Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Monday, April 20, 2015

5 ways to avoid becoming upset with changes to the FamilySearch Family Tree

Very frequently the classes I teach devolve into a litany of complaints about the abuses of the Family Tree program. Complaints run the gamut from frustration with random and inaccurate changes to anger and sadness over blatant violations of the 110 Year Rule. I am not even vaguely interested in turning this, or any other blog, into a forum for complaints. I get enough unsolicited ones as it is. But I am interested in helping people understand how to deal with difficult situations that they cannot seem to overcome on their own.

Sometimes the complaints concerning a certain type of apparent problem are really only a lack of understanding of the functions of the program or are based on unreasonable expectations. But some of the difficulties stem from very complex issues involving the building of a mammoth database such as's Family Tree. I have commented on this issue and also provided some explanations in the form of videos. See the Brigham Young University (BYU) Video Channel.

The person complaining about problems with Family Tree is usually placing themselves in the position of being a "victim" rather than a participating actor in the program. Over the past few years, I have discovered that there are certain things that a proactive user can do to minimize the impact of irrational, random or otherwise unsubstantiated changes to the Family Tree. However, all such changes cannot be eliminated. After all, the Family Tree is a unified tree in which all users of the program can participate and make changes. My suggestions below, are intended to minimize the impact of those changes.

That said, here are my top five suggestions for avoiding the consequences of the abuses of the Family Tree.

 Number One:
The foremost way to minimize the impact of random changes made by people who do not understand the program, is to be careful to justify and add sources for every fact concerning your ancestors. This includes making corrections to the existing entries. Entries in the Family Tree, that have not been edited properly, such as those with multiple "birth names" in the Other Information category demonstrate a lack of involvement with the program. These "birth names" are merely indications of duplicate entries having been entered into the program. They only have value if they are in fact alternative names. Usually however they are merely variations in those names that have been entered previously and should be deleted to avoid confusion. Another indication of lack of attention to the entries is the obvious existence of duplicates. Both of these conditions invite additional unsubstantiated information. In addition, the more complete an entry concerning the Vital Information entered for an individual, the less likely that others are going to make changes. This is not always the case, but my experience is that the more complete the entries and the more edited the entry appears, the less likely there are to be irrational changes made.

Number two:
My second suggestion involves responding in detail and appropriately to changes being made. Before responding, it is important to evaluate the changes to make sure that the information being added is not in fact more accurate than your own information. Sometimes changes are an invitation to you to do additional research and you should avoid responding rather than acting emotionally and dismissing the change as inappropriate. To adequately respond to changes to the entries in a unified family tree program, you must act from the "higher ground." In this case, it is important that you have sources and substantiation for your position. It is not enough, to simply write a note to the other party making the change and say you are wrong and I am right. I fully realize, that even with overwhelming information involving specific sources, some people will refuse to accept your explanations. However, merely correcting the "errors" without adding additional explanations and sources asks for additional changes to be made.

Number three:
Suggestion number three involves being ready to endure a siege. One of my tactics for overcoming irrationality was to respond with a detailed explanation of my position. For example, many times during my legal career I was faced with a seemingly irrational demand or response. In these cases I would send a detailed letter outlining my position and requesting a correction. If I failed to get satisfaction, or if the same irrational demand was made, I would send the same letter along with a copy of my first letter. Each time I received an irrational response I would write a new letter and enclose all of the previous letters. Eventually, my response would be an entire packet of letters. I found that at some point the sheer volume of my responses broke through whatever level of irrationality was present. I am not advocating spamming participants in the Family Tree, but I am indicating that we all need to be persistent in responding to irrational changes. The idea here is to endure the siege. That means being prepared to continue to make the changes over and over again until the other party gets tired of the action or begins to listen to the explanations. My letter always began with the phrase, "As I indicated in my last letter(s), please see copy(ies) attached,..."

Number four:
This suggestion involves adopting an attitude towards the program that does not involve acting emotionally or personalizing changes made. If someone makes an irrational change to the Family Tree this does not mean that they are disagreeing with you personally. In fact, they have probably no idea of your existence. As I indicated in the previous suggestion, it is important to educate the person concerning the reasons why you feel the changes are inappropriate. But at the same time, it is equally important to avoid becoming emotionally involved, i.e. upset, with the changes. Think of the changes being made to the Family Tree program as you would about people making irrational moves in traffic. You can lean on your horn, scream out the window, make rude gestures and take other inappropriate actions or you can merely avoid getting killed and proceed with your driving. I suggest that the second course of action is much less intrusive into your personal well-being. Likewise, I suggest that you react to irrational changes in the Family Tree by unemotionally responding with appropriate explanations as I indicated previously.

