The Genealogist’s Internet

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18. Discussion Forums

Mailing lists

Web forums

Social networking


Starting your own discussion group

Which discussion group?

One of the most useful aspects of the internet for anyone researching their family history is that it is very easy to ‘meet’ other genealogists online to discuss matters of common interest, to exchange information, and to find help and advice. The specific issues of locating other people with interests in the same surnames and families are dealt with in Chapter 14. This chapter looks at the two main types of online discussion group — mailing lists and web-based forums — and at the use of social networking services such as Facebook for genealogy.

Mailing lists

In 2020 all Rootsweb mailing lists closed down, though the message archives are normally still accessible.

Electronic mailing lists provide a way for groups of people to conduct online discussions via email. They are simply a logical extension of your electronic address book — instead of each member of a group having to keep track of the email addresses of everyone else, this list of email addresses is managed by a computer called a ‘list server’. This arrangement allows people to add themselves to the list, or remove themselves from it, without having to contact all the other members.

You join a list by sending an email message to the list server. Thereafter you receive a copy of every message sent to the list by other list members; likewise, any message you send to the list gets circulated to all the other subscribers.

Finding lists

The first genealogical mailing list, ROOTS-L, goes back to a period long before the internet was available to the general public — its first message was posted in December 1987. There must now be well over 50,000 English-language mailing lists devoted to genealogy.

Every mailing list is hosted on a specific server, which is responsible for dealing with all the messages, and a large proportion of the genealogy lists (over 32,000) are hosted by RootsWeb, whose main mailing lists page will be found at <>. The ‘browse mailing lists’ link on this page takes you to a list of subject categories, which is useful for finding lists devoted to a particular topic. General lists for the UK (which includes those for occupations, for example) are linked from <>, while the linked individual pages for England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales cover lists for regional and local interests. There is no master listing of all RootsWeb lists, so it can be hard to find those which do not fall into obvious categories. The keyword search on the home page will help, though it only searches for the exact words in the names and descriptions of lists, with the result that, for example, searches on ‘navy’ and ‘navies’ produce quite different results. However, if you know the name of the list, this limitation is not a problem.

A general mailing list site that hosts around 15,000 genealogy lists is Yahoo Groups at <>. Most of the genealogy groups hosted here are listed under the Family & Home category on the home page, though there are many others for particular countries and areas, which can be found by using the search facility.

In spite of the large number of lists, it is a simple matter to find those which might be of interest to you, as there are two sites which compile this information. The more definitive is the late John Fuller’s Genealogy Resources on the Internet site at <>, now maintained by Linda Lambert and Megan Zurawicz. This has a comprehensive listing of genealogy mailing lists, subdivided into the following categories:

The ‘uncategorized’ lists include a number devoted to topics of general interest, such as the GEN-MEDIEVAL and SHIPWRECK lists.

However, more useful for those with UK interests is Genuki’s Mailing Lists page at <>. This has the advantage of listing only those relevant to British and Irish genealogy. It also includes lists which, although of interest to UK genealogists, are not categorized under the UK by John Fuller or RootsWeb, notably war-related lists such as AMERICAN-REVOLUTION, BOER-WAR or WARBRIDES. The organization of the Genuki listing makes it easier to find lists of interest: at the top of the page are those devoted to general topics, but the main body of the page gives all the lists for each county in the British Isles. Another advantage over John Fuller’s pages, which give only subscription information, is that the Genuki listing has links to the web page for each list, so you can easily find further information or access the list archives if they are publicly accessible.

In general, the most useful mailing lists are probably those for individual counties. RootsWeb has lists for every county in the British Isles and these are good places to find discussion of or ask questions about the areas where your ancestors lived and about local records.

