We had a general question asked: Start a family tree:

I'm an absolute starter to genealogy and I've always found it very interesting so last week I decided to build my family tree.

Now, how to get started?

I considered that question, whether or not I thought it was a good fit for Genealogy SE, and my conclusion was that it was.

Considerations:

  • It will result in several long answers, probably not more than 5 or 6, with various sets of instructions given that were derived from experience and expertise.

  • It is definitely subjective, but that is an issue being considered in another meta question.

  • It is a problem that the user wants to solve. It's a roadblock. He doesn't know where to start. The experts here can help him.

  • It is a problem that millions of other budding genealogists have. They can see their answer here, and then become contributors on the site. Or do we just want to turn away budding genealogists because their questions are all too general?

  • It is a problem that an expert wants to answer. We do it all the time. Frankly, I don't personally get much out of the questions that are so detailed and pigeonholed that the answerers are effectively doing that person's research for them.

  • I look over at Programmers SE, for example, and they have lots of question on "Where to start" because there are so many different aspects of programming to start in. Very few of those got closed. They are all just as general.

  • The "How to Start Programming" question did get closed. Of all things, it got closed as "Off Topic" which is a totally wrong reason. If starting programming isn't on-topic in "Programmer", then what is? If all the other "Where to Start" questions are allowed and on-topic in Programmers SE, then this one should as well. If it's too general, then it's too general. But that was NOT the reason given for it to be closed.

  • Genealogy SE may need a slightly different model than everywhere else. Maybe the model will be "Will an expert be able give a good answer to this question?". If the question is general, maybe we should add the criteria "Is this a question an expert would want to spend their time to answer?" And most experts would want to help beginners get going.

  • Can he get the information elsewhere? Probably. But never an answer directed specifically to his needs as can be specified here. That can be said for all the questions at our site - not just ones like this.

  • Do we want to attract or push away beginning genealogists from our site? Or will our site just be experts asking questions of experts?

I'm interested in what everyone's opinion is. Should we allow general questions?

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In answer to your last point, I have nothing against a beginning genealogist (weren't we all one once?). By all means, let them come. What I do see as a problem is questions that have an enormously broad scope. These can be asked by experts and beginners alike. –  American Luke Jan 13 '13 at 19:30
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@Luke - My point is also that the beginning genealogists will likely be the ones with all the general questions of broadest scope. That's why I'm suggesting we carefully consider the Genealogy SE model that we want. Because by turning away general questions, we are also turning away beginners. –  lkessler Jan 13 '13 at 19:37
    
Does anyone else appreciate the exquisite irony that (the original version of) the question under discussion was closed just 10 hours after SE tweeted the link to the world? That will attract lots of new visitors! –  Fortiter Jan 14 '13 at 0:51
    
@Fortiter The tweets are automatic and I hadn't seen the question before I closed it. Nothing can really be done about it. –  American Luke Jan 14 '13 at 1:49
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I don't like to close questions like this if we can help it. It was obviously a genuine question from a beginner, and a bad response would likely turn away other prospective beginners. As long as we're careful to answer just the salient points (incl. referral to any written guides), and without trying to write a whole book on "kitchen sinks", then they can be handled well. The response from @lkessler was very good, and the OP accepted it. Any further information they required would then be put in new questions. –  ACProctor Jan 14 '13 at 9:41
    
@Luke, I was not criticising your role but rather the inappropriateness of randomly (sorry, algorithmically) generated tweets about which I have written before. I think perhaps the words used in your comment do not fully reflect what you meant to write. –  Fortiter Jan 14 '13 at 9:44
    
@ACProctor There is a well-used phrase, "close early, close often". The meaning is somewhat obvious but the reasoning, not so. When a broad question is asked, it will get broad answers, and when it is improved, the answers will become semi-obsolete. If it is closed, no answers are accepted until it is improved and reopened. –  American Luke Jan 14 '13 at 13:08
    
@Luke, you're presuming that a "broad question" can be "improved". In the example under discussion here, there were some refinements to the question but none that materially affected the nature of the question. I don't see that changing in the future either. It's a valid but broad question –  ACProctor Jan 14 '13 at 14:00
    
@ACProctor It was too late to do much to change the question when it already had an accepted answer. –  ColeValleyGirl Jan 14 '13 at 14:49
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4 Answers

Being new at a subject doesn't mean we lost the ability to do basic research:

Being new at a subject doesn't mean a person has completely lost the ability to dive into something, do basic research, and start learning it his or herself, and being new at something doesn't mean that person can't put in some effort.

