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

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Perspective in the Major Shift in Genealogy: Practical and Theoretical

Historical genealogical research was conducted primarily in isolation. Unless you had access to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah or some other similar institution that contained collections of user submitted pedigrees and family group records, you were very unlikely to be aware of the inconsistencies and duplications between the submissions made by various researchers. The genealogical records maintained by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were no exception. The vast extent of the inconsistencies and duplications only became readily apparent with the proliferation of online family trees and in the Church, with the introduction of

However, the existence of duplication and inconsistencies had existed since the earliest recorded genealogies. No matter what the cause, the existence of the duplication inconsistencies could only be perceived as a result of the advances in technology. One of the most common complaints I listen to day after day are the inconsistent changes being made to the Family Tree program. I field an almost constant barrage of complaints about people changing obviously correct data or altering information without supplying proper sources. These problems are manifested by the nature of the Family Tree program itself allowing user editing. The same situation exists in every other online family tree program including, for example, with its multitude of copied family trees. Those differences in data however are manifested on different family trees and there is no mechanism for correction other than

Instead of operating as genealogists in the vacuum of isolation, we have been thrust into a complicated interconnected community. In many cases, whatever we do, regardless of our level of expertise, is instantly globally available. But the abundant evidence of inconsistencies and duplications is merely a surface manifestation of deeper shifts in genealogical methodology and even of the basic assumptions behind the practice of genealogy. This shift began with the first online family tree. At that point, the barriers creating genealogical isolation began to erode and collectively, we began the process of becoming aware of not only the currently contributed genealogical research, but also the accumulated work.

As the results of genealogical research began to accumulate online, it became apparent that the availability of this information was both a benefit and a bane. It is a benefit in that individuals and families could now collaborate more easily, but the availability of the research began to highlight all of the duplication and inconsistencies that had accumulated. Simultaneously, the rise of online genealogical database programs containing massive amounts of data in the form of documents and sources exacerbated the challenge.

There are certain very salient factors that have emerged as a result of the technological advances as well as the perception of the condition of genealogical research.
  • Awareness of the differing degrees of genealogical ability have been highlighted by the technological changes creating a substantial measure of tension in the community.
  • The movement of records maintained by individuals from their own paper-based systems to commercially established and structured online family trees is made any differences between the efforts of the researchers more apparent.
  • Whereas historically, genealogists at little or no contact with each other and what contact was available was limited to local societies for the most part, the new technology has opened genealogists to a global community.
  • The popularization of genealogy has attracted an increasingly apparent casually interested component of the overall genealogical community.
 If we look at the global genealogical community it is most prominently represented presently, by the overwhelming presence of millions of user submitted family trees. I am certain that most of these trees, I would say virtually all of them, have been created by individuals who have only the vaguest idea of the genealogical research process. The information in the trees has been generated by reflecting the immediately available information in families or copied from core individuals who have created researched (or partially researched) family histories. Additionally, I would suggest that the online family trees are the only genealogical record being maintained by the vast majority of the users of the online programs. In other words, the concept that a genealogist compiles records and kept these records organized in their own personal collection is now confined to a distinct and almost microscopic minority. The present reality is what actual genealogical research content there is in the mainstream of the genealogical community is totally contained in the information maintained online.

Put another way, what is happening is that genealogy is moving entirely online. For example, the online program indicates that they have more than 72 million members. I am absolutely certain that only a very small percentage of those users maintain separate genealogical databases or records other than those they have accumulated online and if they do have a local component to their research, it is likely the program supplied by, that is, Family Tree Builder. 

The fact is that in the future it will be more and more difficult to convince new and computer literate genealogists that there is any need to maintain paper records or to maintain a separate local genealogical database program. The multitude of arguments that have been made by genealogist the past few years in support of maintaining their own personal genealogical repository simply have been marginalized by the vast growth of online resources. The perception is that we can maintain all of our genealogical data online. I would submit that this perception is rapidly becoming self-fulfilling.

