You cannot believe the amount of animosity, anger, incredulity, disbelief and even apathy I have experienced the last few months as I have taught classes, worked with people and explained over and over again about the free access members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have to three large online genealogy database programs. It is apparent that although many people, particularly those serving in Family History Centers and Libraries, have received an invitation to sign up for the free accounts, there has been little or no explanation given to them as to why they should do so. In class after class, let's say I had ten people in the class, half of them would not have looked at the three programs or tried to sign on and the rest would be not have done anything with the programs once they signed on. Of course, there were notable exceptions but after explaining how these programs work and why they are useful, almost all the class participants express surprise and in many cases delight at the opportunity.
The core concerns seem to center around the issue of why the user would need to have additional copies of their personal family tree. The next layer of concern immediately becomes the issue of how to maintain synchronization between the programs. Of course, there is the usual reaction to learning a new program or adopting new technology. In each class I have taught, as the subject unfolds, I get the same questions over and over again. The offer of a "free" program is simply not enough to overcome the concerns and misunderstandings that already exist.
I can draw a parallel with classes that I teach about Google searches. Most of those who attend my classes are surprised to learn about the resources available from Google. They have always had free access to all of the Google resources but they have simply been unaware of the advantages of learning about the programs are using them for genealogy. The number of people who were already using any one of the three online genealogy database programs for hosting their own family tree are in the very small minority of those who have attended my classes so far. Most the people who attend the classes, even though they work in a Family History Center for Library have never used any one of the three programs previously. If they have used one of the programs it is usually Ancestry.com. Even if they have used Ancestry.com and even if they have a family tree on the program, they have not used the automatic search features or shaky green leaves.
The results of explaining how these programs function is usually dramatic. They are immediately motivated to sign up for and use the programs. My guess as to why there has been so little media explanation of the advantages of using these programs is that only a very very small number of people understand the advantages and opportunities, even among those who are promoting the use of the programs.
To answer the question in the title to this post completely would involve transcribing more than an hour of instruction. But there are some basic reasons why we should consider using the automatic search functions available into the three programs. I say this because both FamilySearch.org and findmypast.com have search functions tied to the individuals in an online family tree but they do not promote the searches as prominently as Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com.
Understanding the importance of all of these automatic or semi-automatic search functions involves a revolutionary change in the basic approach to genealogical research. In the past, we have proceeded by obtaining the name of an ancestor and then doing a search for supporting sources. For example, we may get a pedigree or a list of names from a relative and then begin the search for supporting documentation. In each case with the search functions of the programs, the idea is that the program provides additional sources and extensions in the pedigree originate from those sources. In other words individuals are not added to the family tree unless there is a source. This source-centric method of genealogical research is exactly 180° opposite from the most common procedures.
As an example of how this source-centric method changes the way we would do genealogy or family history is most markedly illustrated by how a beginner would start a family tree. Traditionally, we would sit down with a beginning genealogist or family historian and asked them the names of family members and fill in the blanks on a pedigree chart some type or another. We would then assist the new researcher in finding documents to support the relationships and identity of the individuals listed. When someone begins genealogical research by looking at what others have done in their family, such as on FamilySearch.org Family Tree, they are essentially doing the same thing. They are seeing names and then attempting to find sources to support those names.
Rather than follow this traditional pattern, the online programs give users the opportunity to build their pedigree entirely from sources rather than relying on unsubstantiated name contributions. So for example, going back to the beginning genealogist or family historian, they would start by entering a minimal amount of information into one or more of the online programs such as Ancestry.com, Family Tree, MyHeritage.com or findmypast.com. This minimal amount of information might include only the name of the person entering the information, his or her parents and maybe a few dates. At this point, the user would allow the programs to find sources and thereby add individuals to the pedigree. It is evident, at this point that anyone added to the pedigree would be supported by a source. Hence, the additional information is automatically source-centric.
Even if you already have a family tree on any one of the programs, I would challenge you to try this process and see how it works as you begin to build pedigree you will realize how revolutionary this approach is to family history. The difficulty in using FamilySearch.org Family Tree is that many users find that they already have an extensive pedigree in the program. The trap here is that they have no idea whether or not that pedigree is correct and in many cases there are no substantiating sources. So, for this reason this procedure works best starting a new pedigree in one of the other programs.
Now, why has this approach not been emphasized? Probably, the main reason is because so few people have been instructed in the importance of extending family lines from sources rather than from hearsay or fable. One evident benefit of this approach is that it will automatically eliminate the "back to Adam" syndrome. The researcher will only proceed as far as source documentation supports the extension of the pedigree. In the case of FamilySearch.org Family Tree the process will accelerate adding sources to the existing family tree. The process becomes self-correcting. Since you can only add a person to pedigree if there is a source, unsourced extensions will have to be examined closely for further documentation. Since the pedigree is built step-by-step rather than dumping in an entire existing file, duplications and incorrectly connected ancestors are automatically corrected.
Do I expect this approach to be popular? No. Do I expect experienced genealogists to gracefully accept this approach? No. Primarily, the reason for this is because they already have an investment in huge files that they see no reason in duplicating. This is the case even if they have no supporting documentation for any of the names in those files.