Roll Calls: You Don’t Have To Say ‘Present’

I just wrote about email lists, those quaint little things, and how much I still love them.

One ongoing feature of many genealogy mailing lists is the roll call, in which participants list surnames they are researching. There are no particular rules about how often this happens, or in what format.  Roll calls usually start when the list has been sort of quiet, and someone pipes up, “Hey! We haven’t done a roll call in a while!”

The proposition seems quite straightforward to me. You put up the names. Maybe somebody makes a connection. Maybe not. The roll call goes on for a week or two and dies out. It’s repeated in a year, or maybe less, or maybe more. Who cares?

But roll calls spur intense irritation in some readers. I’d guess it’s not the majority, or the roll calls wouldn’t happen in the first place. Still, there are always expostulations: “What are you trying to accomplish here? Do you need help? Do you really think somebody can DO something about your names? WHAT IS THE POINT?”

I waded into one of these debates about four years ago and I’m too lazy to go back and  find what I said, but I recall it was something like this:

• Roll calls are mainly a community building exercise. They encourage lurkers to emerge, often giving them a chance to express thanks for the list’s usefulness, along with their research interests.

• Roll calls are a snapshot of a listserve at a given point in time, nothing more or less. Sometimes people do make connections, and that’s wonderful. Often they do not, and that’s OK, too.

• I honestly don’t think people have a huge expectation of a brick wall breakthrough when they post their surnames. Therefore, frustration at not being able to assist them is likely misplaced. It might help to think of a roll call entry as less of a query than a signal flare — Hey! I’m here! These are my peeps! Just saying hi!

• Roll calls are more obviously useful with the rarer surnames. But even if you’re looking for a Smith family, you can increase the usefulness of your roll call post by throwing in a few biographical details: “I’m researching the family of Mary and John Smith, who lived in Brooklyn on Van Brunt Street between 1927 and 1940.”

• Roll calls do clutter up the list while they’re running, and other posts with non-roll-call business get lost in the shuffle. If you really want attention paid to a burning question, best to keep it burning until the roll call passes, if you possibly can.

• If you read a list via individual emails, your inbox will experience a temporary burst of emails labeled “ROLL CALL.” But is this really a reason to start calling for international summits on Roll Call Post Naming Conventions? If you insist upon doing so, I hereby threaten to start a roll call asking for opinions on roll call post naming.

• If the roll call irritates you to the point that it’s wrecking your day, try switching to digest mode, and get your roll calls in batches. Or switch to “no emails” mode, and take a break from the list until the roll call ends. It’s basically harmless, and it does occasionally result in research breakthroughs for people.

I think that’s what I said.

At any rate, it’s what I still believe.


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