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

Monday, January 16, 2017

Confronting the Changes in the FamilySearch Family Tree

Rumblings and mumblings continue about changes being made to the Family Tree. Changes in the Family Tree are inevitable. That is exactly what it is designed to do. Changes are a sign that the Family Tree is healthy and growing as it should. In working with the patrons and missionaries at the Brigham Young University Family History Library this past week or so, I have once again been required to address complaints about the changes being made to the Family Tree.

I continue to write about the Family Tree because that is what I work with and support now nearly every day of my life. Ever since its introduction, the Family Tree has been the source of continued misunderstanding and, in some cases, antagonism over the issue of other users of the program making changes. If you spend any time at all working on the Family Tree, you will begin to see entries change. I will, once again, discuss both the reasons for these changes and how the effects of the ability to make changes can be minimalized.

First and foremost, the Family Tree is a wiki and has been designed to allow registered users to make changes. Except for very few entries that have been rendered "Read Only," all of the entries in the Family Tree can potentially be changed, edited or deleted. In some cases, the ability to delete individuals and entries have been limited to allowing only the person who entered the entry or information to delete that entry or information. But other than these limit restrictions, everything in the Family Tree is subject to change.

The ability of the Family Tree to change is essential to its purpose and survival. Objections to the changes usually originate because of a lack of understanding of the Family Tree's purpose. The Family Tree is unique. It is the first time that an attempt has been made to create a universal family tree that accommodates entries for the entire human family and that has been seeded with over 100 years of previously accumulated data.

Some of the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are also motivated to contribute to the Family Tree because it is the primary method for submitting family names for temple ordinances. See Gospel Topics: Temples. Although the percentage of members actually using the Family Tree for this purpose is very small compared to the total number of members of the Church.

I have focused my genealogical efforts on the Family Tree for the following reasons:
  • The Family Tree has the greatest potential of preserving my data for the future
  • The Family Tree is quickly becoming a unified source, like a clearing house, where I can determine how much genealogical research has already been done on any individual
  • Because of the unified nature of the Family Tree, I am much less likely to be duplicating the research of others
  • The Family Tree is supported by a vast database of original genealogical source records
  • Through the FamilySearch Partner Programs, I can significantly expand my research efforts into other vast collections of genealogically significant sources
There are many more reasons including the undeniable fact of my mortality and the undeniable implication that I will probably never finish doing all the research and organization that I need to do. 

Now, what do I do about the changes? There is an unwarranted assumption that all changes are bad. That is an extremely egocentric position for anyone to take. My experience with the Family Tree is that most of the changes are beneficial. Those who complain about changes are usually focusing on a particular person or segment of their own portion of the Family Tree. 

Over the years I have been working on the Family Tree, I have seen the number of changes in certain family lines almost disappear. I attribute this to the following actions that I and my family members have taken.
  • We have added all the available documentation, stories, photos and sources. This fact alone has nearly stopped any changes being made in my first six or seven generations as shown on the Family Tree. I consistently find that the people who are complaining about changes have not yet taken the time to add sources, documentation, stories, and photos (if available).
  • We watch all of the individuals in our area of focus and concern so that we get weekly notifications from FamilySearch of any changes.
  • We quickly modify or remove any inappropriate changes, especially those made without any supporting sources or documentation.
  • In some cases, we communicate with the people making the changes to ascertain the reason for the changes. We request documentation where none has been provided. 
  • We make comments about the existence of source information that can be used to decide the accuracy of the information already in the Family Tree.
  • Where we have little or no data, we simply wait to make any corrections until we can do adequate research. 
  • We welcome and thank others for well documented and appropriate changes.
  • We avoid getting into change wars over remote ancestors with little or no documentation. 
Of all these actions, the most important are watching the Family Tree and regularly reviewing the changes sent each week by FamilySearch. 

Some changes are being made in an irrational manner. For example, we have an entirely undocumented person named Pardon Tanner who is repeatedly added to my third great-grandfather, John Tanner, as a child. There is no documentation of this person's existence and yet, he keeps appearing as an entry. In cases like this, there is really no way to prevent these bogus changes from occurring. We simply continue to watch the tree and remove him as a child when someone new puts that information into the Family Tree. 

If you are one of those Family Tree users who goes for long periods of time without viewing or working on the Family Tree, I suggest that you realize that changes are inevitable and that, like weeds in an unattended garden, they will proliferate in the absence of constant care and consistent work. 


  1. You laid it all out there, James, and did it well! It was in one of your classes that I heard you say the Family Tree has the greatest potential for preserving my data for the future. A light bulb went off in my head and I immediately directed my efforts to entering not only the facts, but the Memories to my part of the Tree. Thank you for your daily directions!

  2. I appreciate this articulation of the reasons to use FamilySearch Family Tree. It reflects how I have felt for a long time. Thanks for putting it into words! I love the collaborative aspect of it and do feel it is my best chance for preserving my research for future generations. By the way, we are related---I'm descended from Seth Tanner. Thanks for your blog posts and webinars!

  3. Thankyou so much for your explanations.
    I agree with all you've said. You've put into words what I've come to understand We must work collaboratively and if we can't it's a sad sad thing, because we are not becoming better human beings.
    I used to feel indignant when someone else changed something on my bit of the tree. I had to tell myself that I was being horrible and petty. Now I've learned to rejoice that someone else is a part of it.
    Much has been done to allow young people to contribute and I get a thrill to see young nephews and nieces doing some of the adding and editing.

  4. How to I change a ggrandfathers name entered on the on the parental side instead of the maternal side of my tree.

  5. Your experiences are unique to you. My experiences have been quite the opposite. I have spent hours cleaning up after others have merged or changed my family line despite all my sources and/or photos. I am not being ego centric. I have tried communicating, redirecting, and teaching only to be ignored. I have learned that it is best to use familysearch for submitting names for ordinance work, and to utilize the primary source digitized documents for research to provide sources to document the family. Every thing else is subject to change and revision.