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

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

What is missing in Family History today?

There are really many pieces missing from the process of genealogical research today and some of them are obvious and others are ignored almost completely. I spent the past week, in part, watching one of my daughters work on researching early English parish records. During the week, she spent a considerable amount of time also discussing her research with her husband and with her mother (my wife). Her involvement in the research process was time-consuming and intense. All three of them were involved in lengthy discussions about what they were finding and whether or not the documents supported their conclusions. By the way, they were searching original parish registers, not indexes or other secondary sources.

What was important about this experience was that it points out the pieces of family history or genealogy process that are mostly missing from the superficial treatment given to the subject by those who have never spent an entire week or month or year or longer researching one topic. Granted, there are many aspects of "family history" that can be done in small batches such as digitizing records and uploading them to a website such as Memories. But we need to look at what we are ultimately trying to accomplish and what is required when we talk about finding our ancestors.

Essentially, any correct information that is already in the Family Tree is literally the product of someone's research whether that research was accurate or inaccurate. During the past 100 years or so a few dedicated people spent considerable time researching their ancestry. What we have in the Family Tree and other family tree programs is the accumulation of that research. A lot of that research was dead-on accurate despite the limitations in the access to many records. Focusing on the limitations and inaccuracies of their research denigrates the effort and time it took to accumulate all the information they did preserve.

Granted, today, we have a dramatic increase in the availability to records through digitization and the internet, but the process of finding an ancestor or other relative is essentially the same as it was 100 years ago. The methodology may have changed but the fundamental process has not. Each person correctly added to the Family Tree is "produced" by someone doing research and finding that individual in a record created by someone in the past who had knowledge of the ancestor or relative or a duty to record an event in the ancestor's or relative's life. Historical or genealogical research is the process of locating those documents and discovering the information they contain.

Despite the availability of the information and the increased speed of the process of doing research, we still have to go through the process in order to produce the information needed to identify ancestors and relatives. The correct information does not magically appear simply because someone wrote a computer program to aid the finding process. We also need to remember that the percentage of records that have been digitized and are readily available is still a small percentage of the total documents created in the past and further, we need to realize that the percentage of those documents that are indexed is actually vanishingly small. Record hints are a huge step forward but not yet a replacement for traditional research methods.

Initially, all of the people in the Family Tree either performed their own ordinance work or had their work performed for them by proxy by someone else, usually a descendant or relative. When people found more names than were immediately taken to the Temples, a surplus of names was created.  Today, the same process is in effect. A very small number of people are finding new entries for the Family Tree and because of their work, there is a surplus of names that are not immediately taken to the Temples. Mechanically searching through the existing entries in the Family Tree and finding these surplus people who are already recorded in the Family Tree does not add or produce a new name for ordinance work. Granted, the Temple work does need to be done, but even if the surplus seems inexhaustible, it is still finite and drawing from the surplus does not replenish the system. What happens when these, mostly older, researchers die? Think about it.

So what happens if we provide a quick and easy way for people to "find a name" to take to the Temple? Every name found is then removed from the surplus built up over the past 100+ years. What is missing? Connecting the activity of finding a name with the research necessary to actually find a person who is not already in the Family Tree. Does that seem so complicated? Why then is this process denigrated and ignored?

Well, for example, many people do not already have any family names in the Family Tree and even those that have their own name lack two or more generations of people in the Family Tree. Because of the huge number of people (even those who are members of the Church) adding those new usually easily obtainable names would add a huge number of names to the Family Tree. But because of the 110-year rule, their ordinances would necessarily be done by close family members. So even though the total number of people identified increases, the pool of surplus names would not increase substantially.

The missing piece is connecting the basic introduction of people to the concept of family history to the actual process of producing newly and correctly added names for ordinances in the Temples that then become a surplus available to those who cannot or will not do the research. In actual practice, many of the names of people in the Family Tree are duplicates. In addition, many of the relationships are inaccurately represented. A huge amount of the information is speculative or imaginative. Unfortunately, even inaccurate or imaginary people show up as potential candidates for Temple ordinances. Without the skills needed for accurate research, the overburden of inaccurate and sloppy work continues to increase.

Why am I writing this? Because personally I have been told by those in authority that my skills as a genealogical researcher are not needed and that what I tell people discourages them from turning their hearts to their ancestors. Just last night, I attended a class, ostensibly to help the participants, where the entire class consisted to showing dozens of participants how easy it was to "find names to take to the Temples." Only a token mention was made about the accuracy of the names or whether or not the people were actually related to the people they found in the Family Tree and certainly no mention was made about the process of determining whether or not the information provided by the programs was at all accurate or how to determine that accuracy. What is more important, nothing at all was said about the need to do research to "replace" the names used up by drawing on the surplus in the Family Tree.

What is needed? When we help people have a personal family history experience, we need to further provide them with a way to learn how to actually find new names to take to the Temples. We need to help people understand that when they "take a name" provided either by name extraction or by finding an opportunity in the Family Tree that they are drawing down on the surplus created by the work of others. Because those researchers do such an effective job, it really does take only a few of them to provide names for lots of people, but ignoring the need to develop competent and reliable researchers merely pushes the issue down the road.

Fortunately, we already have a tool that will help move people from having a Temple experience to helping them learn how to do research. It is The Family History Guide. But currently, there is no convenient way for a newly interested potential family historian to learn about The Family History Guide. For whatever reason, FamilySearch has not provided any direct links to the program and except for a mention in the Solutions Gallery, as far as I am aware, the program is ignored by the website. The Family History Guide is a free program operated by a non-profit charitable corporation and is not in competition with any other program.

Granted, The Family History Guide is not a cure-all for everything I am talking about in this post but it is a giant step towards providing a pathway to progress.


  1. Thank you for posting this and other messages that point out this ongoing problem. I'm hoping because of your proximity to those "in the know" that some direction will soon come out that emphasizes adding people to the family tree and FINALLY show support for The Family History Guide. In all the classes I've taught, I've emphasized that it is so important to look for those ancestors who are not yet in familysearch, but the directions they keep getting from headquarters emphasizes how easy it is to "find a name". Thank you for taking the time to post.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I don't know how much "proximity" I have.

  2. I feel "some" of your pain. Not the researcher you are, but certainly one who does extensive search before submitting names. I am frustrated by the number of people who want my help, but really only want to "find a name."

    1. Finding a name is fine, but it is not research. I think of finding a name as the end product and research as the production process.