As well as the lists for each county as a whole, there are many devoted to areas within a county, and to particular towns and villages. Staffordshire, for example, is covered not only by a general list, STAFFORDSHIRE, but also by lists for local areas such as the Black Country and the Potteries, as well as a number of individual towns such as Walsall and Sedgley. Staffordshire interests are also covered by the broader MIDMARCH and SHROPSHIRE-PLUS lists.

RootsWeb has at least one list for over 150 other countries, with messages generally in English, which makes these potentially good starting points if you need help researching an overseas ancestor. However, there is wide variation in the level of activity on these lists, and often the lists for individual regions within a country look more useful than the general country-wide lists.

Alongside such geographically based lists, there are general lists covering particular topics in relation either to the entirety of the British Isles, or to some constituent of it. Examples of these are lists like AUS-CONVICTS, BRITREGIMENTS, RAILWAY-UK and UK-1901-CENSUS. Other lists are mentioned in Chapters 8, 9, 10, 14 and 15.

There are also many mailing lists for individual surnames. These are discussed in detail on p. 229.

Of course Genuki and Genealogy Resources on the Internet only have details of lists aimed at the genealogist, and there may be useful contacts in lists for related topics, such as local history. If you want to find mailing lists on other topics, there is unfortunately no definitive catalogue — in fact such a thing would be impossible to compile and maintain. However, since most mailing lists have either a website of their own or at least a listing somewhere on the web, a search engine can be used to locate them.


Figure 18-1: The home page for a typical RootsWeb list

List archives

Many genealogy mailing lists, including almost all those hosted by RootsWeb, have an archive of past messages. The RootsWeb list archives can be found at <>. There are also links to the archives for each list from its home page (see Figure 18-1). Not all list archives are open to non-members of the relevant list, but where a RootsWeb list has open membership it is not very common to find that the archive is closed. On Yahoo Groups the home page for each list has a link to ‘Messages’, which contains all past messages in reverse order of date. For many Yahoo groups, however, you do have to join a list to see its messages.

List archives have several uses. First, they allow you to get an idea of the discussion topics that come up on the list and judge whether it would be worth your while joining. Also, an archive will give you some idea of the level of traffic on the list, i.e. how many messages a day are posted — there is seldom any point in joining a list that has only half a dozen messages a year. Finally, the archives provide a basis for searching, whether by the list server’s own search facility, or by a general search engine such as those discussed in Chapter 19. This means that you can take advantage of information posted to a mailing list without even joining it, though of course you will need to join to post your own messages.

Joining a list

In order to join a list you need to send an email message to the list server, the computer that manages the list, instructing it to add you to the list of subscribers. Genealogy Resources on the Internet provides subscription instructions for every list, and the web page for any list will obviously do likewise. On Rootsweb, clicking on the ‘subscribe to…’ link (see Figure 18-1) will automatically start an email message ready for you to send. (Incidentally, do not be worried by the word ‘subscribe’. It does not mean you are committing yourself to paying for anything, it just means that your name is being added to the list of members.)

One thing to note is that a list will normally have three distinct email addresses for different purposes. There is one address for sending requests to subscribe or unsubscribe — that’s all it is used for, and in fact such messages are dealt with automatically by the mailing list system. Then there is the address of the list itself — this is the address to which you send messages to go out to all the other members. Finally, there is an address for the list administrator(s) — messages sent to this address are dealt with personally by whoever is in charge of the list. Normally, this should only be necessary if there is some problem: perhaps messages from the list have stopped being delivered, or another list member is sending abusive messages.

If you have more than one email address you need to make sure that you send your joining message from the one you want to use to send and receive messages. Mailing lists will reject an email message from an address it does not have in its subscriber list. If you want to be able to use more than one email address to post messages to a list, you will need to ask the list administrator to add further addresses for you.

There are some circumstances in which you will not be able to join a list just by sending a message or clicking on a link: some lists are ‘closed’, i.e. they are not open to all comers. This is typically the case for mailing lists run by societies for their own members. In this case, instead of sending an email to the list server you will probably need to contact the person who manages the list, providing your society membership number, so that he or she can check that you are entitled to join the list and then add you.


