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

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Online, unverified, no sources and public

I was startled by a recent comment to one of my posts. The commentator took umbrage with my views on faults of online family trees and mentioning that the family trees had an excuse, they were works in progress. I also was interested in an article posted by Dick Eastman entitled "Is It Unverified Data dn Will It Always be Unverified?" Both the comment and the article defend online family trees that are unverified, with no sources and open to the public.

In an analogous situation, let's pretend that you are in a huge forest of thick trees, so close together that it is dark in the depths of their shadows. One of these trees has valuable treasure hidden on one of its branches. But because the there are so many trees and the trees grow so close together, you cannot tell which tree has the branch with the treasure. Oh, did I mention that all of the trees claim to have the treasure. Every one of them has a sign reading, "Climb this tree to find the valuable treasure." The problem and the challenge is that only one of them actually has the treasure. To make matters even worse, many of the trees have counterfeit treasures, changed just enough from the real treasure to make the counterfeits entirely worthless. So what do you do to find the treasure? Climb every tree?

Now imagine you are looking at a huge online database of family trees. All of which are claiming, by being online and public, to contain a rich treasure. But because the names and dates in each of trees is neither verified nor sourced, it is impossible to see the real treasure or to discern the real treasure from a counterfeit. Perhaps neither the commentator nor Dick Eastman have relatives like mine, adding copy after copy of inaccurate and unoriginal family trees to any online location available. There is rampant duplication and unfortunately, each and every duplicate contains the same wrong information.

For that reason, I refuse to examine any family tree, in my lines, that does not show at least a glimmer of verification or source citation. I realize that likely very few research genealogist spent the first 20 years or so of their research, like I did, merely wading through all of the previous versions of my relatives contributions, trying to piece together some semblance of verity. When I got through with the initial 20 year plus survey, I found the corpus of the previous work to be rife with errors. As one of my daughters recently cautioned me about my Springthorpe line, there is hardly one date from the existing genealogies that is accurate.

I do not have the same fear that Dick Eastman has, that I will miss some genealogical gem by ignoring the unsourced online trees. Especially, when I see the same mistakes over and over again with not even a modicum of effort spent in correcting obvious errors. (As people say to me from time to time, why don't you tell us how you feel about that). The end-of-line issues in my personal family research are so obscure, that it is highly unlikely that any casual researcher would even be aware of the problems, much less the solutions.

But what about when I help others with much, much less information about their family. Yes, I can say that looking online at submissions may give the client some insight into the family line, but it is also very possible that the unsourced and unverified information may be entirely misleading and inaccurate.  It is interesting that products sold on Amazon and many other sites have a user rating, but there does not seem to be any online genealogy family tree program that provides the same type of rating system for the uploaded stuff I commonly see. 


  1. At the end of your article you wrote:

    "It is interesting that products sold on Amazon and many other sites have a user rating, but there does not seem to be any online genealogy family tree program that provides the same type of rating system for the uploaded stuff I commonly see."

    I think this is a superb idea--one that would help a beginning genealogist, like myself, get a handle on all of the information out there.

    I use some online tree--mainly as a marker to point the way. I do not trust them. What I typically do is take them with a grain of salt and look for ways to verify them through records. If I can prove them, then I don't accept them. Every now and then, I will find an online tree that has all the information and I can get information I need to satisfy my trust.

    I think the research rating system would give the researcher fair warning which trees has been researched and those that have not. And, no, another online tree doesn't count as research.

  2. James, you can put a comment on pieces of info on Ancestry, or at least I've been able to do so. I agree with you and absolutely hate seeing the mis-information that's online and how it is co-opted and copied by others who apparently do not care whether it's correct, or don't understand how important it is to verify data - it's the principle, for me.

    My ggg-grandfather is John Koons, married to Rebecca Geeseman (spellings do vary). I and my Koons research buddies have not been able to uncover one document that proves his origins before he shows up in Baughman, Wayne Co., Ohio beyond what he himself told the Census takers. Same for Rebecca. However, I see over and over again, on many peoples' trees, the "fact" that John is the son of John Koons and Elizabeth Marchand of PA, and that Rebecca is the daughter of George Geeseman and Mary Catherine Miley of PA. Yet each time I've contacted the owners of the trees, I either get a breathless reply with no actual proof or no reply at all.

    I do look at trees and info that pops up when I am searching for data on a name, and have found clues even if other info (dates, children, etc.) are incorrect - because a lead is a lead is a lead. I have even contacted some of the people and given them the correct info and offered to send a PDF of the document/proof I have, just to try to get some info corrected. Some people have taken me up on it, some have insisted they are correct, some have said they got their tree from someone else online so they are content that what they have is correct (!!!!!), and some never replied.

    I don't have my info up on Ancestry ~ still debating putting my work into their hands, which would require continuing to spend $$ on a subscription. I may end up doing my own website at some point, with links to scans of the documents and photos (stored on space hosted by Dropbox, Google,, etc.).