Number five:
This last suggestion involves a situation where the changes are being made by FamilySearch. Presently, as I pointed out in previous posts, FamilySearch is still in the process of transferring the vast amount of information from the old program into the Family Tree. If your ancestors happen to be individuals whose information is still being added, you may as well wait a while until the process is completed before you try to make all the changes necessary to correct the data.

As a final note, I would suggest that you evaluate whether or not the changes are merely done because of ignorance or lack of understanding of the program or are they in fact a violation of one of the basic rules governing the operation of the Family Tree? If for example, the problem involves a violation of the 110 Year Rule,  it may be appropriate to report the abuse to FamilySearch.

Family historians who are used to maintain their own isolated individual program will likely become more emotionally involved in the changes than those of us who have been working online for many years and are used to irrationality. I think it is unwise, to get involved in "correcting" the actions of others without making the changes in a way that conveys the correct information. And as I indicate, this may need to be done repeatedly.

Tightening the 110 Year Rule

One of the most consistent complaints I field from day to day, concerns the blatant disregard for the 110 Year Rule for submitting ancestral names for Temple ordinances. There no other action accompanying the activities associated with the Family Tree that causes more hurt feelings and ill will than when unrelated people perform ordinances for people born within the last 110 years without permission. The Rule is clear:
110 Year Rule:

To do ordinances for a deceased person who was born in the last 110 years, the following requirements must be met.
The person must have been deceased for at least one year.
You must either be one of the closest living relatives, or you must obtain permission from one of the closest living relatives. If you are not a spouse, child, parent, or sibling of the deceased, please obtain permission from one of the closest living relatives before doing the ordinances. The closest living relatives are an undivorced spouse (the spouse to whom the individual was married when he or she died), an adult child, a parent, or a brother or sister.

Verbal approval is acceptable. Family members should work together to determine when the ordinances will be done and who will do them.
This last statement has NOW been modified. The current statement occurs above in yellow. I applaud the fact that the requirements have been substantially modified. This is a well deserved change and overdue. It is sad for me to hear all of the complaints. I hope this change helps to deter this tragic behavior in the future. It is further very sad that people would ignore the rule simply for the purpose of qualifying one more name.

I decided to give a few comments about how I select the topics for my posts. Over the course of a month, I will teach anywhere from about twenty or more classes at the Brigham Young University Family History Library or in other locations. Many of my blog topics come from the comments and questions raised in these classes. In this case, this particular complaint takes a number of different forms, but it is a consistent complaint and one that I received just yesterday in a class I taught at a Ward here in Provo, Utah. I all cases, I am careful to avoid discussing any specifics, especially the identities of the commentators. If I hear the same comment or question over and over, even though I do not conduct a "scientific" survey, I get a pretty good idea that the issue is a real problem.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

My First Real Look at the New Interface for FamilySearch Family Tree

To my surprise, the new interface for the FamilySearch Family Tree finally showed up more or less permanently for me yesterday. I am guessing this is true since it is still here today. Some of the more obvious visual changes are as follows:

  • The additional information about ordinances, spouses and alternate parents visible when hovering over the entries has disappeared.
  • The icons for the families are larger and show the various suggestion icons previously only visible with the Descendancy View. 
  • You can turn the photos of the individuals off and on from a drop-down menu entitled "Show."

The entries show only the preferred wife with the preferred husband when there are multiple wives or husbands. Any choices about which husband/wife combination to show on the startup screen must be selected from the detail page of the preferred wife or husband. Here is a screenshot showing the preferred choice:

Showing the suggestion icons is the most significant change. I still think that the Descendancy View is more useful for suggesting research opportunities, but it is a big step to show the icons on the default view, now called the Landscape view rather than the "Traditional" view.

Here is a screenshot of the explanation of the research icons:

Without the addition of these icons, the changes would be superficially cosmetic, but the addition of the vital information conveyed by these icons is significant.

Another significant change is also generating a great deal of comment. That is that the procedures for reserving names, particularly for individuals who have been born within the past 110 years have been substantially made more restrictive. In some cases, it appears that reserving a name for anyone born within the last 110 years now requires written permission from the closest living relatives. I am also hearing accounts of disciplinary action being taken against members who willfully violate the rules.

FamilySearch Family Tree is rapidly moving towards resolution of the basic underlying problems caused by over 100 years of inconsistent family history submissions. There are still some areas that need to be resolved, but on some of my lines, I can now do some productive work. Good job FamilySearch!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

FamilySearch Family Tree is a Gift, Let's Not Misuse It

I have just gone through another round of working through issues caused by people indiscriminately adding names to the Family Tree with no concern for accuracy or any sense of propriety. This type of issue usually arises with someone's statement about adding thousands of names to the Family Tree in a very short period of time. Now, this may be possible in some very unusual cases, where a person has done extensive research on an ancestral line where very little prior work has been done, but my experience is that the large numbers most often come from unauthorized, individual, name extraction projects.