Those involved in promoting local programs, not directly connected to an online database, should be painfully aware of this major shift. What is even more important is that in the future there will be a way to move information between the larger online programs. Therefore, even if a program has its own online database failure to cooperate with the global community of online databases will prove to be a serious impediment.

Let me put this into some very simple terms. Most of the new genealogists will see no need for a personal genealogy program on their individual device. They will use the large online databases exclusively. Despite their competitive nature, the commercial online databases will eventually evolved a way of moving information between family trees in the different programs. More sophisticated users will maintain several online family trees depending on the services offered by the various hosting entities. As this occurs, the underlying duplication and inconsistencies will slowly and inexorably be resolved. Although, there will always be a measure of inaccuracy.


  1. We had a panel discussion on the subject "Internet Collaboration: How Do We Share Our Family Trees Online?" at the recent International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies Salt Lake City. It was the continuation of a presentation about Geni at last years conference and a debate in the pages of Avotaynu last fall. I presented the case against the "online trees" strategy, knowing full well that I was swimming upstream.

    My opening argument - which did not touch at all on the subject of errors in the online trees - appears at and an earlier blog which includes my Avotaynu article (which does discuss errors) can be found at .

    My presentation at the panel concentrated on two points the way I get my information online without using these trees and the importance of maintaining a database which is separate from the website. Jim pays more attention to that critical second point than most people.

    1. Thanks, i'll check it out. However, I would point out that claims 72 million+ members. This is a pretty big stream to swim against.

  2. "More sophisticated users will maintain several online family trees depending on the services offered by the various hosting entities. As this occurs, the underlying duplication and inconsistencies will slowly and inexorably be resolved. Although, there will always be a measure of inaccuracy."

    I do not agree that mistakes, duplication and apparently unsolved ancestries will "inexorably be resolved" via trees -- at least in present formats. Linked-lineage trees do not provide much of a way to present and incorporate detailed evidentiary arguments such as are seen in the most rigorous journals. The present tree stuff is based mostly on the simplest internet-hosted databases, which represent probably less than 5% of the existing genealogically useful material that can be found in sundry repositories.

    Thus the narratives and evidentiary discussions held by the most sophisticated researchers (or in many cases their clients) are not very likely to be seen or reflected in trees. Why would they bother to wrestle with internet tree programs that are ill-suited to the task?

    1. See my comment above. You are talking about a vanishingly small number of people compared to the total number of people online with family trees. I think people will choose sourced trees over unsourced trees and eventually, the online trees will be self correcting.

  3. Wow! do we have an editor in the house? I hope Mr Tanner proof-reads his post and re-reads it as it has several run-on sentences. The post needs additional commas.

    I am unable to determine if Mr Tanner is a LDS member. While he does not clearly identify his position, I think he may be a tech or IT person assigned to the I also cannot determine if he is a professional or long-time genealogist.

    Mr Tanner has presented many assumptions in his article. I think he would have been better off if he had tackled one aspect of genealogy research instead of trying to address 3-4 areas in one post.

    I am a long-time researcher who has seen research go from the typewriter, to the Apple2e, to the PC, and now the tablet. I maintain a stand-alone genealogy database, with gedcom, and am a 5 time visitor to the Salt Lake City FHC library.

    I am unconvinced, after reading Mr Tanner's post, that Mr. Tanner has any supporting data to back up his claims of exclusive online family tree storage. Per Mr Tanners post, he appears to be convinced that almost everyone is storing their genealogy data exclusively online.

    If anyone wishes to post on the future trends of stand-alone versus online database usage/storage, please back up your assumptions with some data.

    I found Mr Tanner's post to be heavy on user predictions but absolutely lacking in supporting user survey data. Id be interested in hearing from other professional or long-time researchers in regard to whether they maintain a stand-alone database. In my humble opinion, a user poll would be a better way to ascertain stand-alone versus online family tree data storage.

