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

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Important Discussion about the FamilySearch Family Tree

I have been thinking about and writing about the FamilySearch online family trees for about 10 years now, ever since was introduced. I would guess that I have heard and discussed almost every positive and negative comment that could possibly have been made about the FamilySearch products. I have spent days discussing aspects of both the old program and the most recent Family Tree program with representatives of FamilySearch, with patrons at the Mesa FamilySearch Library, at the BYU Family History Library, both online and in person and in locations across the United States and into Canada. As I have recently pointed out in previous posts, the main issue revolves around the collaborative, unified nature of the Family Tree.

Genealogists as a group are extremely possessive and have the tendency to think in terms of "my data" and "my family tree." Changing this attitude requires an entire paradigm shift. One of my recent blog posts, entitled "User Changes to the FamilySearch Family tree: A Touchy Subject," is an example of the types of responses and discussions that I have had over the years. After spending 39 years as a trial attorney, I have no illusions about my ability to change anyone's mind on any given subject, particularly when they are certain that they are correct. Decisions made by judges and juries after lengthy trials where days of evidence have been presented by both sides do not usually change the litigants' minds.

The Family Tree addresses some of the most basic issues confronting genealogists today. It is an evolving product based on a fundamentally sound idea. As I've said in the past and as I will continue to maintain; the Family Tree is the solution, not the problem.

I recently posted another rather long comment to the blog post link above. There are several issues and that comment that need to be addressed. I am not going to reproduce the entire comment because it is available attached to the blog post. I am selecting specific portions of the comment as I did with the earlier blog post.

1. Adding pop-up warnings to the Family Tree will assist the users in making "correct" decisions about entering inaccurate data or making unwarranted changes.

 From a programming standpoint, pop-ups are a detraction from the overall purpose of a program. It is true that they may possibly assist novice users but they become bothersome to those who use the program regularly. If there was a way to turn off the pop-ups then everyone would turn them all off. The Family Tree is open to all levels of genealogical expertise. Believe me, this frustrates the novice users as much as it does the experts. Novice users are overwhelmed with the "requirements" imposed by those with more expertise. Those who assume themselves to be experts are frustrated and annoyed by having to share the space with the unwashed masses. It is the self-appointed experts who are certain that everything they put in the Family Tree is absolutely correct that need to be educated as much or more than the novices.

The Family Tree is a universal tree. It is available to users around the world who find themselves in many different circumstances with differing levels of access to the Internet, to computers, to genealogical resources, and genealogical literacy. The Family Tree is designed to accommodate those who are entering the first few generations of a pedigree as well as those who are working back into the 1500s. Making the product more complicated does not solve these problems. Educating both ends of the user spectrum is the answer. Those who have been doing genealogical research for years probably need more orientation and education about the nature of the Family Tree than to the novices.

2. The problem of a separate family tree program is very complex.

Computer programs come and go. I have spent untold hours helping people retrieve information from their outdated Personal Ancestral File (PAF)  program files. Likewise, many other individual desktop genealogy programs have disappeared over the years. The data accumulated in those programs has in many cases been lost. In many cases, the developers of these programs have not provided a way for the users to preserve their data. It is also extremely common for dedicated genealogists to spend years accumulating piles of paper records about their families only to have those records discarded by their heirs upon their death. I could spend many blog posts writing about the programs that have been lost and the paper collections that have also been lost.

The issue of whether or not to maintain a separate program from the Family Tree simply because of the possibility of changes in the data of the Family Tree seems to me to be focusing on the wrong issue. I have never told anyone not to have their own program. But I am always mindful of the inevitable issue of how the information is going to be preserved when the genealogist dies. How are you going to preserve your data? That is the real question. One of my friends, an accomplished genealogist, died recently. None of her family members were at all interested in preserving her vast collection of records. It has only been through the dedication of a close, genealogical friend that some of that information is being preserved.

The comment is made about the Family Tree that "years of research can be wiped out by a single person with a few clicks." This statement is wrong. No information can be deleted. It can be changed but all of the changes are preserved in the change log and can be restored. This is always one of the arguments for maintaining a separate program. If you want to spend the time, there are many options for maintaining separate databases, but remember that what is not preserved in the Family Tree will likely be lost.  On the other hand, there is no way to restore paper documents that are thrown in a dumpster or information locked up in an outmoded, abandoned genealogy program.

Maintaining the integrity of the Family Tree is not nearly as difficult as the critics try to maintain.

3. The Family Tree is the accumulation of over 100 years of genealogical contributions.

The simple statement addresses the issue of the need to "clean up" the data. Genealogists, like everyone else, are convinced that they are absolutely correct and the rest of the world is absolutely wrong. The collaborative nature of the Family Tree allows all of us to work together in correcting these years of submissions. If you are maintaining an entirely separate program without consulting the information in the Family Tree you are laboring under an illusion of progress. For example, one ancestor that I am currently working on in my Tanner line has the incorrect parents and literally thousands of online family trees and I assume privately held programs also. All of these people accept the traditional Tanner genealogies written over 100 years ago that are simply wrong. How can all of this inaccurate information be corrected? The simple answer is it cannot. But there is a place where I can put the correct information and begin the process of educating the Tanner family members. It is the Family Tree. Will my information be changed by all those people who believe that their own version is correct? Absolutely and I will change it back. Is there somewhere else I can go to publicize the correct information? How would anyone know what I had discovered if I maintained it in my own private, personal, desktop genealogy program?

