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

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Moving Beyond Copying Family Trees

The number of online family trees submitted by users of all the various programs is truly staggering. There is not way any can even begin to examine all of the possible matches in all of the trees on programs such as,, and many, many more. From examining some of these many offerings, it is obvious that commonly new users of the programs merely copy an existing tree as their own without question or even knowing the content of the tree. This practice is creating a huge level of background noise to genealogical research.

On a practical level, I deal with this type of genealogical background noise almost every time I assist new genealogists. If we are serious about involving more people in genealogy, we have a major obstacle to overcome; the practice of copying pedigrees without question or examination. Some of the online programs suggest connections with other users' family trees and the implication is that the information in the other tree should be incorporated in your own. Unfortunately, there are no suggestions that the information should be verified before copying. You can see an example of this by looking at a date or event that you know to be wrong and see how many different online trees have incorporated that fact.

The most egregious example of copying, of course, is the practice of incorporating a "family tree" going back to Adam. I have yet to find anyone who claims to have this connection that can document their entries.

How do we, as a genealogical community, help our associates and those interested in family history to move past the copying stage? Is there now anyway to correct all the misinformation duplicated in the online family trees? Don't we face a massive public relations and education task in educating all of these individuals?

But wait, maybe you don't think copying is such a bad idea? Isn't that really the basis of collaboration? If I do some research and share it with you and you copy what I have done is that wrong or bad? Well, that depends. The real issue underlying the problem of copied family trees and many other issues in genealogy is the concept of documentation of sources. More about that later, but the question is whether or not we are concerned with historicity and accuracy? Do we just want to make people feel good because they are "related" to a famous person or is there some underlying need to accurately represent ancestral lines?

These are all questions that need to be addressed in the larger genealogical community. Simply recruiting more people to add more copied records does not really add to the overall value and attractiveness of genealogical research.


  1. James,

    Thanks for this article. The key phrase in my view is "Don't we face a massive public relations and education task in educating all of these individuals?"

    There are many articles like this, as you know, from experienced and professional genealogists, who take a tone of condescension and significant negative criticism of those new folks who frankly, just don't know any better. And that approach does not help matters at all - in fact it turns off many new folks who strive to do things properly.

    I am glad that you did not take that tone.

    There is an interesting discussion regarding these collaborative tree sites in the Tech for Genealogy & Family History Researchers Google+ Community and some of the issues that you raise.

  2. I was just talking to a friend today and she said she had someone copy her tree and citations. Then they changes the citations on the tree to fit into to what she thought was correct ????? I do not see how you can protect your research for people who do things like that.