I am well aware that email listserves are old school. How very 1992!
But they have endured well into the Twitter age, and I’m glad. For the family researcher, lists occupy a vital niche between large, helpful institutional sites (Familysearch.org, library websites, archive repository sites) and the personalized, insightful world of genealogy blogs.
Email listserves tackle topics in a way that appeals to a casual visitor who’s on the trail of something too esoteric to be dissected in a Genealogy 101 guide. There’s just something about the format that encourages in-depth and very specific information — information that fills in the gaps left in many standard how-tos.
Lists that are specific to localities can offer a wealth of practical research details that you could never find in a book, and you rarely find elsewhere online. Streetwise researchers will clue you in to the realities behind the pronouncements on the county clerk’s website. (“Hey, these volumes are in a dank basement lit by a single bulb, so bring your flashlight and waders.”)
And unlike blogs (much as I love reading blogs), the listserves offer a range of diverse opinions and experiences on a question. To take another practical example: visiting urban cemeteries. Some urban cemeteries are peaceful oases of green. Sadly, other urban cemeteries require some advance planning if you want to make sure you, your camera and your wallet get home OK. Here, a locality listserve is a godsend. If I read six opinions of how to handle a visit to a cemetery I’m wondering about, and they’re all pretty much on the same page, I feel a lot better that I’m planning my trip appropriately.
Sometimes, a list reader will ask a question that never occurred to me before, but should have. Recently on a list devoted to Tipperary, Ireland, it was asked how likely it would be for rural Irish villagers to move from place to place in their lifetimes. Turns out, quite likely. A couple of erudite responses thoroughly demolished the romanticized image of Auld Sod peasants clinging steadfastly to their ancestral villages for centuries — a cliche that was coloring my view of my own research, although I hadn’t realized it.
Sure, the list archives on RootsWeb look kind of … basic. And before subscribing, you really need to gauge the traffic rate of a given list as well as your tolerance for handling it. (I only subscribe in digest mode; I can’t stand individual messages piling into my mailbox.)
But beyond the old-school interface are posts filled with useful tips. Yeah, I still love those lists.