RootsTech 2014

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

Monday, March 17, 2014

Where do we park our personal research?

For some members of the greater genealogical community the computer age has yet to arrive. But regardless of your attitude towards computerization or storing your research online or any of a multitude of other questions, ultimately we all have to face our mortality and become concerned about what will happen to our pile of research whether big or small. I continue to hear horror stories about the loss of a genealogist's entire life's work, usually thrown in the garbage. I recently received the rather extensive comment in response to a post entitled, "Family Trees: Unified vs. User Owned."
1. The fear of losing ownership or control of the data" 
I'm sorry but this bundles up several very different reasons, viz: 
1a The belief that "these are my ancestors". 
1b A lack of faith in the ability of the so-called collaborators to follow sensible research process. Examples are where people alter values without leaving any justification or without responding to the existing arguments on the site that document why the proposed, new values are nonsense or who do not respond to requests to discuss or collaborate. 
1c A lack of faith in the ability of the software to implement the collaboration process. Example - not providing a mandatory contact process. How can one collaborate with some who cannot be contacted? 
1d Inability of the software to convey any nuance of likelihood. For instance, there may be a probability that X is the child of A and B but also a probability that X is the child of C and D and a probability that X is the child of someone else entirely. I know of no software that allows for all three possibilities and collaboration naturally ends up with multiple possibilities.

Items 1b and 1c are crucial and are dismissed far too often as being the same as 1a.
I'd also add: 
7. A lack of awareness that the sensible thing to do is to keep a user-owned family tree at the same time as collaborating on a separate unified family tree. Does any supplier of a unified family tree advise that having two trees is sensible? Or are they all content to let people think that the unified family tree is the only tree you'll ever need? 
Also we have:
Inability of the target software to accommodate all the data that the user already has. This applies to any online tree not just unified family trees. Example - FamilySearch FamilyTree is incapable of loading all sorts of data - notes against events, multiple baptisms, etc.
This comment raises some fundamental issues about the utility of online programs to support serious genealogical research. So even if researchers elected to store their data online, how would the conflicts pointed out in the comment be resolved? Aren't we all, in a sense, losing our data the minute we commit to one format, especially if that format is online in a public user supported family tree?

I have repeatedly heard the comment that a researcher did not want to commit their data to an online family tree because doing so would allow others to copy the data without qualification and the researcher knew that his or her conclusions were tentative at best.

I have found this to be the case when I uploaded my very early research many years ago. Little did I know that my tentative conclusions would be spread over the entire Internet and copied thousands of times including all my errors and wrong conclusions. But then doesn't this raise a real issue? When is our research done to the point that we can comfortably send it out to the world? And if we die before we are ready? What then?

As the commentator points out, there is really no place that undecided, tentative research can be adequately discussed online and the unified family trees, although the step in the right direction, do not answer all of the questions.


  1. We too often fall into the "perfect is the enemy of the good" trap. We do our best with the tools and knowledge, and imperfect software, available at a point in time. New evidence, including from DNA may well overturn all the conclusions from carefully researched and cited documentary records. Neither we nor those using our information should expect perfection. We can't be responsible for others not doing their own due diligence.

    1. Well, I agree in part. We can be responsible for others not doing their own due diligence if we allow that to happen without challenge.

  2. For many genealogists the internet-hosted trees, with their emphases on lineage-linking, can't host genealogical research. They provide a limited angle on connected nuclear families but little ability to present context: groups moving together, relationships other than parent-spouse-child, historical trends.

    Narratives presenting this broader view can be attached, but FS-Family Tree's method of linking such "stories" depends on an external website that is at times difficult to use, glitchy and who knows if it will exist in the future. FS-FT's dedication to lineage-linking in particular deters linking people to friends-associates-neighbors (say, slave owners; godparents; guardians). One can add a custom item as an "other" thing, but not link to the relevant persons. At least one other online tree setup at least allows a workaround or two.

    1. Yes, you point out some limitations with the present programs. As long as they are viewed as semi-social networking programs and not serious research, that will likely be the case.