There are tutorials all over the Internet on how to start a family tree, and we don't make the Internet a better place by regurgitating that information or merely posting links to these existing resources.

The best questions are about a real, actual problem you're facing, but the poster of this question doesn't have a real, actual problem yet because he hasn't tried anything yet. Or at least he hasn't told us what he's tried and where he's stuck.

Where is this person stuck?

Lastly, I want to add that asking a user to say what he/she tried, or what research he/she has done so far, isn't so we can call someone lazy. To be perfectly clear, that's not the intention.

As a Stack Overflow regular, I'm sure you've answered a broad question before where the asker then came back and said "No! that won't work! I've already tried that and it doesn't work because of X reason". If that person had said what he/she tried, you would have either not posted an invalid answer or you would have been able to cover X in your answer.

More specific questions tend to get better, more accurate and applicable answers to the problem the user is facing. Also, the person asking the question will understand the answers much better, since he/she has invested some time in learning some basic terminology. Everybody wins.

Amateurs can still ask well-researched questions:

To address your point about only experts asking questions, this isn't the goal. We should be looking for well-researched questions.

For instance, if I want to learn to build a family tree, I should start with a Google search and find a tutorial. I should try something, and then if I get stuck on something, I can come back as an amateur but ask a question that shows I'm serious about the subject and not just merely curious.

One doesn't need to be an expert to ask a good question, and the FAQ covers this:

Your questions should be reasonably scoped. If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much.

So, if I get stuck, for instance, trying to figure out how to represent an uncle on the tree who wasn't related by blood and who divorced my aunt, then that might make a better question than something so broad.

Possible Alternative on the Family Tree question:

Since there is valuable information here, I suggest keeping it open and not closing it, but use it as a canonical question to close other "how do I get started with a family tree" questions that don't provide any details.

I suggest editing lkessler's post to put bold on some of the headings, and to really perfect it and clean it up so that the answer makes the question really shine.

This way, when those questions are closed as a duplicate, you can point the asker to the canonical post, which will likely solve their problem and make them happy. If not, ask them to edit their post and clarify what questions they have that aren't answered in the canonical.

This is a clever way to fish the details out of people without necessarily rubbing their nose in the fact that their question has issues and needs to be improved.

Maintaining quality is a balance.

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Fair enough. But by asking for only "well-researched" questions, you have decided to preclude beginner and even many intermediate genealogists from participating. In this field it does take years to understand how to research well and to even provide such background to such questions. Thereby only high intermediate and expert genealogists will be able to participate to your standards. To the beginners, they feel they are asking good questions. No, they can't ask any better ones. Yes, they do have to be an expert to ask questions of the standard you are looking for. –  lkessler Jan 13 '13 at 23:26
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Hi lkessler, please don't read into the "well-researched" too much. Honestly, I think just spending 5 to 10 minutes Googling something and then asking about something more specific that you've read would suffice. I'm not an expert Genealogist, so this is written from the perspective of someone who is new to the field, but how to build a family tree seems really broad to me, and there's probably many different directions one could go in depending on specifics of their family. A good first step might have been asking the asker to provide some more details, whether closed or not. –  jmort253 Jan 13 '13 at 23:34
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In short, I think a statement that we all can agree on is that the question could probably be improved with some clarifying comments to the asker. :) –  jmort253 Jan 13 '13 at 23:34
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There's so much going on in comments to the various answers on this Q that it's easier for me to put all my reactions in one answer.

It seems to me this meta-question and its responses conflate three related issues:

  1. Do we allow general questions?
  2. Should What are the key points for a beginning genealogist to consider? have been closed?
  3. How to welcome newcomers while helping them to understand the Genealogy.SE way of doing things?

