A guide to asking for help by email

archaeological dig in forum, Rome, 2008

Tourist Information 5 Euro! Knowledge is expensive.
My photo of an archaeological dig in the Forum, Rome, 2008

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 happy to help because we love what we do.  (Though some have more time than others)

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:

Dear Marion
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.  It would be easy to ignore a peremptory request like this – but emails often 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.  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.  For the same reason, it may be worth letting me know if you subscribe to Ancestry in any of its various forms)

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. 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, John Smith, 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 of people in my neck of the woods, and there are similar registers elsewhere.

8. Finally, feedback is helpful.  It’s nice to be thanked, but also useful to hear whether my advice was useful.  I sent the student who wanted help with his ‘born at sea’ ancestor to the US Consular Records.  He later told me he found these interesting, but they didn’t start until a few years after the dates he needed, so I’ll know not to direct the next person there.  And it’s great to get news of how the research progresses; let me know if it ends in a publication, and if appropriate, I’ll suggest we buy it for the Fryer Library.

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.

6 responses to “A guide to asking for help by email

  1. Dr Peter Williams

    Dear Marion

    I write to ask if you are interested in helping me. I am writing an article for a Japanese newspaper about Australia’s problem with Japanese whaling. I see from your blog that you have a view on the matter and I would like to send you a draft of the article for you to respond to. I also see that you want a few points addressed before you engage.
    My name is Peter Williams and I am a historian living in Canberra. I am no longer linked to an institution, on the contrary I am trying to keep away from them, though I do a little marking for the Australian Command and Staff College and I try to stay friendly with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in the hope I will get some part time work.
    Regarding research, I have just begun. I do not know much about whaling-except that my home town Hobart was once a major port for it and, when I was a child there, whaling was not considered a disgraceful occupation. I have also lived in Japan and am well disposed towards them.

    If there is anything else you wish to know then fire away.

    Yours sincerely

  2. Sharon Frayne

    Hello Marion, Having posted off an email looking for assistance, before reading this post on ‘getting help’, I am shamefaced, and re-posting.

    My name is Sharon Frayne, and I am a retired elementary school administrator with a great deal of interest in history (particularly women’s history) and creative writing. I am recently moved to the historic Canadian town of Niagara on the Lake, and have discovered that I am living very close to the site of Our Western Home – the Maria Rye distributing home. It is remarkable how little is know about this site – there are no historic plaques and very little information in our library or local museum. As I walk through the park where the home once stood, I often reflect on what life was like for the poor children and young girls who lived there. I wonder how they were treated and where they were placed? How many of these girls were able to make a success of their lives -despite what had happened to them?

    Whilst doing a ‘google search’, I discovered your book and have enjoyed reading through it. It astounds me that so little is known in Niagara about this topic.

    I would love to write the story of a young girl who lived here – and hope to raise awareness of the impact of the British Home Children in Canada. I would be very grateful for any advice you could offer.

    A sincere thanks and best wishes,
    Sharon Frayne

  3. Ehren Anderson

    My name is Ehren and my brothers mother was going through her granfathers things and came across an item that had his initials on it. Had to be between 1900 and 1928. Looks like a chain with twoclips on the end only they dont really look like clips. I have looked extensively online for mens accesories.
    I tried to copy the image here and i dont think i can. If you could help i would appreciate it. No worries if you cannot.
    Thank you for your time.

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