Many mailing lists have two ways in which you can receive messages. The standard way is what is called ‘mail mode’, where every individual message to the list is forwarded to you as soon as it is received. However, some older email systems were not able to cope with the potentially very large number of incoming messages, so lists also offered a ‘digest mode’. In this, a bunch of messages to the list are combined into a single larger message, so reducing the number of messages arriving in the subscriber’s mailbox. Even though few of us nowadays are likely to be affected by this sort of technical limitation, some people do not like to receive the dozens of mail messages per day that can come from a busy list, and prefer to receive the messages as a digest.

However, there are also disadvantages to this. For a start, you will need to look through each digest to see the subjects of the messages it contains, whereas individual messages with subject lines of no interest to you can quickly be deleted unread. Also, if you want to reply to a message contained within a digest your email software will automatically include the subject line of the digest, not just the subject of the individual message within the digest you are replying to. The result is that other list members will not be able to tell from this subject line which earlier message you are responding to. If your email software automatically quotes the original message in reply, then you will need to delete almost all of the quoted digest if you are not to irritate other list members with an unnecessarily long message, most of which will be irrelevant (see Netiquette, p. 327). Unless you have only a slow internet connection and your email software does not offer a filtering facility (see below), there is no good reason to subscribe in digest mode. If you do decide it is more suitable for your way of working, the home page of the list should tell you how to switch to that option.

Text formatting

Email software generally allows you to send messages in a number of different formats, and normally you do not need to worry about exactly how your mail software is formatting them. When you start sending messages to mailing lists, however, you may find that this is an issue you need to consider. The reason for this is that some mailing lists will not accept certain types of formatting, and even if they do, some recipients of your formatted messages may have difficulties.

The standard format for an email message is plain text. This can be handled by any list server and any email software. However, most modern email software will let you send formatted text with particular fonts and font sizes, colour, italics and so on, i.e. something much more like what you produce with your word processor, and some software even uses this as the default. The way it does this is, typically, to include an email attachment containing the message in RTF format (created and used by word processors) or HTML format (used for web pages).

You may feel that this is exactly how you want your email messages to look. But if someone is using email software that can’t make sense of this format they may have trouble with your message. Different lists and list systems deal with this problem in a variety of ways. Yahoo Groups allows you to choose whether you receive messages from the list as HMTL or as plain text. RootsWeb does not permit the use of HTML or RTF formatting at all, and will not allow messages with formatted text to get through.

If you need to find out how to turn off the formatting features of your email software, RootsWeb has a useful page on ‘Sending Messages in Plain Text’ at <>. The page shows you how to do this for over 20 of the widely used email packages. The page does not seem to be very up-to-date, so the email software you use may not be included or the instructions may be for an older version, but even so it should give you an idea of what to look for in your own email software. The online help for your email software should also tell you how to do this.

The only formatting feature that can be really useful in an email message is the ability to highlight words to be stressed, and the traditional way of doing this in a plain text message is to put *asterisks* round the relevant word. One thing not to do, in genealogy mailing lists anyway, is put words in upper case — this is traditionally reserved for indicating surnames.


If you do not want to subscribe to mailing lists in digest mode, you can still avoid cluttering up your inbox with incoming messages from mailing lists. Most email software has a facility for filtering messages, i.e. for moving them automatically from your incoming mailbox to another mailbox when it spots certain pieces of text in the header of the message. You will need to consult the online help for your email software in order to see exactly how to do it, but Figure 18-2 shows a ‘rule’ in Microsoft Outlook which will filter all mail received from the GENBRIT mailing list into a dedicated mailbox called genbrit. This does not reduce the number of messages you receive, but it keeps your list mail separate from your personal mail and you can look at it when it suits you. Since GENBRIT can give rise to as many as 30 messages a day, this is the only practicable way to deal with the volume.

