of research, and I’ll answer them in different ways.
5. How much research have you done already? Where does this question fit within your broader research work? There are basic sources I would suggest to anyone starting out in 19th century Australian history (e.g. the National Library of Australia’s site, Trove), but I’d be wasting my time suggesting basic sources to someone who has already trawled the obvious ones.
6. Call me Marion by all means, but. My American students used to call me ‘Professor’ or ‘Ma’am’, which made me feel old, but Australians are much more informal. If you want to be treated seriously, though, a more formal approach is only sensible. That means you introduce yourself, and you explain how you tracked me down – From my blog? The University of Queensland website? My one 30-second-starring role on Who Do You Think You Are, 6 years ago? This is because it fills out my sense of who you are, and what you want. (It’s also a good way of filtering out high school students who have sent identical emails to every academic in the discipline, in the hope that one of them will write their history assignment for them.)
7. Which brings me to the final point. I’m very happy to point you in the right direction – but I’m not going to do your work for you. To be fair, you haven’t asked me to, and most people don’t. They thoroughly enjoy doing the research themselves, and just want a nudge in the right direction. But if you don’t want to do the research yourself, there are people who make a living doing research for others. Some of them have been my students, and I’m not about to take away their livelihood. The Professional Historians Association (Queensland) keeps a register.
Sorry to be so grumpy, John Smith. And yes, I’m probably the person at UQ who knows most about convicts in Sydney before 1830. So what exactly do you want to know about them?