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

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The FamilySearch Family Tree is not paper

Jimmy Donal "Jimbo" Wales, the founder of Wikipedia is quoted as pointing out that Wikipedia is not paper. I would like to point out, based on that quote, that the Family Tree is also not paper. (All of my references in this post to the "Family Tree" apply solely to the Family Tree).

The following is from a Wikimedia article entitled, Wikipedia is not paper:"
Although Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, it is not bound by the same constraints as a paper encyclopedia or even most online encyclopedias. The length, depth, and breadth of articles in Wikipedia is virtually infinite. As Wikipedia grows, so will computing power, storage capacity, and bandwidth. While there is a practical limit to all these at any given time, Wikipedia is not likely ever to outgrow them.
Although there are several wiki-based, online family tree programs, the wiki-based Family Tree is unique in having been originally seeded with perhaps a billion names and its association with a huge database of digitized and microfilmed original source records from around the world all offered from free access on the website. Genealogy is only now beginning to emerge from its paper-based origins and its genealogists are being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. As the Wikimedia article further points out about Wikipedia,
The most obvious difference is that there are, in principle, no size limits in the Wikipedia universe. It is quite possible, for example, that when you finish typing in everything you want to say about poker, there might well be over 100 pages, and enough text for a full-length book by itself. This would certainly never be tolerated in a paper encyclopedia, which is why Encyclop√¶dia Britannica has such limited information on the topic (and on most other topics). 
Plain text takes up an almost negligible amount of disk space. At seven letters per word, a 300 GB hard drive that costs around $40 US can hold 45 billion words, which amounts to 12.1 million words “per penny”. As of 2012, a 1 TB hard drive costs about the same amount that 300 GB used to cost when this article was first written. A 1 terabyte hard drive can hold 153.6 billion words (1000 GB = 1 TB), which amounts to 38.4 million words per penny (and growing).
The Family Tree is designed to contain all of the information available in the world about every single individual who ever lived or ever will live on the planet. Wikipedia started out with a handful of articles on 15 January 2001.  The following graph shows its growth.

The English edition of Wikipedia has grown to 5,038,955 articles, equivalent to over 2,000 print volumes of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Including all language editions, Wikipedia has over 37 million articles,[1] equivalent to over 16,000 print volumes.
Current statistics on the Family Tree are not similarly available, but it occasional statements by FamilySearch representatives indicate that it is also growing rapidly.

From its creation and throughout its history, Wikipedia has been continually attacked on the issue of reliability. The Family Tree currently shares this criticism. The Family Tree bears only a superficial, external relationship to Wikipedia, but they both share the same fundamental organization and operation. Both are based solely on contributor-added data. There is an extensive article on Wikipedia entitled, "Wikipedia:What Wikipedia is not." Some of the items listed apply directly to the Family Tree. These are my ideas of some of the things the Family Tree is not by paraphrasing some of the items on the list from the Wikipedia article.

The Family Tree is not a paper genealogy program.

This is probably the first and most difficult concept for the present genealogical community to accept and understand. Most of the current users of the program began their involvement with genealogy (or its euphemism, family history) either filling out paper forms or watching others fill out those same forms. The Family Tree is not limited in time and space to paper forms but the "paper forms mentality" still pervades the entire community. The most common symptom of this mentality is the "my treeism" noted by Family Tree Project Manager, Ron Tanner in a number of presentations. See "Ron Tanner Discusses Family Tree Road Map at - #BYUFHGC" and "Ron Tanner -- Live From Salt Lake City!" and many others. Contributions to the Family Tree immediately become the property of the Family Tree and not any individual contributor. No one owns the Family Tree. This fact is fundamentally disturbing to many users.

But the implications of this statement about the non-paper base of the Family Tree has much wider implications that merely moving a paper-based, fill-out-a-form type of record online. It is really a complete revision of the entire world of genealogy (family history). I am just now beginning to see the extent of this change and unless I am missing something, I am certain that few of the people presently working on the Family Tree, including all those employed and volunteering at FamilySearch, are yet entirely unaware of the impact the program is beginning to have.

