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

Friday, May 9, 2014

An argument for increased competency in family history

My daughter Amy posted a comment to one of my previous posts that needs to be more completely examined. Here is a copy of her comment which was made in response to an anonymous comment about the previous post entitled, "Why you can edit the information in FamilySearch Family Tree."
Anonymous, are you claiming that "every time" you put something on FamilySearch Family Tree, someone comes along and corrupts it? 
A few questions for you. 
How accurate and complete is your own work? Is it well-researched and thoroughly sourced? How accurately and completely are you demonstrating the reliability of your work on Family Tree? How often are people making changes?
Are you adding sources to Family Tree? Do you understand the principles of genealogical proof?

Some of the people I work with in the local FamilySearch center get very angry about changes to their lines, but when I sit down to work with them, I notice that they don't understand some of the basic functions of Family Tree and the use of sources and standards of genealogical proof, so we're working on increasing their skill level. 
In the cases I've seen, anger does not equal competence. In other words, in order to make some of the genealogical claims they've made in the past, they're now having to demonstrate a higher standard of proof than they've needed to previously. 
It's a steep learning curve, and it is creating a lot of anxiety, but like I said, we're working together to increase the understanding of how the system works including what a unified tree is (its strengths and weaknesses and how to deal with problems that arise), and what a reliable and well-sourced entry looks like.

And once the steep learning curve is over, I am hoping that the aggravation that these users feel for the system itself -- anger like you're expressing here -- will dissipate and that they will have a much more positive experience overall.
I have also frequently observed this response in my dealing with people both inside the Mesa FamilySearch Library and elsewhere. As Amy points out, the issue here is competence. With an online family tree program such as the Family Tree, there is a huge disparity in the genealogical competence of the users of the program and a wide field for conflicts between those who have done careful, documented research and those who do not care to do any such documentation or research or have no knowledge how to obtain such information. In addition, you have people entering data who have personal knowledge of their ancestors, i.e. oral history, but no formal way to document such information. Maintaining the program requires a balance between these differing interests.

Many researchers who claim vast genealogical experience have never been challenged previously in their genealogical conclusions. In essence, they have compiled pedigrees and entered information in family groups based on their own personal prejudices and limitations. I must admit that I have fallen into this category. For many years, I compiled my genealogy in a vacuum. I had almost no contact with anyone else who was actively researching my family lines. I certainly had no one telling me that a choice I had made in selecting a particular set of genealogical facts was correct or not. In this type of case, we tend to build our little genealogical empire where we are the absolute ruler of the realm.

Then, suddenly, we find out that there are other researchers with different opinions about "our ancestors." This can come as a shock. Then we find out that we don't really know all that much about the process of doing genealogy in the first place and if we are so inclined, we begin a process of education and communication that completely changes our attitude and our approach to our ancestral research. Personally, I am still in the middle of that learning process.

Now, what if a person has yet to go through this challenge to their empire and suddenly finds themselves confronted with conflicting information on the Family Tree? As Amy points out, the result is often frustration and anger. How dare those people make changes to my genealogical empire? I will call out the troops and defend the borders of my empire to the death!!!

Well, that is really only a slight overstatement. As I have discussed recently, the basic issue is a claim of ownership to genealogical information. You do not own your ancestors. All of the family members, no matter how inexperienced or careless all belong to the same family. Just as you sometimes have to pick up behind small children, you may have to pick up behind inexperienced genealogists. But if you take the position that you have some right to defend your empire and unless you and your empire must rule the world of Family Tree, then you need to reassess your attitude and your competence level. Most very experienced genealogists, who have participated in the rough and tumble of the genealogical community, have evolved a very humble attitude based on the fact that the next document they find could very well destroy the basis for their whole genealogical empire. The Family Tree has no room for personal, genealogical empires.

The key here is to take time to listen and learn. No one is infallible. We all make mistakes. The Family Tree is a marvelous forum to discuss and cooperatively correct those mistakes. It does its job very well and will continue to improve in the future. Those FamilySearch people working on improving the program know very well about its limitations. They are extremely competent and the program will continue to evolve and improve. But we must also continue to become more competent and adapt to the changes.


  1. A couple months ago, I received an email from a very prominent genealogist (I won't mention names but I'd say he is considered one of the experts on Familysearch). I had added a source to our mutual ancestor that was a birth record for his son. This email basically was telling me I shouldn't be cluttering the page of our ancestor with these irrelevant facts. I sent him a nice reply explaining that had he clicked on the source he would have seen that the ancestor was listed as the father on this record (I had even attached it to the father's name), which gives evidence of a relationship and that he probably lived in this same region during this time period. I never heard anything back from him after that and my sources are still there. Just goes to show that even the experts sometimes need to be taught to share their ancestors.

    1. Sometimes more than others, by the way. I certainly agree.