It seems that one of the hallmarks of the online family tree programs is the proliferation of inaccurate and down-right sloppy genealogical information. I could give a huge number of absolutely outrageous examples from a whole variety of sources and I probably will at some point in this post. But I am not picking on any one of the dozens (hundreds) of family tree programs. These comments apply to all of them collectively as well as individually. They all have these same problems.
Responses by genealogists to these examples of poor research and recording practices extend from those who shun family trees altogether, to those who are simply mildly amused by the content. But with all of the genealogical commentary and complaints about user generated online family trees, I find there is almost no analysis of the types of errors that are common and why that might be occurring. It is too easy, as I could have done at the beginning of this post, to simply shrug your shoulders and dismiss the problems, but this is a serious issue and needs some serious consideration. If we are truly concerned about the problems, perhaps we need to start thinking of ways to solve them rather than dismissing the whole issue as a lost cause. I am sure there are those of us out there that, when confronted with a messy family tree, wish there was some way to divorce our relatives.
Enough of the frustration and now to the problem. The first and most obvious issue is that of copying existing family trees without any critical analysis of the contents. If I go online and see a huge family tree of all my relatives and I have no prior experience, I would normally believe that the online record was "correct" merely because it looks complete and I have nothing to compare it to. Unfortunately, this is a problem that is not likely to respond to anything genealogists can do. Most of the people uploading a copy of someone's file likely has little or no interest in genealogy as such, but merely thinks there is some reason to have a copy online. I am certain that there are some who think that they are "doing their genealogy or family history" simply by virtue of the fact that they put something (anything) online. As long as the hosting entities indiscriminately advertise the huge numbers of of people they have on user submitted family trees as if that had some meaning, this situation will continue to exist and grow even larger.
For every copy online there is some "original" that is being copied. If you examine the online family trees you will soon see the patterns of copying because there will be family trees with exactly the same mistakes over and over again. In the past, I have written about some of the possible variations that have occurred just in a few of my own ancestor's listings in family trees online. But the reality is that there are some files that have been copied more than others. This likely occurs because of a commonly held access to a surname book. For example, in my Tanner line, there are several surname books about our common ancestors. The mistakes in these books have been copied over and over again. It is relatively easy to see where the information originated because of the replication of the same errors in the same individuals.
One of the most obvious common errors involves place names. These errors can be minimized by having a suggested or mandatory standard place name. But the use of standardized place names give rise to another set of problems. As genealogists, we should be recording the place at the time the event occurred. So that this issue of accurate place names also involves recording the place name with geographic and jurisdictional information different than those applicable at the time the event occurred. This usually involves entering a present county for the locations when historically, the event occurred in an older "parent" county. This issue also arises when there has been a change in the name of an ancestral location, either due to some local issue or because a new ruler has taken over the country.
So in the online family trees the copying errors can come from previously shared pedigrees and family group records or from "helpful" suggestions from those who want "standardized" place names. This would appear to be an intractable problem, but the solution, from the standpoint of the user is obvious. Watch for indicator errors. Look for those variations in individuals in a family tree that indicate that the pedigree was copied. In addition, look to the source citations. This is perhaps the easiest way to determine if an online family tree is worth examining. If there are no source citations, then it is highly probable that the information was all copied, all at one time from a previous family file.
One of the most common responses to my concerns about online family trees is that the trees are valuable because they may provide suggested ancestors that later turn out to be valid. I would certainly agree that this is possible, but, as I have said before, I doubt that I would take the time to examine hundreds of un-sourced family trees on the mere possibility that there might be an entry that would be helpful. It would appear to me that the most expedient way of resolving this issue is to block any family tree entries that were not support by some-sort of the evidence. Another group of people come back to me with the comment that we should be extremely lenient with family tree people that are just starting out and not hurt their feelings by forcing them to add something to their photo, story or document that they don't care to do and do not see the utility of. Hmm. Well, that is a consideration but should we simply allow the continued proliferation of duplicate family trees? Where does the researcher fit in this process. I am not aware of any online family tree hosting service that refuses postings based on the lack of supporting citations of sources. Maybe someone should try that tactic.
More later, of course.