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

Saturday, September 10, 2016

10 Important Things to Know About the FamilySearch Family Tree

Beyond basic computer skills and some knowledge about how to enter and update entries, there are many important things that you need to know and understand about the Family Tree program. In this post, I have selected ten things that I think everyone should know. Here they are:

Number One: 
The FamilySearch Family Tree is a Wiki

I have written about this point several times in the past, but it is really the key to understanding how and why the Family Tree works. It is also the reason why many people are initially frustrated with the supposed "changes" to the data in the Family Tree that seems to be going on all the time. A "wiki" is defined as a website that allows collaborative editing of its contents and structure by its users. See Wikipedia: Wiki. Since every registered user of the program has access to all of the entries in the Family Tree, except for those references to living people, all of these users can add, delete, change, modify, edit and merge all of the entries in the program. Change is the result of using a wiki format to store data.

Genealogists are not used to the idea of sharing and collaborating their data. There is a pervasive attitude among researchers that what they find and enter into family records is "their" genealogy. This attitude has been engendered by the fact that historically, genealogists worked alone and were not forced to share their data with anyone else unless they consciously chose to do so. So working with a wiki like the Family Tree is not just a new experience, it is completely new experience.

The Family Tree is not a completely accessible wiki program. The administrators of the Family Tree (FamilySearch employees and indirectly The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) have control over what is and what is not ultimately added as content. But the administrators are not concerned with either the accuracy of the entries or their consistency. If I enter a date incorrectly, there are automatic functions of the program that will assess that date's reasonableness in certain ways, but beyond those quasi-editorial notices, such as the warning icons, there is no one except other users, interested in your particular entries.

You do not own the information you add to the Family Tree. When you enter any information into the Family Tree, that information immediately becomes the common property of all of the users of the program. No one has to ask permission to make any changes etc. to the data in the Family Tree. They might want to ask questions, but the format of the program does not require you or anyone else to do so.

Number Two:
Because the FamilySearch Family Tree is a wiki, you are responsible to maintain the integrity of your own data.

Despite user impressions to the contrary, the information added to the Family Tree is not usually arbitrary or capricious. The concept that "wrong" information is being added to the Family Tree is based on the user's impression as to the "correctness" of the entries. If I think my ancestor was born on a certain day, then anyone changing that entry entry is automatically characterized as wrong.

So what happens if you see such a change? You and the other person entering information are both responsible to see that the information added is correct. You do this by substantiating any changes made with reference to an historical source where the data is found.

Number Three:
There are a number of simple practices that help maintain the integrity of the Family Tree.

The first and most important practice to maintain the integrity of the Family Tree is to "watch" all of those individuals that are of concern to you. The link to watch each individual is found on the individual detail pages for each individual and on the information cards that come up anytime you click on an individual. If you watch someone in the FamilyTree, FamilySearch will send you a list of any changes made to your watched individuals each week. You can review the list and take action to verify any changes.

Your perception that the entries are always changing is not accurate. Overall, there are usually very few changes made to older entries. The key here is adding in sources and making any proper corrections quickly. If you tend to look at the Family Tree every month or so, the number of changes will seem larger than they really are. If you watch your entries and review the weekly list and immediately make any needed corrections, then the cumulative effect of this action will be to decrease the number of changes assuming your own changes and additions are substantially supported by credible sources.

Number Four:
All entries in the Family Tree are tentative.

It is the nature of historical research that all conclusions made are subject to the discovery of more definite and reliable information. In the course of working with the Family Tree, many people report substantial revisions to their traditional perception of their family history. This is caused by finding out that they were adopted, that their parents never married, that some female ancestors had children out of wedlock and so forth. Newly discovered information may revise any of the entries.

Number Five:
The original data that went into the Family Tree was not reliable.

The Family Tree consists of user contributed information gathered by FamilySearch and its predecessor organizations over more than 100 years. The Family Tree is the first time all of this information could be integrated and edited. No one was previously responsible for the accuracy of all of the data. No one at Family Search or before has checked any of the information in the Family Tree for accuracy. You are now responsible for that portion of the data in the Family Tree about you and your family.

Number Six:
Anyone can see any data entered about dead people in the Family Tree

There nothing private or proprietary about the Family Tree except for living people (see below). All entries concerning dead people are visible and entirely accessible to all registered users. If I wanted to, I could start editing entries in "your" portion of the Family Tree. But there is a practical limit on these entries. Why would I want to spend my time on a portion of the Family Tree with people I am not related to? The one exception is famous people who attract attention from those who are unrelated or only wish they were. In some cases the Family Tree is now rendered "Read Only" for some of these individuals.

Number Seven:
All data about living people is in a "Private Space" that cannot be seen by others.

Because data about living people is only viewable by the person entering such data there are some interesting consequences. FamilySearch creates a unique entry for each "living" person and that includes people who are actually dead but have no death information, i.e. are marked living. If that person was or is a member of the Church, likely the information is already in the Family Tree. So if you add in members of your immediate family, i.e. children, parents, siblings etc. who are alive, the entries are almost certain to be duplicates of their own personal entries. See the Help Center article entitled, "Understanding Private Spaces."

Number Eight:
The Family Tree is always and will always be a work in progress.

Computers and programs change with the changes in technology. The technology that enables us to have a program such as the Family Tree will continue to evolve in the future and so change is inevitable. There are still a huge number of "enhancements" that could be added to the Family Tree and some of those will undoubtedly surface as time passes.

Number Nine:
The Family Tree is the solution not the problem.

Nearly all the major issues with the operation of the Family Tree were resolved with the upgrade on June 27th, 2016 which should be known as Family Tree Independence Day. The major issues and residual complaints about the program are now entirely focused on the users and the residual uncorrected data. It is time to get busy and clean up your section of the Family Tree and add in every possible source you have or can find.

Number Ten:
The work on the Family Tree will likely never be finished in your lifetime.

There may actually be a relationship between the Family Tree and the end of the world and I do not say this lightly. We are involved in creating a unified, family tree of the entire human race and that work will take a while to complete. I suggest you get busy on your part of the Family Tree and don't expect that your portion of the work will be done by someone else in the Millennium.

You might think of some more important things and so might I.


  1. You should post this as a guest blogger in Family Search's blog. A permanent link to this should also be put at the top of every Family Tree page.

    1. Hmm. Nice comment but not likely to happen.

  2. Thanks for this exceptional list! I'll be using it this week and subsequent months in my New Missionary training class.

  3. I think our web group would like those items that have reliable sources be flagged as such, making an impedance, of sorts, to frivolous changes that go contrary to the sources. And although this sounds like it goes against the wiki aspect of FT, I think the FS guys are actually considering it, due to the complaints about frivolous changes, especially from GEDCOMs, especially from partner sites where no duplicates have been checked in FT. So ... never say never.