Mailing lists exist to permit discussion of just about any aspect of genealogy (and many other subjects). A mailing list works by having a central computer, permanently connected to the Internet, which acts as host. It holds a list of subscribers to the list. When an email message is sent to the list by a subscriber, in most cases the host computer automatically sends it on to every subscriber on the list, including the original sender (who therefore has confirmation that the message has been transmitted successfully).
In a few cases the list is known as a moderated list, in which case each message is vetted by the list owner before being sent on to the other list members. This only applies to a few special lists, since it imposes a heavy burden on the list owner.
For each list there is a list owner, a user, normally located somewhere else entirely, who administers the list by email. The list owner sets the rules for how the list operates, what kind of message is acceptable, whether any limitations are placed on who may join the list and how such limitations are applied. In most cases the hosting service also sets a few rules as to what is acceptable.
However, there are lists covering just about any aspect of genealogy you could think of, and probably some you couldn't!
Yahoo Groups also hosts a huge number of mailing lists covering genealogy and many other subjects. In this case each group also has a web page giving instructions on how to join the group and explaining what it is about. Most also have associated areas to hold files and photos for members to share.
British Genealogy, which is associated with Archive CD Books, also hosts a mailing list for every British county.
A comprehensive list of mailing lists, not confined to any one hosting service, is held at John Fuller's web site
As an example, if you want to join a Rootsweb list called FRED, you would join it by sending a message containing just the word "subscribe" (without the quotes) to the address FREDemail@example.com. A similar process, using the same address, is used to leave a list (known as unsubscribing). This is in contrast to the address to send messages for distribution to all members of the list (see below).
If you subscribe like this, you will receive each message sent to the list, but there is an alternative with most lists, called digest mode. In this case you address your subscribe message slightly differently. In the example above, you would send it to FRED-Dfirstname.lastname@example.org, using theextra inserted "-D". You will then receive messages in batches, so that several messages sent to the list will be combined into one for you, still retaining all their header information for you to see. Some people prefer to receive messages in this way.
In some cases, your request to join will need approval by the list owner (or an assitant owner known as a moderator) before you actually become a member. As soon as you have joined, the program administering the list will automatically send you a welcome message, reminding you which email address you used to subscribe (and from which you must send your messages), telling you how to unsubscribe when you eventually want to, describing the purpose of the list and usually giving advice on how to structure your messages so as to get best value from the list. You should study this welcome message carefully, save it, and refer to it from time to time to ensure you are obeying the rules and following the advice.
When sending a message to a mailing list, always ensure you have used a meaningful subject heading which will attract the attention of the people you want to read it. Some people scan the subject headings of all the messages they receive and delete without reading them all except those mentioning something of interest to them in the subject heading. This can be the only way to cope with a large volume of messages. These people are liable to be among the most knowledgeable on the list, and the most likely to be able to help you with your query/problem - if they read your message.
It is particularly important to check the subject heading if you have subscribed in digest mode and are replying to someone else's message. When you reply to any email message, your package will automatically generate a subject identical to the original, with "Re:" in front of it. If the original was part of a digest, this automatically generated subject will be totally meaningless, and you should always then replace the automatically generated subject with one of your own.
Also, to make people more likely to read your message rather than deleting it after reading just the first few words, try to use good grammar, spelling and punctuation, and always use short paragraphs. Short paragraphs and punctuation, especially proper use of capitals, are the most important aspects - the point is to make your message easy to read, not to make it an exercise in perfect grammar to satisfy the pedant who exists on every list.
There are some who would advise you to use a spell checker on every message before you send it. I do not agree with this, for two reasons. One is that this will make sending messages too much of a chore, and may eventually lead you to lose your enthusiasm for an invaluable genealogical resource which should be highly enjoyable to use. The other is that there are simply too many spelling errors that a spell checker will miss - see the Ode to a Spell Checker on another page of this site! (Use your browser's BACK button to return to this page.)
When replying to a message on a mailing list, always quote enough of the original message in your reply to ensure that what you write is meaningful to someone who may have missed the original, but no more. Never quote the headings, signature, etc. This is another point that is especially important if you are subscribed in digest mode. You will be very unpopular with other list members (and particularly with the list owner) if you quote the entire digest back to the list!
Mailing lists are sometimes afflicted by accidental flame wars when some people are offended by the apparent (but unintended) rudeness of others because of their attitude when answering questions. I can see both sides of this question, and have compiled a small page of advice to both sides to help them avoid such problems in future. Will anyone read it? Have I got it right anyway? See what you think.
If you are not sure how to turn off HTML or RTF in your email program, take a look at: How to Turn OFF HTML or RTF in Various E-mail Programs
Similarly, you should never include an attachment with any message sent to a mailing list because some mail packages cannot handle them, and some ISP's refuse to allow them. Again, lists hosted by Rootsweb will automatically reject any message with an attachment. Note that this includes any previous message you are quoting from - ensure any such quotes are contained within the body of your own message. Furthermore, many people (including me) will automatically delete unread any message with an unexpected attachment, as a defence against the common email-distributed viruses.
Another setting to check is the word wrapping and line length of messages you send out. Ensure that you have "hard coded line endings" switched on, and that lines are a sensible length - no more than 70 characters is recommended. Otherwise you will be sending out lines which are unacceptably long for some packages. Some will not automatically word-wrap incoming messages, so the lines scroll off the right of the screen. Others simply lose the end of the line altogether, so recipients cannot read it even if they want to. One popular (Microsoft) email package is a particular offender in all three respects in the way it sets its defaults, but it does allow them to be changed.
Sorry if this sounds like a lot of hard work - it's easier than it sounds, and you only have to do it once. It's well worth it for the pleasure of using mailing lists effectively. The addiction that is genealogy has been transformed by them. Enjoy!
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