Genealogists have previously never been faced with the prospect that their work would be subject to review by someone else. In many cases, whole families have relied on the accuracy of one "expert" genealogist in the family. Sadly, much of the information passed down has not been accurately recorded. Further, family members have the tendency to defend the accuracy of the inherited data despite additional research that shows that the information is inaccurate and incorrect. This is particularly true for those who have "pioneer" ancestors. Many of these people are devastated when they find out that the information they have relied upon for years is simply wrong.

Likewise, many researchers take the attitude that their research is correct in all aspects. I have done enough of my own research to realize that my own conclusions have not always been correct. The Family Tree is difficult because it highlights our limitations and errors.

4. Training for FamilySearch users?

The conflict here is whether or not there should be some threshold requirement of competency before allowing people to enter information into the Family Tree. The real consideration is whether an individual living in an undeveloped country who wishes to preserve their family heritage should be required to learn how to read and write before entering information into the Family Tree. I certainly am an advocate of training for all of the users of the Family Tree. My wife and I are both very much involved in The Family History Guide website. Have you considered how well the Family Tree works for someone who is entering in their first four generations?

5. You have thousands of ancestors. How can you logistically make sure they are all correct all of the time?

You can't. That is why you can't have your own family tree on your own program and assume that everything is correct. That is also the reason why the Family Tree works. Because "your" ancestors are the ancestors of thousands of other people all of whom can assist in making sure that the information is correct. If you think only of your data and your efforts, that idea excludes the possibility that other relatives may make positive contributions. You're setting yourself up as being the only person who does anything correctly. Rather than criticize the system how about enlisting the help of your relatives in correcting and maintaining the integrity of the Family Tree?

6. Who do you think will make more efforts to preserve their data than FamilySearch?

We are back full circle. Over the years as I have watched programs come and go, the only constant in the genealogical community since 1894 has been FamilySearch and its predecessors.

Of course, this is an ongoing discussion. It will probably continue until all of us have passed from this earth to our eternal reward. You are certainly welcome to make any additional comments you wish to make on the subject and you can expect me to respond when appropriate.

By all means, keep "your" data anywhere you wish, but think about what happens when you die. What will happen to all your work?


  1. Just curious about your general impression on where most of the "someone is changing my data" conflicts occur.

    I have to say that it seems to me that the vast majority of the time when I hear the details about such, it turns out it is regarding individuals born before the mid-1700s. It hardly ever seems to be about people with sufficient sources to know who they are. It's as if the problem of "changing my data" mainly arises when the descendants of the twenty John Smith's in a town all claim the only one with any records about him as their ancestor.

    What is your impression as to what the graph of Number of Data Wars vs Decade would look like?

    1. Although I do see a few complaints about near relatives, my experience is very similar to yours that most of the complaints involve very distant relatives with little or no consistent source support. There is of course a correlation between those who are possessive about their "ownership" of the genealogical data in the number of complaints.

  2. I love your blog, and read each post.

    I think you are a very thoughtful commentator on FamilySearch.

    I agree with this post. After using PAF until it became obvious it was no longer supported, then I switched to RootsMagic and have 10,000 names in that database and "did" my genealogy on RootsMagic, adding sources and working out theories ... then would enter people into FamilyTree when I felt the data was ready for prime time.

    In the last year, with the ease of attaching sources to FamilyTree, I have decided that FamilyTree is pretty much the place to do and keep all my research. I don't enter a "duplicate" in RootsMagic anymore as it is quicker to work in FamilyTree. I'll keep my direct line in RM, but I do a lot of collateral/"cousins" work and I think it is more efficient to put all that out there on FamilyTree. I got so behind on temple work I don't reserve the names either, assuming someone else in desperate need of a green temple icon will find it someday. If I ever got caught up on my reservations, sure, I would reserve some more.

    I teach in my Family History class in my ward that FamilyTree is the place to put it all, as it is the only place your descendants and others will be able to find in when I'm gone.

    I have one question though still unresolved in my head. I am a convert to the church of 40 years, and no one else that I am aware of in a very extended family has ever joined the church. Where to keep track of the living extended family in a database that my children can someday access to eventually do the temple work for my aunts, uncles, cousins, cousin's grandchildren? I know the data. If someone dies, I enter it in FamilyTree even though I can't reserve the work - someday someone will when the 110 years are reached.

    But what about my cousins having grandchildren today? If it's 3 generations of living people/private space in Family Tree, will it be discovered when I die and in 70 years those new babies die? Where do I put my living relatives that they will be found when they die, decades after I do?

    Thanks, Clytee Gold

    1. Ron Tanner, the Family Tree Product Manager for FamilySearch is encouraging everyone to put the information into the Family Tree for the living also. The information cannot be seen while they are alive, but will "appear" when a death date is entered. I am still considering this, but I have so much information for everyone else, I haven't started putting in my living relatives who are mostly members anyway and have their own pages.