General and Specific Questions

General questions will be bread-and-butter here — genealogy is full of them, and the answers to them are likely to have relevance to a wide audience. Many of them will be asked repeatedly by newcomers, so for these common questions, we need excellent canonical questions with excellent answers to point those newcomers to when they ask them (as already highlighted by jmort253 here).

Specific or highly detailed questions will also be bread-and-butter here — there's an unlimited supply of these. The answers to these are probably going to be of less-obviously wide interest, although the best answers should illustrate general principles or methods that increase their relevance.

The underlying issue isn't whether a question is general or not, but whether it's a 'good fit' for us. Both types are going to get asked and should be welcome, and they should be assessed by the same key criteria, which they're both capable of meeting.

  • Is it a "practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face"

Different people decide that they're stuck at different points in an activity, but I would hope that they would put some effort into identifying their problem and solving it themselves before turning to us ("done their homework").

How much effort we expect has been debated elsewhere e.g. should they come here if Google would have given them their answer? I'm not keen on the phrase "well-researched" because that means different things at different levels of experience, but "doing some basic investigation" seems to me not to be an onerous minimum expectation. (The bar gets raised for more experienced souls!)

  • Is the scope reasonable for a single question?

The 'book' test is often quoted for this:

If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much.

I take this to mean that, if the whole book is needed to answer the question, the scope of the question is too broad, not that questions cannot be asked about topics on which books have or could be written. (Otherwise, we might as well all pack up and go home now).

However, if a summary of some portion of a book answers the question, then I'd probably judge that it was reasonably scoped.

It's also a good indication that the question is too broad if you run out of space and/or time to answer it.

(I'm skipping the criteria around subjectivity as we're talking about that elsewhere).

Should this specific question have been closed?

As originally asked, it was very broad and suggested that we were the first port of call. However, it was an inevitable question that we would face, and (as demonstrated) was capable of being answered well and somewhat concisely.

I wish it had been improved before it was answered (which is what closure is intended to give time to do), especially as it's so obvious that it will get repeated. Teasing out exactly what aspects the OP was struggling with (or anticipated struggling with) could have resulted in a number of much more tightly-focused "getting-started" questions that would be much more widely useful in the long run. All of which could have been done in such a way that the OP was delighted we were focussing on his exact needs instead of feeling criticised.

People only start building their tree once; they hit the ongoing challenges one at a time, and could get more detailed help on each challenge in the answers to separate questions. I don't say we can't still handle the detailed questions individually as they arise, just as long as they don't get closed as a duplicate of this now-canonical one.

How do we welcome newcomers?

We're dealing with two sorts of newcomers -- newcomers to genealogy, and newcomers to SE.

As genealogists and family historians, we're (mostly) used to dealing with the first sort of newcomer, and are happy to do so. We know to give them information and encouragement in bite-sized chunks, understanding what they already know first and what they're capable of absorbing next; that way they're likely to get hooked on this absorbing activity of ours. Our instincts are to be gentle and tolerant and helpful, if the newcomer shows themselves willing to learn, and those are instincts we ought to preserve.

We're less-experienced at dealing with the second. Many of us are newcomers to the SE way of doing things; some of us may not be wholly convinced that all the 'rules' that have been developed over time are justified; some of us may think that we're a special case and should do things differently. I'm anticipating lots of discussions on these topics in the weeks and months ahead.

However, I hope we all agree that we want this site to develop into a source of high-quality answers for genealogy/family history questions. We do not want it to turn into the swamp that is Yahoo's Genealogy Answers (no, not linking; you don't want to go there), which is what would happen if we don't maintain a quality standard for questions. So we can't give newcomers to SE a licence to ask poor questions, but must help them meet our basic standards by being gentle and tolerant and helpful and adding: firm. (I've seen it referred to elsewhere as 'being protective of our site').

Which means we may have to do more work ourselves -- not just answering where we are able, but also asking the OP to clarify, tighten up, word better, provide more info about what they've already done, plus editing the question where necessary. And explaining why. None of which is the same thing as telling them their question is bad, or the same as 'flaming' them.