If your ISP allows you multiple email addresses (or if you have registered your own internet domain and use this for your email), it can be worth setting aside an address which you just use for list mail.


Figure 18-2: This Microsoft Outlook filter will transfer any incoming mail from ‘’ to a dedicated mail folder

News feeds

For RootsWeb mailing lists, another method of automating the receipt and sorting of messages is to use the ‘news feed’ facility. News feeds and how to use them are described in more detail on p. 385, but essentially, if you subscribe to the news feed for a mailing list, details of newly posted messages will automatically appear in an appropriate folder in your email program or be accessible via a bookmark in your browser, depending on the method you have chosen.

To start receiving a mailing list news feed, go to the web page for any RootsWeb mailing list and follow the link to the ‘Browse the archives’ page. At the foot of the Archives page you will find an orange RSS button — clicking on this will allow you to add the feed to your email program or browser, as you prefer.

However, there is one important limitation: since you are not actually subscribing to the list, you won’t be able to send messages to it, you will just be ‘lurking’, i.e. reading the messages but not taking part in the discussions.

Other uses of mailing lists

Although, in general, mailing lists allow all members to send messages, and messages are forwarded to all members, there are two types of list that work differently.

Some lists are not used for discussion at all, but only for announcements. Typically, this sort of list is used by an organization to publish an email newsletter. It differs from a normal list in that you will not be able to send messages, only receive the announcements. The electronic newsletters mentioned in Chapter 21 (p. 382) are in fact mailing lists of this type, and from the receiver’s point of view these are indistinguishable from news feeds.


Before the internet was dominated by the World Wide Web, the other main type of discussion technology was the newsgroup, which required special software, a ‘newsreader’. But nowadays, apart from a few internet old-timers, almost no-one uses newsgroups. Certainly, for genealogists, there is no need to: for each one of the 20 genealogy newsgroups, RootsWeb provides a parallel mailing list, which carries all the same messages. Indeed the GENBRIT mailing list, mentioned above, actually started life as the newsgroup soc.genealogy.britain.

Web forums

The other main type of discussion group is the web-based forum. There is no single term for these but they are often called ‘message boards’ or ‘bulletin boards’ — a website acts as a place where people can post messages for others to read. While using a web-based system is in some ways easier than using mailing lists, these forums have a significant disadvantage: as there is no way to select a whole group of messages for reading, you have to look separately at every single message of interest, each of which is delivered to you as a separate web page. If you want to read every message in a forum, this will be very tedious.

Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive list of such discussion forums, but there are popular sites like Yahoo Groups (see p. 317) or Google Groups at <>, which provide such facilities for all comers. In fact the distinction between mailing lists and web-based discussion is not absolutely clear-cut. Yahoo Groups, for example, allows you either to read messages on the web or to receive them by email.

The main UK site for genealogy discussion forums is British-Genealogy at <>. This has a forum devoted to each county, and in some cases there are forums for individual places within the county. There are also topic-based forums, covering subjects such as the census, emigration, and a number of occupations, though quite a few of these do not seem to be very active. The site also provides a news feed (see above, and p. 385) for each forum.

Another site for UK and Irish interests is RootsChat at <>. This has discussion forums for all parts of the British Isles, including every individual county. Within the counties, there are separate forums for lookup offers and requests, and details of online resources. There are also forums for the English-speaking former colonies, and a few general topics such as the armed forces and photo restoration.


Figure 18-3: The Working Life forum on TalkingScot

TalkingScot provides forums for those with Scottish ancestry at <>. It has separate discussion groups for the various types of genealogical record as well as individual groups for Scottish emigration to particular countries or regions. Unlike most other genealogy forum services, it does not have boards for individual counties or regions. Figure 18-3 shows some of the messages in the Working Life forum.

