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

Sunday, June 3, 2018

A Survival Guide for the FamilySearch Family Tree: Part Four -- Are You Always Right?

The Family Tree is the solution, not the problem. 

Genealogists would probably not recognize that they had a borderline personality disorder in thinking that they were always right, but they often act like everything in their family tree is correct and everyone else is wrong. Many of the users of the Family Tree have "inherited" their genealogy from a long line of ancestors and relatives. In my case, there were one or two active genealogists and the rest comes from surname books written about the descendants of a selected number of my ancestors. With only a few exceptions, these books are devoid of references to any original source records.

One of my original major motivations for becoming involved in genealogy/family history was finding out through some superficial research that much of what had been represented to me as "completed" and accurate was neither complete nor accurate. Because the Family Tree incorporates much of that early genealogy, there are some huge gaps and a lot of inaccurate entries. No one should assume that the information that was used to create the Family Tree originally was either accurate or complete.

However, the Family Tree has now been in existence for a number of years and since its inception sources have been added and much of the information that was inaccurate or incomplete has been corrected and completed. A current user of the Family Tree may find that many of the entries have substantial support from cited sources. Now we come to the problem. Many of the users of the Family Tree ignore both the sources and the documents attached as Memories. There should be a warning message that says, "Do not add any information or make any changes before examining all of the sources and all of the Memories." This simple expedient would probably save a lot of the grief and pain caused by unsupported changes.

Even though it is highly unlikely that any one person's compilation of their family history is completely accurate, it is very likely that over time the combined efforts of a lot of different people will devolve into a very accurate family tree.

Here is an example from one the comments to my blog posts of the issues involved in this basic aspect of the Family Tree.
A couple of weeks ago I helped someone in our family history center who was pretty new to family history. The other consultant who was there started off by telling her that she needed to get a private tree on Ancestry to protect her information from all the people who were going to mess up her tree on Family Search. At least two of the other consultants seem to always start by showing patrons how to set up a tree on Ancestry for the same reason. I fully support this practice, but I don't know that it's the best idea to start by telling people that someone's going to mess up all their work on Family Search. I think it's more motivating to start by helping them have heart-turning experiences such as reserving temple names or finding interesting records about their ancestors.
Now, this comment brings up a number of different issues, but the main one is a distrust of the Family Tree's accuracy and the need to "protect" our own, impliedly accurate, information. Let's face it. Someone who is just starting out doing genealogical research is extremely unlikely to have accurate information about their ancestors past their own parents and many have inaccurate information about their parents. So whose accuracy are they trying to preserve? Rather than assuming that what we already know is accurate, we should be more concerned with supporting any conclusions we might make by finding and attaching supporting documents.

This comment also addresses a fear that what is put into the Family Tree will somehow be "lost" due to "changes" made by others. This particular viewpoint is endemic to a certain type of Family Tree user. It is an irrational fear of loss of data when they are not even sure what they have in their own files is correct.

This brings up another major issue; the person who has a massive amount of data, usually at least partially inherited, that goes all the way "back to Adam." I have talked to people who have tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of "names" in their files and they are absolutely convinced that every connection is correct. This group of people also include people who are involved in what is known as a "private extraction" program where they are entering everyone into their family tree program who has the same surname or everyone in a certain geographic area. I once talked to a person who worked in a Family History Center who regularly told younger patrons that they could enter anyone in an Engish county with their same surname into their family tree because they were all related. I will eventually get to the issue of the private extraction efforts, but my point here is that there are other insidious genealogical practices out there that are the root cause of many of the problems we see today especially when these people try to dump all of their "work" into the Family Tree.

I am going to use a hypothetical situation to illustrate what I think of these problems. Let's suppose that I am going to plant a garden. I look at a few photos of gardens and decide I want to plant some vegetables such as peas, corn, carrots, etc. So I go buy some seeds from the nearest hardware store and throw them out on the ground in my backyard and expect them to grow. Oh, I find out I need to water my garden (I am assuming I live in Mesa or Provo). So I water my seeds. Will I get a garden? Yes, because I am watering it, I will get a garden of weeds. In Mesa, I would get a lot of Bermuda grass. What did I do wrong? Isn't gardening fun and enjoyable? Isn't it a popular "hobby?"

If you have ever grown a productive garden, what do you think is missing from this example? The part where we learn about how to grow a garden? The part where you pull weeds etc? The part about work?

Now, do you suppose that you can have a beautiful family tree without spending the time to prepare, work and weed? If you watch a garden grow, you are aware that there are changes every day. Do we stop gardening because there are changes? I guess some people stop gardening because they hate pulling weeds. But if you really want to garden, you pull weeds. If you really want to do your genealogy on the Family Tree, you need to prepare and learn about what you are trying to do and learn to correct other's errors. Start with The Family History Guide or and learn about the process. Then don't get bothered by the changes and the corrections. They are the "weeds" that need to be pulled. But as you pull the weeds then you can see the beauty of the garden or Family Tree.