But... Nobody likes having pointed out to them that they could have done something better. Some people will take it personally, no matter how it's done, and we can't know in advance which users will react badly. Honestly, I don't know how we can avoid upsetting some people, although I'd hate to lose any user who is trying to engage constructively with us. The alternative is leaving low-quality questions alone, which helps nobody and does the site active damage. The best we can aim for is to ask for or make changes in a polite and predictable manner, backed up by explanation. If the OP is still unhappy, and refuses to work with us, they may be more comfortable somewhere where content isn't jointly-owned and subject to community appraisal. Or they may become comfortable here, if they look around and discover it isn't only happening to them.

One important (but apparently not easy) thing we should be doing is moving any debate between ourselves about the site 'rules' or 'policy' to meta asap; they're one of the most confusing and unwelcoming aspects of the site for newcomers when they happen in the comments to an OP, IMO. Use the comments to focus on clarifying and/or improving the question.

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  • It will result in several long answers, probably not more than 5 or 6, with various sets of instructions given that were derived from experience and expertise.

Per the FAQ, "Your questions should be reasonably scoped. If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much." This question (before the last edit) was rather broad and fell into that category. Almost every answer on the site could have been a valid answer (or part of an answer) because the question was not specific and had no limits. Although it might have been a valid question elsewhere, not every question is a good fit for the SE model.

I agree. We don't need to bring up this issue in this post also (for the record, I do think subjective questions should be allowed to some degree because much of genealogy is subjective).

  • It is a problem that the user wants to solve. It's a roadblock. He doesn't know where to start. The experts here can help him.

It's a roadblock and a broad one. However, being at a roadblock does not mean all anything goes. A good-quality question about a roadblock like this can be written (as Jmort253 said).

  • It is a problem that millions of other budding genealogists have. They can see their answer here, and then become contributors on the site. Or do we just want to turn away budding genealogists because their questions are all too general?

Again, Jmort addresses this one. We have nothing against new genealogists, but poorly researched and overly broad questions will not help this site towards graduation. A beginning genealogist can write a good, specific question. They're no blanket rule "all questions from beginning genealogists are going to be general, poorly researched questions."

  • It is a problem that an expert wants to answer. We do it all the time. Frankly, I don't personally get much out of the questions that are so detailed and pigeonholed that the answerers are effectively doing that person's research for them.

This is something that many see as a problem for this site, but I believe these can become good questions that are useful to many others. By answering specific questions, general methodology can be taught. If you read my answer here, you'll see that the best answers go deeper than the surface. They show the steps taken, how the steps were carried out, why those steps were performed that way, and what could go wrong and how to fix it if it did go wrong. Answers that show no work are not too great (IMO).

  • I look over at Programmers SE, for example, and they have lots of question on ["Where to start"][3] because there are so many different aspects of programming to start in. Very few of those got closed. They are all just as general.

Programmers SE is a different site. It was originally made from all the subjective closed questions on SO. We are not Programmers SE and their guidelines are not necessarily ours.

  • The ["How to Start Programming"][4] question did get closed. Of all things, it got closed as "Off Topic" which is a totally wrong reason. If starting programming isn't on-topic in "Programmer", then what is? If all the other "Where to Start" questions are allowed and on-topic in Programmers.SE, then this one should as well. If it's too general, then it's too general. But that was NOT the reason given for it to be closed.

Again, this site is not Programmers.SE. Programmers.SE is Programmers.SE. It is not a typical SE site and is not a site we need to compare ourselves to.

  • Genealogy SE may need a slightly different model than everywhere else. Maybe the model will be "Will an expert be able give a good answer to this question?". If the question is general, maybe we should add the criteria "Is this a question an expert would want to spend their time to answer?" And most experts would want to help beginners get going.

Yes, Genealogy.SE might need a slightly different model than elsewhere. These questions are good ones, but we must always also ask if the question fits the basic SE model. If a question could have an entire book written in answer to it, it's probably too broad and should not be let unless the scope is narrowed. Not only must the answer be of good quality, the question must be good quality also.

  • Can he get the information elsewhere? Probably. But never an answer directed specifically to his needs as can be specified here. That can be said for all the questions at our site - not just ones like this.

