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Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Collaboration? Real or a Bugaboo?

Many of the sponsors of online family tree files tout the concept of collaboration. Generalized, the concept is that you put your "genealogy" online and that then labor intensive tasks, such as searching New England town records page by page, could be sourced out to a number of people and thereby resolving the task can be facilitated. In fact, the concept of the wiki programs, implements this concept of crowd sourcing and multitasking environment. Collaboration is also proposed as the solution for avoiding duplication of effort.

But aren't there a number of flaws in this whole concept of collaborative online research?

Let me use an example. Let's suppose that I want to share my genealogy with my extended family. Let's further suppose that I chose to put my family information on a public family tree and I choose to do so on So I consider adding my information to the collections already online with the expectation that someone will find my tree and we can "work together" to do the research. In preparation, I do a search on Public Member Family Trees on and find thousands of results. In fact, I just searched for my Great-grandfather Henry Martin Tanner and there were over 480,000 results from a search. So, there are already hundreds, if not thousands, of related trees. Which one do I choose to use as my base? Or will add my own information to the pile of duplicates.  (By the way, very few of these online trees cite even on source for their information, notwithstanding the fact that automates the process of adding sources).

This example does not even begin to consider the additional duplicate trees of my family on,, and other sites containing a copy of my file or added by both distant and close relatives. I have had my files online since 2001 and I am still waiting for the first invitation to "collaborate." Don't get me wrong, I see incredible benefits from having my genealogy online. I have been contacted by number of distant relatives over the years and had received a lot of information. I simply have never found anyone who had the expertise or interest in collaborating. Sharing data, photos and documents. Yes. Collaborating on research and multitasking. No.

Why do I believe this is the case? Will this always be the case or is there some scenario where collaboration becomes possible. First of all, collaboration implies people who share some common research goal and who are roughly comparable in their ability to investigate sources. I would love to find someone in Rhode Island who was willing to go through the very old local town records, page by page, and give me images of every reference to my family. Do I believe that this person who can read old records and find my family even exist? Not really. If they did, they would have either already done the research or would be charging as a professional.

So what do the online family tree programs mean when they are talking about collaboration? Collaboration implies joint effort towards an intellectual endeavor. How often will this opportunity occur in the real world of online genealogy? I do understand that collaboration is a laudable goal and that it is possible, but will it really happen? I have never had any to whom I was even remotely related contribute significantly to any of my online family trees. The closest I have come was one of my surname families that has an active family organization. We began a collaborative effort but it stalled after a short period of time. My wife's family had a huge cooperatively organized research effort, but that happened on a very local basis and with a close knit family. It also happened before computers.

I am certain that collaboration is possible. But I suggest that simply providing a forum, such as an online family tree does not necessarily engender active collaboration. Perhaps, we need to look more closely at the wiki model, where collaboration is possible and works very well.


  1. Well said!

    'Sharing' and collaborating are vastly different things.

  2. Though I use (and love) Ancestry as my main research site, I find a lot of erroneous information in Ancestry family trees. My pet peeve is the unnecessary and erroneous information added to a family tree by those who do not scrutinize records carefully. This would also be my concern about collaborating via Wiki. With so many families with similar names, one has to scrutinize corresponding information to be sure of being accurate (as far as we can with the sometimes scant data)
    Though not a true sustained collaboration, the sharing of data can save a researcher valuable time while providing information that takes them a step further in their own discoveries.