One of the major sites providing discussion forum facilities for genealogy is’s GenForum at <>. There are forums for over 100 countries, including all parts of the British Isles. On the page for each country there is also a link to ‘Regions for this Country’ which leads to forums for individual counties or major towns, though not every county has its own forum. There is a forum for each US state, and around 80 devoted to general topics (e.g. emigration, Jewish genealogy, marriage records), including 20 or so devoted to computers and genealogy software. There are thousands of forums relating to individual surnames.

Ancestry/RootsWeb also offers message boards at <> and <>, covering over 160,000 topics and surnames. There are boards for all parts of the UK and Ireland, with at least one for every pre-1974 county. There are also boards for most other countries, many of the individual counties in each US state and a wide range of general topics.

You can browse or search the many boards dedicated to individual surnames from the ‘Find a Board’ option on the main page, and the ‘Search the Boards’ option at the top of the page will help you find messages on particular topics.

Forums on other providers can be found by using a search engine, and a link to any forum relating specifically to UK genealogy should be found on the relevant county page on Genuki.

Social networking

Although mailing lists and web-based discussion forums are older examples of what is now called ‘social networking’, based around messages, the term itself is nowadays used primarily for online services which offer more complex types of interaction, but which also allow the sharing of messages.

By far the best-known social networking service is Facebook at <>, which claims a sizeable proportion of the world’s population as members. MySpace at <> is a similar service, though its membership has been declining and at the time of writing is less than 10 per cent of Facebook’s.


Figure 18-4: Irish Genealogy groups on Facebook

Facebook’s Groups feature allows you to set up a page for messages relating to a particular topic. There is no central listing of groups on the site, and no way of telling accurately how many of these are devoted to family history. The only way to find whether there is a group for a particular topic is to use the search box at the top of the Facebook page. Probably the most useful search terms are [genealogy] or [family history] along with the name of a region or county, which in most cases should turn up at least one group. There seem to be quite a few groups for individual families or surnames, too, so you might be lucky and find one for a surname of interest to you. It’s a good idea to include the word [group] in your search terms, otherwise your search will find all sorts of Facebook pages which are not groups. For example, many family history companies and organizations (see Chapter 21) have information pages on Facebook which are not meant for discussions. Likewise, if you search on a surname alone, you will turn up thousands of non-group pages for individuals with that surname (though, of course, for a one-name study that might itself be quite useful).

Figure 18-4 shows the initial results of a search on Facebook for [genealogy Ireland group]. Clicking on the name or icon will take you to the group’s information page. In the case of an open group you will also be able to see all the messages that have been posted to the group’s ‘wall’, and if you have already registered as a Facebook user you can join such a group simply by clicking on the ‘Join’ button on the group’s main page or, for closed groups, the ‘Ask to join group’ button in the listing. Once you have joined a group, it is not much different from using a web-based discussion forum. In 2011, Google launched its Google+ social networking service at <>. Given Google’s high profile, it has the potential to become a significant rival to Facebook. But at the time of writing, it is too early to identify specific benefits of Google+’s features to family historians.

In spite of the huge membership of Facebook, only a handful of the genealogy groups seem to be very active, and I doubt whether it is worth joining Facebook just to take advantage of the groups. If you are already a Facebook user, on the other hand, it may well be worth your while to check for suitable groups. All the same, in terms of topic coverage and usefulness Facebook has a long way to go before it can compete with the well-established mailing lists and forums discussed above.


Electronic discussion forums are social institutions and, like face-to-face social institutions, they have a set of largely unwritten rules about what counts as acceptable or unacceptable behaviour. While individual groups may spell some of these out in an FAQ or a welcome message, the core rules are common to all online discussion groups and are often referred to collectively as ‘netiquette’, short for ‘internet etiquette’. Many systems make some of these rules explicit conditions for their use, and list/forum administrators usually exclude members who persistently ignore them.

