Scarcely a week goes by that I am not teaching a class on family history somewhere or online. I teach a long list of subjects with new subjects being added regularly. Most of the classes are to smaller groups of people and I find that they usually have a few comments and questions. But recently, I taught a class on "Why Use the FamilySearch Family Tree," that invoked more questions and comments than I had encountered for a long time. Since teaching the first two sessions of the class, I also recorded the class as a webinar for the BYU Family History Library and the link is above.
I cannot think of a less controversial subject than genealogy. For most people, genealogy is soporific. It is not uncommon for people to go soundly asleep during my classes. Fortunately, none of them have fallen off their chairs and gotten hurt. Yet. I usually tell people that if they wake up in the middle of the night and cannot get to sleep, they can always watch one of my videos and it will certainly put them right out. But this recent class turned out to be quite different. What turns out to be either interesting or controversial about the FamilySearch.org Family Tree?
First of all, you need to understand that the people who attend my classes are almost uniformly, with some few exceptions, very familiar with and constant users of the Family Tree. What I find, however, is that very few of those attending my classes really understand how or why the Family Tree works as it does. Some of the most discussed areas of misunderstanding include the following:
- The apparent constant changes to the data in the Family Tree
- The relatively complex issue of standard dates and placenames
- Other users of the program that make changes and are unresponsive or uncooperative
- People who add unsupported and inaccurate information including random new and wrongly added family members
- Insecurity about the ability they have to change what others have entered into the Family Tree
- Fear of offending or provoking people that they do not personally know
- Their own fear of entering either wrong or unsupported data
- Fear of getting into an online battle with relatives over the accuracy of the data
The list could go on but the basic concerns all center on the interaction of all those who have access to the Family Tree. Genealogists are not used to working in public. They are uncomfortable with the entire concept of a collaborative and interactive family tree program. What is more, genealogists are not used to the idea that their conclusions, however thinly supported, could possibly be challenged by anyone. After all, their relatives were all "professional level genealogists" and everything they have inherited from the past has the reliability of scripture. Nearly all of those who initially confront the Family Tree are either shocked or appalled to find that there are errors. As one class participant expressed, just this week, she thought everything in the Family Tree was reviewed by the Church and therefore accurate and dependable.
The reality of the Family Tree is that the changes and the interaction between the contributors are both signs of a healthy and fully functional family tree program. The users of the Family Tree have been put into a role of negotiating the content and that fact alone is unsettling and disturbs some users to the point of tears and despair. Here is my list of responses.
- The Family Tree is specifically designed to allow constant change and constant change is not only desirable but is guaranteed to create a more accurate and dependable data corpus.
- Standard place names and dates are so important that the difficulty of creating them is worth the benefits achieved in uniformity and the ability to avoid duplication. See "A Further Look a Standardization of Places and Dates in the FamilySearch Family Tree" and the previous post cited therein.
- Unresponsive and uncooperative users are a fact of life. Just make your own changes or corrections and see if the respond. Don't leave incorrect or inaccurate data simply out of a fear that someone will object.
- If you have your own sources that support making a change to existing information in the Family Tree, make the corrections and be sure to add your reasons and the supporting sources.
- The nature of the Family Tree is to allow all of the users to make changes. You do not need permission from anyone to correct the information in the Family Tree.
- Fear of offending someone by adding correct information is unfounded. If others become annoyed because of your corrections that is really their problem. You should always be kind and polite, but accuracy is very important.
- Make sure you have reliable, evaluated sources for every entry in the Family Tree
- Online battles over data are rare but do happen. There is a method of reporting abusive, online behavior. But the best way to approach these types of situations is to back off and wait until the field has settled down and then enter complete and supported information to correct any errors.
Guess what? You might be wrong. That is really another bottom line issue. Genealogists, as I noted above, are not used to being corrected and the general atmosphere of the Family Tree invites correction.
My original idea in talking about using the Family Tree involved an attempt to educate those who were not using the Family Tree as to its advantages. But what I found was that the question applies more to those who should already be using the Family Tree.