The hallmark of a name extraction project is collecting names without any pretense of putting individuals into validly documented family groups. Also, the names gathered are not verified as new to the Family Tree and are usually duplicates. These names commonly come from simply copying lists from existing books and other records, accepting the prior work done on its face without question. I have seen this happening with records that I inherited from my own ancestors. One of my relatives accumulated over 16,000 names during her lifetime, but only a much smaller number of these names were even arguably related to her.

Statements about the huge number of names submitted for Temple work, usually are accompanied by claims of lines going back to royalty. It would be interesting, if it could be done, (and I expect that it can be done) to isolate individual contributors who have entered a certain large number of records in a relatively short period of time and check to see exactly what they are doing. My guess is that you will find rampant disregard for sources and relationships.

This can be illustrated very easily from my own family lines on the Family Tree. Here is an interesting screenshot. By the way, I finally consistently got the new interface today, so I will be writing about it shortly.

I am looking at an Austin line. Stephen Austin II, (b. 1520, d. 1557 is shown to have married Margaret Wrigley (b. 1508, d. 1550) in Staplehurst, Kent, England. The source for this is listed as the "Austin and Rich Genealogy." Here is the complete source listing:

Austin and Rich genealogy Authors: Rich, Harold Austin, 1896- (Main Author) Format: Books/Monographs/Book on Film Language: English Publication: Washington [District of Columbia] : L.C. Photoduplication Service, 1984 Physical: 1 microfilm reel : ill., coats of arms, map. ; 35 mm. United States & Canada Film 1405320

In other words, the person who submitted this entry to the Family Tree blatantly admits having just copied the entries out a book. Here is the catalog entry for the book in the FamilySearch Catalog.

The catalog has the summary as follows:
Jonas (Jonah) Austin (1598-1683) emigrated from England to Newton (now Cambridge), Massachusetts, moving later to Hingham and then Taunton, Massachusetts. He married twice (once in England). Descendants and relatives lived chiefly in New England.
At this point, I am going to start using the Humphery-Smith, Cecil R. The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers. Chichester: Phillimore, 1984. That shows the oldest known parish records for each parish in England.

Now it gets interesting. The first Austen (with an e) listed in my family line is a Mary Austen (b. 11 September 1603 in Goudhurst, Kent, England, d. none given) There are no sources given for Mary Austen in the Family Tree. Her father is supposed to be John Austen, (b. 9 February 1577 in Marden, Kent, England, d. 5 June 1631 in Goudhurst, Kent, England. This John Austen is listed with four different wives and at least 22 children.  The wives were all born in different places in Kent. So we begin to track the places where this line of people supposedly lived. We start in Goudhurst, then with the father who was supposedly born in Marden, hence to the Tenterden. The problem is that when we get to Tenterden and the birth of Richard Austin on the 19th of April 1544 in Tenterden, we have almost exhausted the parish registers. Both Goudhurst's and Marden's parish registers stop in 1558 and 1559. It is almost too convenient that the next Austin (with an i) in line is born in the last year that parish registers are available in Tenterden, quite a distance in that time period from either Goudhurst or Marden. So how do we get back one more generation with this family? We jump to the parish of Titchfield, Hampshire, England even outside of the same county, for Stephen Austin II, (b. 1520 in Titchfield, Hampshire, England, d. 17 November 1557 in Staplehurst, Kent, England. We have added two more parishes. Coincidently, the records in Staplehurst, Kent end in 1538 thus enabling us to move back one more generation. To make the connection, we have to jump to another county, Hampshire because, of course, we have run out of records in Kent.

Hampshire county is quite some distance from Kent, and interestingly, the records for Titchfield ended in 1589 so it must have been quite a feat to find Stephen Austin II's birthdate in 1520. His father Stephen Austin, (b. 1484 in Yalding, Kent, England, d. 17 November 1557 in Staplehurst, Kent, England) lived just long enough to die in Staplehurst a long way from his birth and the place where his son was born. At this point, we have come back to the book cited at the beginning of this search.

My conclusions. This whole line is fabricated from a series of people with similar surnames picked from counties and parishes where the records supposedly existed at the time. When the records ran out, the researchers just moved to a county with older records, picked up a similar surname and recorded the people who fell into the right time slot. The clincher in this theory? Yalding. A place known for its extensive records but according to the Phillimore Atlas, the records end in 1559.

To me, this is a classic example of a kluged pedigree. The researcher has simply chosen those individuals who fit from whatever parish was convenient. This particular Austin line finally ends in 1330 in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England with the birth of Edward Austin.