The ‘official’ Netiquette Guidelines are at <> — section 2.1.1 covers email. Virginia Shea’s book Netiquette, the complete text of which is online at <>, offers more extensive advice. Malcolm Austen has some brief but useful ‘Notes on List Etiquette’ at <>.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Once you have been reading a particular discussion forum for some time, you will realize that certain questions come up again and again. Needless to say, regular members of a discussion forum don’t relish the thought of repeatedly taking the time to answer these basic questions, so many major mailing lists and forums have what is called an FAQ, a file of ‘frequently asked questions’. The FAQ for a mailing list is normally posted to the list periodically, but the actual frequency varies from list to list.

If you are thinking of asking a question on a particular list for the first time, and especially if you are just starting to research your family tree, it’s a good idea to consult the FAQ. This will give you a guide as to what are considered appropriate or inappropriate issues to discuss and above all provide answers to some of the most obvious questions asked by beginners.

The easiest way to find the FAQ for a mailing list is to search the list archive. On a web-based system, there may be a link from the home page or a ‘sticky’ message, which remains permanently at the top of the list of messages.

There is a long-standing FAQ for the GENBRIT mailing list at <> and a relatively new replacement for it, still under development, at <>. Because of their general coverage, these are well worth looking at even if you don’t intend to post messages to GENBRIT.

Query etiquette

Here are some of the main dos and don’ts relevant to genealogical forums:

Starting your own discussion group

There are many websites that allow you to start your own discussion group. The advantage of using well-known services like Yahoo Groups at <> or Google Groups at <> is that people will be much more likely to come across your group. RootsWeb hosts an enormous number of genealogical mailing lists and is a good place to create a new one. Details of how to request a new mailing list will be found at <>. There is detailed coverage of mailing list administration at <>.

Bear in mind that maintaining a mailing list or discussion group could end up requiring a significant amount of your time if it becomes popular. Unless a list is small, it is certainly much better for it to be maintained by more than one person so that responsibilities can be shared. On the other hand, a mailing list for a particular surname is not likely to generate nearly as much mail as one on a general topic. RootsWeb provides detailed information about the responsibilities of list owners on their system at <>, and other sites that provide discussion forums will provide something similar.

Which discussion group?

Which mailing lists or forums you read will, of course, depend on your genealogical interests. The main general mailing list for British genealogy is GENBRIT. However, if you are not already familiar with mailing lists, you may not want this to be the first one you join — you could be a bit overwhelmed with the 20-plus messages per day arriving in your mailbox. Also, it can be a rather boisterous group. There is no web-based forum with the status of GENBRIT.

If you know where your ancestors came from, it may be more useful to join the appropriate county mailing lists (see <>). There are fewer messages, and more of the postings are likely to be relevant. You will certainly have a better chance of encountering people with whom you share surname interests, not to mention common ancestors. Other useful lists are those for special interests, such as coalminers or the Boer War.

You might think that the best thing to do is join the lists for all your surnames of interest, and there are thousands of lists and web-based forums devoted to individual surnames. However, they differ widely in their level of usefulness. Some have very few subscribers and very few messages, while, particularly in the case of reasonably common English surnames, you may well find lists dominated by US subscribers with mainly post-colonial interests. But with a reasonably rare surname in your family tree, particularly if it is also geographically limited, it is very likely that some other subscribers on a surname list will share your interests. Whereas the relevant county mailing list is certain to be useful, with surname lists it’s more a matter of luck.

The simplest way to see whether any discussion forum is going to be worth joining is to look at the archives for the list to see the kind of topics that are discussed. This also has the advantage that you can get a rough idea of how many messages a month you would be letting yourself in for. You could also simply join a group and ‘lurk’, i.e. receive and read the messages without contributing yourself.

Next chapter: 19 Search Engines

1 One of the great religious schisms on the internet is between the ‘top-posters’ and the ‘bottom-posters’, who have different views on where in the message one should add one’s own remarks when replying. For discussion of the relative merits of differing posting styles, see the Wikipedia article on ‘Posting styles’.