If you are growing a garden and there start to be weeds do you run off and plant a substitute garden so you can know what your garden is going to look like and preserve it? Not likely. I suggest the same attitude towards the Family Tree. By the way, there are backup and redundancies built into the Family Tree that makes correcting most of the issues simple and nearly automatic. Maybe you need to learn something before you give up the idea through listening to the naysayers of the genealogical community.

Stay tuned, I am just getting started on this series.

Here are the previous posts in this series

Part One:
Part Two:
Part Three:


  1. I’ve been debating whether to comment to this post or to wait and see what more you have to say. Finally, deciding you might want to incorporate a response in your promised future posts, I’ve decided to ask some questions here.

    You state above, “This group of people also include people who are involved in what is known as a "private extraction" program where they are entering … everyone in a certain geographic area.… I will eventually get to the issue of the private extraction efforts, but my point here is that there are other insidious genealogical practices out there that are the root cause of many of the problems we see today especially when these people try to dump all of their "work" into the Family Tree.”

    I’m wondering now exactly what a private extraction program is, how it is different from the cluster research you recently discussed, how to avoid such a thing when following your recent plea to “Please find the babies!” and how one can follow your example in trying to “document as many relatives as I possibly can before I die” without such a project.

    For years I have been plagued by the thought that the only way to make sure my wife and I have found all of her relatives is to systematically go through every line of every parish register where she has family and figure out who everyone is. Is this a private extraction program that you appear to discourage and disparage?

    I have in the past considered doing such a thorough examination of the records, but it seemed like a somewhat waisted effort to do this and not record everything I found. If I did record it all, would it overwhelm my files? Would I every have room for it all? Would it ever be of use to anyone else? These concerns kept me from starting.

    But in Family Tree, there are no storage concerns. Also, anything I find will be available to anyone who wants it. So I started a project.

    I have taken the parish register for Stord, Hordaland, Norway, for 1878 to 1913 and am evaluating every entry. It took about 4 months to complete births for 1878 and I’m about a quarter of the way through births for 1879.... (to be continued)

  2. (Continued from previous comment)

    If the person is not already in Family Tree, I create him or her. I find all the historical records I can in FamilySearch for the person’s birth and attach a link to the digitized parish record page on the Norwegian Digitalarkivet website. Using the FamilySearch indexes, the Norwegian Archives transcriptions, and census records I find as many siblings as I can. I connect the person to their parents and siblings. I find birth sources for all the siblings and the parents as well as marriage records for the parents. I do the same for the grandparents and all the siblings for the parents.

    Depending on the size of the family, I usually end up adding a hundred or or so sources to Family Tree for each family group. Fixing each family group also generally requires somewhere around ten to fifty merges in Family Tree. One family group can take anywhere from a couple of days to, if there turns out to be problems such as previous bad merges, a couple of weeks to complete. I am not pursuing all the marriage and death information that could be added unless needed to confirm the family structure.

    I am finding that even doing just this three generation group, about 90% of these individual quickly link into my wife’s lines in Family Tree and are 4th to 10th cousins at various removal levels. So these are people we would run into doing descendancy research anyway, but much less efficiently.

    As an example of the types of things I am running into, just today while working on a family a FamilySearch Hint popped up for a twin boy that died at a couple of weeks of age that was not in my desktop file (this family is actually quite closely related to my wife so we already had some information), was not in the community history or Bygdebok that everyone uses for this area, and was not in Family Tree. So I added him to his family where he now sits with a green icon for a closer relative to find. I would estimate that my project is adding about a dozen green icons a week to Family Tree on names that are now cleaned up, free of duplicates, and well sourced.

    An example of the start of one of these groups is ID: MGQ2-47Y in Family Tree. Use the Find command in Family Tree using just the birth year of 1878 and birth place of Stord, Hordaland, Norway to find all of them.

    Is this a private extraction project, a public extraction project, or just making good use of available resources to “document as many [of my wife’s] relatives as I possibly can before I die”?

    1. A private extraction program is a concern of those who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are different rules for those who are submitting names for Temple ordinance work and those who are simply doing research. There are several limitations on submitting names to the Temple one of those is avoiding "private extraction programs." The idea of submitting names is to work with people who are your ancestors. Some people have simply extended that rule to include almost anyone with the same surname or who comes from a geographic area. One of the rules set forth by the Church concerning who you can and cannot submit for Temple ordinances says that you should not submit ordinance requests for "Those gathered from an unapproved extraction project." I understand that to mean that you do not submit names simply because you find them in a certain geographic area or because they have the same surname.

      If you add names to the Family Tree and do not intend to do the ordinances or reserve them for future submission, there is no limitation on adding names other than good sense and support by valid, well reviewed, and consistent sources.

    2. Sorry, I guess my response has two parts also. Yes, I will eventually cover the issues you raise. But adding documented names is not a problem and never will be. It is just making good use of available resources. I add people all the time who I do not intend to reserve for submission.