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

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Overcoming Family Tree Phobia

There seem to be multiple levels of concern about using an online family tree and even more levels of concern about any particular family tree program. I thought it would be a good idea to discuss some of those concerns or fears by category as they apply to the Family Tree program specifically. Here is the list with the comments on each category of concern.

Lack of computer and program skills
At the most basic level, people do not understand how to use the Family Tree program. This concern is usually coupled with a limited ability to use computers and a lack of keyboard training. This is one of the most difficult issues to overcome. Some of the people who fall into this category have limited physical mobility or other impairments. It is important that these limitations not be the decisive issue in the individual's participation in genealogy online. The best solution is to have a mentor, family member or friend who is willing to help keep the person online and in contact with the greater genealogy community. In particular, it is important that the assistance come from someone with the patience to work through not only the online challenges and issues, but also can be a real help. Helping someone enter their family names into Family Tree is one way of demonstrating true charity.

Fear of compromising an extensive amount of research
Some very competent genealogists have spent a considerable amount of time amassing a huge amount of data about their ancestors. The idea that Family Tree can be modified by any user creates a conflict because they believe that the users of the Family Tree program will substitute incorrect data for correct data. Because Family Tree is a unified family tree program this means that any user can correct, add, merge, or delete information in the tree. However, this does not mean that the information can be changed arbitrarily. There are various safeguards built into the program that allow responsible users to manage the tree and prevent improper changes and modifications. These include the ability to watch any one of the individuals entered into the program and to add sources and explanations for each event documented for any individual in the program. All changes to the program are recorded in any unsubstantiated change can be reverted at any time. In addition, the program sends a weekly email notifying any interested user of changes in the people they have designated as "watched."

As a matter of fact, the entire program of Family Tree was designed to create an environment where documented and sourced data is entirely supported and encouraged. It would be a good practice to maintain a separately verified and documented pedigree in order to provide a master file from which any changes made to the program can be corrected.

Privacy concerns
One of the most commonly expressed fears preventing people from entering names into an online family tree program is the fear of identity theft or violation of privacy. These are real concerns and cannot be easily dismissed. The privacy issue can be addressed by realizing that dead people have no privacy rights. In addition, public family trees are generally structured so that information about living individuals is maintained confidentially and only viewable by the user who enters the information. This does not mean that living people do not appear in online family trees but it does mean that there are safeguards so that information about living people is not readily available. In the case of Family Tree, any information entered by an individual concerning living people is viewable only by the person entering such information. It is also important to refrain from entering information that would be detrimental to living people. It is improper to enter private information such as Social Security numbers or personal contact information. The best way to approach this problem is to refrain from entering any information which you feel would compromise the privacy of any individual who is still living.

The question of identity theft is more complex. Except for some financial institutions who in advisedly maintain the practice of verifying identity by asking questions about mother's maiden name or other identity questions, there is usually no information contained in the family tree program which could be used as the basis for identity theft. I have yet to encounter the case or other instance where information obtained from an online family tree was used to perpetrate an identity theft. Caution is advised, but realistically this should not be a reason for failing to put a family tree online.

Duplication of effort
some people are concerned that maintaining a family tree will involve a substantial amount of duplicated effort in order to synchronize work entered into a local program with an online family tree. FamilySearch Family Tree has entered into strategic partnerships with three major genealogical database programs and allow those programs access to Family Tree so that data can be easily exchanged and synchronized. Of course, bringing another program into the equation increases the complexity and may, in a sense, loop back to the very first item in my list, lack of computer program skills.

These are some of the issues that I see most commonly. Most of these can be overcome through education or mentoring.

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