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

Monday, November 14, 2016

Reflections on the limits of the FamilySearch Family Tree

There are definite limits to family history and those limits are reflected and sometimes magnified by the limits of the Family Tree. Those promoting the Family Tree do not like to address the issue of limits, perhaps out of fear that some users will be discouraged before they even begin to participate. But users of the Family Tree should be aware of the limitations as well as the advantages. Before going too much further, please understand that I view the Family Tree as the solution to many of our genealogical or family history problems. But I also understand the importance of understanding the limitations.

The first important limitation to recognize is that the Family Tree is a repository for information that has been contributed by genealogists and family historians over the years. It is not a place where you do research to find your ancestors. It is a place to store the information you discover and that has already been discovered. You may be surprised to find information in the Family Tree that you did not know, but essentially someone had to have submitted that information to FamilySearch or one of its predecessors for that information to appear in the Family Tree. As a result, all the information about your family in the Family Tree is "user contributed." The results of that fact is that any of the entries that are not supported by a valid, reasoned source or supporting document should be considered to be tentative and possibly unreliable. However, the mere fact that there is a source listed does not mean that the source is either reliable or correct. The reliability of the information in the Family Tree is limited to the reliability of the sources and the ability of the contributor to interpret and utilize those sources.

Family history is after all, history. It is our combined opinions and conclusions about what happened in the past based on our own memory, the memories of others and/or historical documents and records. For this reason, the Family Tree will always be a "work in progress." As we discover new information about our ancestors, we will be able to correct the information already present in the Family Tree or add new information about newly discovered ancestors.

We need to understand that the fact that the information in the Family Tree is user submitted and based on memories or documents, does not address the issue of whether or not the information is reliable. The reliability of the information needs to be determined by referring to the sources listed. As reliable and applicable sources are added, the information becomes more reliable. At the same time, the amount and quality of the supporting information for the entries in the Family Tree depend on the existence of records about the family. So, at some point of time as we go into the past, the records about any given family line run out. Unfortunately, a huge number of the family lines in the Family Tree continue on with entries beyond the point where there are no longer any supporting records. This unsupported information is like an overburden in an avalanche zone, it will inevitably fall.

So, the Family Tree has physical limits such as record unavailability and interpretation limits in its dependence on human opinions and conclusions. There is probably nothing we can do about the absolute lack of records, but over time and as more records become available, the Family Tree will become more and more accurate. By the way, some people excuse their participation in doing family history on the basis that at some time in the future, usually referred to as the "Millennium," all of the information will be available and so they plan to wait. I could write a whole post on this subject and maybe I will some day, but you can use the same excuse to postpone any good work and thereby lose you own salvation. Do you really believe that you will be any more anxious to do the work for your kindred dead at some undefined time in the future?

One interesting phenomena is the fact that some people consider the Family Tree as a source for mining temple ordinances. It is true that available temple ordinances can be found, but it is also true that the supply will quickly become depleted unless additional names are constantly added. If newly discovered individuals are either reserved or released to the temples, the supply of the iconic green temples will eventually disappear. The emphasis will have to shift from finding names in the Family Tree to finding names to add to the Family Tree. My own observations presently indicate that the time of easily available green temple icons is rapidly coming to a close. Unless we shift gears and start adding names to the Family Tree, we will begin to see a steady and dramatic decline in the names people are able to find by casual searching for green temple icons.

By the way, descendancy research has a built in 110 year limit for providing names to take to the temples. It is possible to review and verify all of the names both ancestors and their descendants back five or even six generations. At seven generations, many lines begin to falter and few lines can be verified back ten generations. The growth of the Family Tree will ultimately depend on new people beginning their pedigrees and the addition of even more records to the online collections.

Fortunately, many of the limitations inherent in the Family Tree can be resolved with concentrated and knowledgeable basic genealogical research. But without a fundamental shift in the emphasis from finding to researching, there won't be much at all to find. Here is an example.

This screenshot shows a small part of the descendancy of my 4th Great-grandfather, Joshua Tanner who was born in 1757 expanded down until all of the descendants were born after 1906 and thereby subject to the 110 year rule. There are potentially hundreds of people who appear in this view on the Family Tree, but there are no green temple icons left to process without additional research. In this view, the one green temple icon is for a person who was born in 1912.

As I go on down in this descendancy view, there are plenty of red warning icons and lots of purple icons indicating that there are no sources attached to the people, but I did not find anyone who needed immediate temple work without doing additional research and I found plenty of opportunities to do research.

The Family Tree is a marvelous tool. Since it was fixed in June of this year, it works very well. But it has inherent limitations that need to be recognized. You cannot use it for a "source" for names to take to the temple without also emphasizing the need to do careful, accurate additional research not only to verify the names already present, but to add new names of people who actually need to have their temple ordinances done.

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