FamilySearch recently published a blog post entitled, "12 Things You'll See From FamilySearch in 2016." There is no link yet from this post. It was sent to me by email. You may never see this online, but it may yet appear in the Blog. If this post is an accurate representation of the goals of FamilySearch for the Family Tree in the upcoming year, it illustrates exactly what I am talking about. The post focuses on "updates" to the program and programming improvements. The overall impact of the program on the genealogical community and its place in the world and in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not mentioned.

Family Tree is not an indiscriminate collection of information.

The Family Tree is self-moderated. Every user of the program has the opportunity to "watch" all changes and additions to the content. Wikipedia has been attacked from its onset as unreliable. School children have been instructed not to use Wikipedia as a source of information and academics around the world have condemned it as unacceptable for research. See "Reliability of Wikipedia." By reason of its functional association with a wiki-based program, the Family Tree has endured the same type of criticism. This criticism is misplaced and should have been directed all along at the millions of family group record submissions made to FamilySearch and its predecessors. This pile of "dirty laundry" was hidden away in thousands of volumes of compiled paper records and is now hung out to dry on a very visible clothesline, dirt and all.

The Family Tree is focused solely on the incorporation and maintenance of family records. It is designed to contain as much information as is available about every individual. By its genealogical nature, the type of information included is limited, but within this context, there are really no limits. An entire biography can be incorporated. However, inclusion is limited by propriety and good sense.

FamilyTree is not a blog, Web hosting service, or social networking service although differing from Wikipedia, it can be a memorial site. 

The Family Tree is specifically structured to act as a repository for family history. As such, anything about a family or individual's history should and can be included. It can function as a "memorial site" to the extent that preservation of a record of the life of an individual is included in its functions. But it is certainly not a forum for much of the information included in blog post and on Facebook.

The Family Tree is not an anarchy, democracy, bureaucracy, or a battleground.

Family Tree is primarily a family-oriented organization. Family members may or may not contribute or even be aware of its existence. Participation in the Family Tree is not compulsory, but it is strongly supported by Church leaders and the vast FamilySearch organization. There are disagreements over content, but these are a very limited an minor issue with the overall operation of the Family Tree. Unlike Wikipedia, the subject matter of the Family Tree does not impinge on political, social and religious controversy. There is no place on the Family Tree for TV shows, personalities or other controversial topics. By its orientation, the Family Tree avoids nearly all the edit wars and other content controversies on Wikipedia.

Over the past year, my perception of the way the Family Tree functions with regard to the development of individually contributed family history has evolved dramatically. I was once a stanch proponent of individually maintained and isolated genealogy databases. Although I still see a need to keep some information "off line," I have come to view the Family Tree as the central core for adding additional information about my ancestral family and relatives. I see correcting the entries both as to form and content as a positive way to sort out my own huge data files. Since my contact with other family members is extremely limited, I see the Family Tree as a way to ultimately share all that I have accumulated in a way that any family member in the future who wishes to know about their ancestors will have access to the information without re-doing the research necessary. I see the present limitations of the program being resolved and from day-to-day, I see myself entering more and more information into the program.

My main limitation is the lack of a forum where the potential and implications of the Family Tree can be discussed. I am, in a sense, conducting a one-sided conversation. Those who work with FamilySearch and other similar programs are hesitant to talk openly with me about their work and at the same time, very few others work with the program in my immediate circle of acquaintances. So I write and write some more as my viewpoint evolves. By the way, comments are helpful. But in the end, genealogy continues to be a very small, special interest with few adherents.


  1. Thank you, James Tanner. Some of us are listening and appreciate your insightful posts.

  2. I totally agree with your analysis of Family Tree. These are my beliefs as well, and always have been.