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

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Changes Made to the Family Tree: The Good and the Bad

I had the opportunity to teach a class this week at the Washington, D.C. Family History Center to the Eastern European Focus Group. It was a very pleasant class. However, every time I bring up the subject of the Family Tree, someone, and in this case several people, expressed concerns about the accuracy of the Family Tree and the changes made to the information they contributed. I fully realize that I have written about this subject many times and even recently, but here I go again. By the way, the operative word in the image above from the Family Tree website is the work "shared."

First of all, not all "changes" to the Family Tree are bad. 

About three years ago, I did a video entitled, "Family Tree-Why it works and why it doesn't" Since then, I have written about the subject and made additional videos. In my opinion, during the past few years, overall, the Family Tree has made considerable progress both with the accuracy of the information and with issues of stability, i.e. changes. However, as more people get involved with the Family Tree, there is always a "battlefront" of change going on at different places as people try to reconcile their own records and inherited research with what is currently in the Family Tree.

From listening to concerns and complaints, I find that most of those who are upset relate issues with near relatives such as parents or grandparents. There is also a very vocal minority of users who are upset about remote ancestors who usually lived hundreds of years ago. Almost uniformly, those who are upset about "changes" to their near relatives have little or no idea that they can fix or correct the changes. It is also important to realize that some users of the Family Tree who have no genealogically active relatives see almost no changes to their entries until they get back into the "change zone."

What is the "Change Zone?" This is the part of the Family Tree where there is a general lack of consensus about the names, dates, places, and relationships represented in the Family Tree. This fluctuating zone of the Family Tree is the home of the "Revolving Door Ancestors." Those are people who have so many descendants in the Family Tree that it seems like their entries are being constantly rewritten.

We have a tendency to identify changes as either good or bad. But changes are just changes. Some of the changes made to the Family Tree make the information more accurate. Some changes do not reflect sources or reason and move the Family Tree towards chaos and anarchy.  Overall, the changes are good because people are involved and many are learning that their extended family creates an atmosphere of diversity. As I have written previously, genealogists are conditioned to expect stability in their own conclusions. They are not used to being challenged. The Family Tree provides a venue for diversity and confrontation with differing conclusions.

How do we know the difference between good changes and bad changes?

There is a really simple solution to this quandary. Look to the sources attached to the individuals involved in the changes. Are the changes supported by sources? If not, then the changes are likely to be ad hoc and more than likely wrong. But you are not qualified to draw that conclusion until and unless you provide a source or sources to support your own view of the information. In other words. unless you are willing to do the research, you are in no position to complain about the changes.

Here is an example of a supported response to a change in the Family Tree.

This is from a recent email notification from the FamilySearch of changes being made to people I am watching in the Family Tree. To understand what happened here and why the change was corrected, here are some of the responses made to the person who made the changes.

You might note that there is a request to "Provide sources, please."

So here we have the crux of the problem of distinguishing between good and bad changes. Good changes are accompanied by source citations and perhaps an explanation. Bad changes almost uniformly are made without explanation or sources. By the way, to see what is going on with any individual in the Family Tree, you should expand the recent changes section and look at all the changes.

An example of bad changes.

This type of random change without even a basis in speculation is destructive and if allowed to continue would rapidly degrade the information in the Family Tree. How is this problem addressed? By watching the entries you put into the Family Tree. I have used the analogy of a garden previously. But it always bears repeating. If we don't constantly weed a garden, we will not have any good results from our efforts. The Family Tree is a living and growing tree. It needs constant care and weeding of bad information is one of the main factors in keeping the Family Tree a viable and useful tool for genealogy.


  1. As I was reading this post, a thought occurred to me that I don’t think I’ve seen addressed before.

    Ignoring pedigree collapse, going back ten generations I theoretically have 2046 ancestors. If each of those couples had an average of three children who grew up and got married and two children that did not in addition to the child I am descended from, that would be a total of about 10,224 close relatives and spouses.

    (Here is the math:
    2046 ancestors = 1023 couples
    3 children that got married = 6 X 1023 = 6132 aunts and uncles plus spouses
    2 children that never got married = 2 X 1023 = 2046 more aunts and uncles

    Total close relatives = 2046 direct ancestors + 6132 married aunts and uncles and spouses + 2046 unmarried aunts and uncles = 10,224 close relatives)

    How many of the people that have a fit about changes in Family Tree have a recurring problem with more than about 3 individuals?

    That would be a 0.03% problem rate.

    I suspect there is some observer bias blowing the issue of incorrect changes to Family Tree information way out of proportion to the actual situation.

    (This is ignoring, of course, certain types of clashes over style. I have a strong opinion about the necessity of including farm names for land owners in western Norway for proper identification. I view, for example, that having the name Anders Reinertsson Brandvik as an individual’s main name is vital. This view is fully endorsed by my Norwegian wife and in-laws and's recommendations for entry of Norwegian names in their database. I keep crossing paths with a gentleman who maintains that the farm name was not part of the person’s name and takes out every one he sees, leaving Anders Reinertsson to be lost in a sea of multiple Anders Reinertssons of the same time period and place. I put the names back. I have messaged and e-mailed him many times and he never replies. So far I am staying ahead of him because I have the people on my watch list and he doesn’t and he seems to be giving up.)

    1. Exactly, it is critical that the names be complete. Good comment. I will probably use you suggestions with my own Danish ancestors but I fear none of them owned property.

    2. Oh, I should mention that since so many indexed records leave out the surname, in order for the find, hint and duplicate routines to work properly in Family Tree I always do put the patronymic only name form, such as Anders Reinertsson, in as an alternate "Also Known As" name. See, for example, Ola Reinertsson Digernes K2NN-QKJ.

  2. Great comment. I need to go back and check some Norwegian ancestors and do the same. Agree that farm name is important.