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

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.


  1. Are there any times there should be a birth name as an other name?

    1. Yes, if the name given at birth was not the name the person used throughout his or her life.

      For example, my ancestor Ove Oveson was from Denmark. His name at birth was the patronymic Ove Christian Jensen. He eventually switched to using his father's patronymic, "Ovesen," then adopted the more-American-sounding "Overson," but eventually switched back to "Oveson." So his FamilySearch Family Tree name should be "Ove Christian Oveson," but the following should also be listed:

      Birth name: Ove Christian Jensen
      Also known as: Ove Christian Ovesen
      Also known as: Ove Christian Overson

      I see that Ovesen is used as the primary name but it doesn’t really matter, so long as people know to look for the different names when they’re looking at sources.

      Did that answer your question?