Genealogy.SE is a site where genealogist can get expert custom answers. However, a custom answer does not mean all quality is thrown to the wind. If the OP wants to get started with genealogy, what exactly is he stuck with? What has he tried? Answers can only be tailored to his needs if we know his needs! Broad questions will get broad answers which won't help a beginner, who needs information in bite-size chunks.

  • Do we want to attract or push away beginning genealogists from our site? Or will our site just be experts asking questions of experts?

I don't have anything against beginning genealogist, or general questions for that matter. What I do have a problem with is overly broad questions that show no effort whatsoever. A question should be reasonably scoped and should be researched beforehand. Work done should be shown. When new genealogists write good quality questions, I'll upvote and give them a thumbs up. However, questions must be reasonably scoped if the user is to expect a reasonably scoped answer. New genealogists need their information in manageably-sized chunks.

To sum this all up, questions about genealogy in general are fine as long as they are specific and follow are general guidelines (i.e., researched prior to asking, work shown, etc.). We like new genealogists just as much as you do, but they must show some effort to make a good question.

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Genealogy is already reasonably scoped. Even the most broad ranging questions can easily, by the experts here, be answered with a concise but thorough, well-thought out answer that will satisfy any beginner. The criteria shouldn't be how broad the question is, but whether it can be answered expertly and consisely. I can't think of a general genealogy question that couldn't be. –  lkessler Jan 13 '13 at 23:30
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I actually think there is a blanket rule that 98% of beginning genealogists will write poorly researched questions. They just don't know enough yet, and in this field, it does take years. I don't see how they can meet the high standards specified here and will continually be flamed when they try to post. –  lkessler Jan 13 '13 at 23:34
    
In genealogy, an entire book can be written about researching one tiny sect of people on a miniscule island. So does that mean we shouldn't ask any questions about it? Any book-sized topic can easily be summarized in several well thought out summary paragraphs as an answer. A good book with more detail can easily be mentioned if the questioner needs more detail. –  lkessler Jan 13 '13 at 23:37
    
I'd like to see this site allow questions on researching in various countries, in states, for particular ethnicities, for certain types of records, in specific archives, etc. But these would all fall into the general, broad, can-write-a-book-about-it category. These are what general genealogists want to know about. But all the experts here are just asking expert questions to each other. I'm not sure the model you are professing will work for the genealogical community. Maybe StackExchange is just not right for it. :-( –  lkessler Jan 13 '13 at 23:43
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@lkessler Per your second comment, I'm not planning on flaming any new user. Instead, through helpful edits and comments, we can help them to write better posts that fit this format. –  American Luke Jan 14 '13 at 1:46
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Luke: No matter how polite and constructive we attempt to be, the appearance to the asker will always be that they are being told they asked a bad question or asked a question badly. They will be offended and feel put down to at least some degree. The only hope is that some of them will survive their first or second "assault" and decide to try to figure out what's going on here. –  lkessler Jan 14 '13 at 2:14
    
Not necessarily. Editing is a good thing and helps keep the quality standard here high. If it ends up an "assault", then something went wrong. –  American Luke Jan 14 '13 at 2:38
    
@lkessler Per your fourth comment, when it's question with no limits (like "how do I research my german ancestors"), yes, it is too broad. If it can be made specific, that's what makes an expert question, which will get expert answers. –  American Luke Jan 14 '13 at 2:53
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It appears that "well-researched" is becoming one of the touchstones of acceptability of questions. Given the scope for interpretation of those value-laden words, this might be a matter of concern in arriving at a community consensus.

On the other hand, if I infer the intended meaning by examining the questions previously posed by some of those who are now advocating its importance, the bar is not very high.

Or perhaps we have all learned to improve our questions over the past 90 days and should not deny others the same opportunity.

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Hi Fortiter, it's not wrong for anyone to fix his/her post. The "close early, close often" phrase is intended to give askers time to fix their posts before edits are made invalidating answers. With that said, no, I don't believe the bar needs to be so high that one needs an advanced degree in Genealogy. Just doing a Google search and reading a few articles is a great first step. –  jmort253 Jan 14 '13 at 0:09
    
I hope to improve in future... just give me time. –  ColeValleyGirl Jan 14 '13 at 15:06
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