    1. Thank you so much for pointing out the need for proof-reading. Yes, I wrote this quickly and used voice recognition software to do so. As to your speculations about my identity, I am flattered. There is no secret about who or what I am. You are more than welcome to read my bio on any number of sources online, including my long-time blog Genealogy's Star. You are also welcome to visit with me in person anytime you have the opportunity to visit the BYU Family History Library where I current volunteer. It is very apparent that you are a newcomer to both this blog and Genealogy's Star. Thank you for your thoughts and comments. As I frequently find some comments to require more than a brief reply, I will respond at length in a subsequent post. Thanks again for your opinions, they certainly express the traditional genealogical viewpoint.

    2. This comment brings up (once again) the long-running tensions between the "stand-alone" genealogy crowd and the "online-tree" crowd. Both have strengths and weaknesses.

      A major strength of the online-tree crowd is the potential for collaboration and sharing. A major weakness is the proliferation of incorrect and unsourced information.

      A major strength of the stand-alone genealogy crowd is the ability to build a well-sourced tree without any less-capable person having the potential to corrupt the information. A major weakness is that when the creator of the genealogy dies, his heirs are likely to set his work on the curb for the trash man to pick up.

      In my opinion, the last-stated weakness overshadows pretty much every other consideration, and suggests the indispensable nature of online trees.

      And, since I am technically a professional and long-time researcher, and can therefore answer the question, yes, I maintain stand-alone data, but I do it in conjunction with the use of online trees. I use FS Family Tree and Ancestry and keep copies of all documents, photos, and stories on my hard drive and backed up elsewhere. However, I am primarily a historian so I tend to keep my sources and data in timelines and bibliographies rather than in genealogy programs like RootsMagic or Reunion.

  4. james- i was unable to edit my post as I later saw your subtitle,"Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

  5. One of the points in your post, referenced the widespread "duplication and inconsistencies" in user supplied trees. You noted that, "virtually all of them, have been created by individuals who have only the vaguest idea of the genealogical research process."

    Based on my own family tree data, as well as comments from 2 facebook groups, I can attest that the copying and merging of names is widespread.

    I had a child from my family added to a family from another person's tree, though the data was incorrect. if you search the name in ancestry family trees, the name comes up in both my tree and his tree. Is my grandfather a half sibling to his tree? no.

    I would appreciate it if users would actually research their trees prior to uploading their data. But, I have found that many users, at least one's i have tried to contact in ancestry, are casual weekend researchers who upload once and then forget about their trees. I welcome comments.

    1. Thanks for your comments and the follow up. I am a very vocal disparager the issues with online family trees. But I am also convinced that a unified family tree, such as the Family Tree or are the ultimate answer to overcoming the problem with unsupported modifications and unsourced data.

  6. james- i recommend your article "Avoiding the Inevitable Crash" to readers. avoid the loss of your data!

    1. Thank you and glad to have you contributing comments.

  7. james-
    hello. As you are probably aware, the FHC officially endorses the following gedcom compatible "Tree Access Certified" family tree software products: rootsmagic, legacy, ancestral quest, and 2 which i hadn't heard of, magitree, and family tree heritage.

    do you see any of these programs as positively enabling the sharing of gedcom or research data?

    1. I hope you realize that I have been writing Genealogy's Star blog almost every day for over 8 years. Between this blog and Genealogy's Star I have published over 3400 posts. I have probably written about those three programs over a hundred times. But thanks for reminding me that I need to write about these programs again. :-)

    2. james- I see that my question, " do you see any of these (FHC endorsed genealogy) programs as positively enabling the sharing of gedcom or research data" went unanswered. However, you did mention that you wrote about "those three programs over 100 times." Can you provide a link for your articles?

    3. j gross,

      Since I can't imagine you want James to go through and compile an index of his blog for you, you can do a Google search. Type into your search engine:

      site: "gedcom"

      and replace "gedcom" with whatever program or topic you'd like to see or genealogystar with the url of this blog. I don't know how well a Google search of either blog will do — it's been kind of glitchy recently; perhaps they're changing something about the searches — but it will give you some idea.

      Best wishes, and enjoy your foray into the wonders of genealogy technology blogging! :)

    4. This blog is relatively new. I have been writing Genealogy's Star for years as I previously stated. It is time for an update of the FamilySearch Products page. So I will post an update here, possibly today.