Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A Realistic Look at FamilySearch Family Tree

When you stop doing research and start copying you are no longer doing family history or genealogy. In order to make any real progress in your genealogical research into your ancestry, you must begin with a healthy sense of skepticism about anything you have not personally verified. Too many people begin their family history pursuits by blindly accepting information transmitted to them from the past without any question as to its authenticity. Do not be so anxious to accept the handwritten pedigrees in previous compilations as fact. Repetition of error is no proof that it is correct.

This blog post was prompted by a note from FamilySearch about corrections being made to my ancestors on the Family Tree program. If there is one thing that the Family Tree program has accomplished so far, it has been to graphically demonstrate the number of errors that existed in the previously submitted pedigrees and family group records. Rather than decry the mistakes of the past, we need to realize that we now have the tools to collaborate and correct those errors. This will only happen if those who are participating in the Family Tree program become gatekeepers for good, basic and sound research with adequately substantiated sources.

The comment from FamilySearch came because I am "watching" a number of my ancestors. This means that FamilySearch will send me an automatic email each week with a summary of all of the changes to all of my "watched" individuals. This notice from FamilySearch has proved to be a valuable tool in maintaining the integrity of the information in Family Tree. Those in our family who are working on the Family Tree have found that in nearly all cases, when other users have entered incorrect information, we have been successful in correcting the errors and in contacting the other family members making the changes. From my standpoint this is one aspect of the Family Tree program that works very well.

But let's suppose that you are working on a family line that appears to have no collaborators. You do not know anyone else who is related to you and you are receiving no feedback. I suggest that you then be extra careful that you document all of your entries and provided reasons and sources for every change. By this I do not mean that if you do have other family members working on your ancestral lines that you should be lax in your documentation or sources, what I do mean is that you should be diligent in both cases, but not slack off merely because there does not appear to be anyone else working on the family lines.

To start, I would suggest that any entry in Family Tree that does not have a source should be suspect. I fully realize that this includes practically everyone in the Family Tree program because, until recently, none of the previously entered sources had been carried over into the new program. But still, the lack of sources, even if old ones are missing, indicates that there is no substantiation for any of the dates, names or places in the program. If you skip over the need to provide documentation and sources, you are merely passing on the problem on to someone else.

When I say that the entries should be documented, I mean that a source should be supplied for each fact asserted. For example, if you look at the entry for your Great-grandmother and it says that she was born in a certain place, you should be able to provide a source document (i.e. birth record or whatever) that shows that she was actually born in that place and at that time. Any unsubstantiated information should be considered tentative. In fact, all historical information is tentative pending finding a more accurate and believable source.

FamilySearch Family Tree is a marvelous and useful tool for preserving our ancestral heritage, but let's all cooperate in making it an accurate source of information and not just "another online user submitted family tree" to be dismissed as full of errors.

1 comment:

  1. It will be interesting to see what happens over time to the data in Family Tree. I have heard several people express the opinion that because of the "wiki" approach, the quality of the data will improve over time as "good data" that is sourced and documented replaces the old inaccurate data.

    Unfortunately, my experience so far has been exactly the opposite. I probably spend 2-3 hours each week fixing changes that have been made to records I am watching. In most cases the problem is with bad merges. Most recently, one of my ancestors who lived and died in England was merged with a person of the same name who lived in Massachusetts. In another case a person who lived in the 1700s was merged with a completely unrelated person who lived 100 years later but had the same name. In another case two completely unrelated fathers were merged because they had a daughter with the same name.

    I find that generally there is contact information for the people who made the bad changes. I contact them and typically they agree that the change they made was inaccurate and they were just being careless. I then have to go back and put things back the way they were, which can be very time consuming.

    What concerns me is that when I am finally admitted to the assisted living center and can't do this work any more, I see the data for my lines in family tree rapidly descending into chaos. A single bad merge can wipe out an entire line with several generations of data. A handful of bad merges could eliminate thousands of hours of painstaking research and documentation.

    I really like the concept of Family Tree. It's clearly the only logical way to go. I don't really have a solution to the concerns I have raised. But, I am not sure there are enough zealots around who are willing to monitor all the changes, and keep fixing them, to keep the data clean.