Although this illustration is somewhat complicated, it illustrates the issue of name gathering. Plucking names from different parishes in England to make a pedigree. This is classic name extraction. Some name extractors do not even make a pretense of logic. They just throw the names together without checking if the conglomeration is logical.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Updates from FamilySearch

FamilySearch continues its furious pace of posting to its various blogs. Keeping up with the flow can be a major project. Here is a sample of the last couple of weeks worth of posts. Happy Reading!!
That's about it. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Revealing Look at the New Interface for FamilySearch Family Tree

I got a heads up from Amy Archibald about a post in her Revealing Roots and Branches blog. She has the new Family Tree interface and gives the most extensive review so far with numerous screenshots. Here are some of the features she covers:

  • New Welcome to FamilySearch Page
  • The What's This button
  • The Learn What to Do button (looks like a really valuable feature)
  • The What do I Look For button (another valuable feature)
  • Recommended Task link
  • Source Linker
  • Ancestor's Memories Tab sub tabs for photos, documents, audio and stories
  • Your Activity tab
  • Youth Temple Challenge
  • Your To-Do List
  • Your Statistics
  • Help Link

It looks like the new Interface is much more than a pretty face. It also looks like we will all have a lot more help from FamilySearch with the new links and tabs. Check out Amy's post for the details about each of the items in the list.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

People Not in the Family Tree!!

Why are individuals either in or not in the Family Tree? This may seem like an almost constant topic, but the question does come up continually and I find it necessary to repeat how the names get into the Family Tree program.

Where did the names come from? Unless you, yourself entered the names, they came from your relatives and ancestors. None of the names in the file come from "FamilySearch." All of them were and are user submitted. However, they were submitted in a variety of ways. For example, some of the names came from the Ancestral File. The names in this huge file came from members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Somehow, an expectation has arisen among those not overly familiar with the Family Tree program that the Family is a source for "finding names to take to the Temple." In fact, there well may be some individuals in the Family Tree that have not yet had their ordinances completed. But the best source for finding such individuals is through doing new research and adding individuals who are not already in the tree.

There is no really fool-proof way to determine if a newly found individual is not already in the Family Tree. The best indicator that some one is already there is fact that the place they would occupy on the Family Tree is already filled with another individual's record. There is only one place (slot, entry, etc.) for each person. The idea behind the Family Tree is that each individual that ever lived would have a unique entry point on the Family Tree. If you add any one to the Family Tree without searching for duplicates, you are risking a very high probability that the person being entered is a duplicate of someone already in the Family Tree. Because of name variations and some uncertainty about dates and places, even a search for duplicates using the Find feature, will not always find every possible duplicate. For example, your newly discovered ancestor may be named "John Doe" but the Family Tree program already has that person with the name of "John" without a surname. How do you know if this is the same person? Essentially, you have to rely on the position of the person on the Family Tree and his relationships. If there is already a child in the family named "John" you would need to verify that the first one with the name died or establish some other reason why two people with the same name appear in the same family.

If I were to go through each of the Family Tree contributing databases (as I have in the past) we would see that there has been almost 150 years' worth of names already submitted and that people have been performing the ordinances for these individuals for most of that period of time. We should be truly surprised when an individual without his or her ordinances completed has escaped detection for all these years, contrary to the commonly held belief that the Family Tree is a source for finding names for the Temple.

This same line of reasoning applies to adding information to existing individuals in the Family Tree. Granted, some of the information is wrong and needs to be corrected. However, there is no need to "correct" information simply because what you have in your personal file differs from what is recorded online. There are a number of questions that you need to ask yourself before you change existing information in the Family Tree.

  1. Do I have a source for the information I am adding or "correcting?"
  2. Does the existing entry already have supporting sources?
  3. Have I examined each of the sources and evaluated the information?
  4. Does the information I am adding fit or appear more correct than the existing entries?
There are probably several more questions I could ask, but the point is that any changes to the program should be made only when you have a valid supporting source for the change and add the source to the individual's Detail Page when you make the change. You should also explain the why the change was made with an appropriate comment. Do not be surprised if your "change" is reversed or deleted by another user if you fail to justify what you did. 

As it turns out, this process of verifying the information and adding sources is fundamental to adding new people to the Family Tree that are validly qualified for ordinances. If you make a change simply because what you have in your file is different than what is already in the Family Tree, you are being irresponsible and unethical. But what if the information already in the Family Tree has no sources? The answer to that question is simple, unless you have a valid source supporting your own data, you have no business changing what is already in the Family Tree.

How do I go about finding new people to add to the Family Tree? The most efficient way is to examine the entries in the Family Tree for completeness, consistency and believability and then add sources for every individual. It is not the "source" that matters, it is the valid content of the source that has been properly evaluated that matters. As I have said in the past, by adding sources you will inevitably find people who have not been in the Family Tree previously. At the same time, you will be assisting in the process of cleaning up the Family Tree and verifying the existing entries.