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

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Some confusing issues with New FamilySearch

Some insightful comments to my last post on require some elaboration. The New FamilySearch website has three main goals:
  1. Reduce the duplication of ordinances and research.
  2. Simplify the process of preparing a name for ordinance work.
  3. Provide a way for families to work together to find, organize, and link their ancestors into families.
It is clear that all three goals are extremely important to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Church), but the first two have little relevance to those who are not members of the Church. None of the stated goals imply compliance with any genealogical standard, such as those recommended by the National Genealogical Society. However, it is certain that compliance with genealogical standards would likely result in a reduction in the problems and duplication present in the online database. There are no prerequisites for entering data into New FamilySearch. This is not a problem from the user standpoint and is certainly an important fact to promote the inclusive nature of the site, but does lead to a lack of consistency with the data.  But the lack of any filtering mechanisms allows wrong information to be entered as easily as correct information.

Quoting from the New FamilySearch Help Center (Document ID: 100317), "producing perfect pedigrees is not one of the main goals of new FamilySearch. That would be impossible to achieve in a multi-user database, where errors in research occur and each contribution is retained. Still, new FamilySearch does provide tools to help with this task." Note the statement that "each contribution is retained." What this means is that every submission to the database, no matter how inaccurate or misplaced, is kept by the program. Users can only modify, delete or correct information which they personally have submitted. Even if you find incorrect information in your own near relatives, like your parents and grandparents, you cannot change the information if it was submitted by another user. New FamilySearch is the antithesis of a Wiki. No matter how far fetched the submitted information, each submission is maintained on an exactly equal status as an other information. All information is maintained on an equal footing, there is no indication as to relevance, consistency or even if the information seems utterly impossible.

Absent an adequate method of correcting entries, the program will simply continue to accumulate errors and misinformation. This is especially true as long as the users of the program feel compelled to add duplicative information. It is unclear if this additional duplication is done intentionally, meaning they are aware that they are adding another copy of the same person, or inadvertently due to uploading GEDCOM files. But the results is the same. Some individuals and families in the program have hundreds (if not thousands) of duplicate copies. In some instances, where the same person is listed as both a child and parent, combining the individuals produces additional problems.

Since all information submitted is preserved, as noted, there are a substantial number of duplicates. Subsequently, there are a large number of Help Center items about the need to combine duplicate records. However, there is still a limit to the number of duplicate individuals who can be combined, while the actual number of duplicates of an individual can far exceed the limit. It is not that individuals are duplicated but entire pedigrees are duplicated. Combining a duplicate where the individual is part of a duplicate pedigree creates a branching point into usually conflicting pedigree lines. Despite these issues, users of the program continue to add duplicate individuals without bothering to check to see if the information is already in the database. It is possible to submit a unique individual to New FamilySearch, it is done every day, but there is a core of duplicates that continues to grow.

It is further evident from a review of the New FamilySearch program, that there is no adequate way to provide source information for specific facts. There is a tab for a listing of sources, but the lists do not, for the most part, contain what you would normally expect as sources, the list of sources is by and large a listing of the way the information was copied into the program. As the Help Center says at Document ID: 100343, "There are currently no guidelines for entering sources. You can enter as much information as seems most appropriate to you. If you have information that does not seem to fit into any of the fields on the page, enter it into the Comment field." The problem is that very few people see a need to enter any source information at all. Another problem is that what is recorded as a source is usually record of where the data was extracted from other records of the Church, not a source like a U.S. Census or a death certificate.

As a result of the lack of sources, the duplicate individuals and families and the inability to change even obviously wrong information, the database has no possibility of being a reliable research tool. There has been some discussion as to whether or not the New FamilySearch database can be useful for real genealogical research by suggesting names, dates and places unknown to the researcher to be used for later verification. That is always possible, but highly unlikely since there are very few actual original sources listed for any of the information.

In some instances the programs functions as it is designed to do. That is when someone enters information for the first time that is really unique. But eventually, as their research expands they will likely run into the existing lines and discover the difficulty of evaluating the information. As an example, I was asked to help a friend with a line dating back to Indiana in the early 1800s. In this case he assumed that the birth information give in New FamilySearch was correct. however, it turned out that more examination showed that the information was simply wrong and the individual in question was inadequately identified. Had my friend assumed that the information was correct and not sought help, he could have spent a considerable time looking in the wrong place and time. Not all users of the program have the ability to evaluate what they are looking at in a sensible fashion.

When and if the present database is added to the website, it would be helpful if most of these issues are addressed. However, as a side note, the information contained in the program is no worse or better than that in many Family Tree type online databases.

A last note on the use of the term "Family Tree." Although the term is appropriate and suggestive of what is contained in the databases, it is presently much overused in online programs. In most instances the nomenclature alone causes confusion. For example, in New FamilySearch if you enter "your family tree" information, it is actually not yours at all, but is open to change by anyone viewing the program. In the the website, there is already a tab for "Family Tree" that links to a search of the Ancestral File and the Pedigree Resource File. I suggest that a clear distinction be made between the various references to family trees, indicated exactly how the term is being used. Otherwise, there should be an effort to develop a different method of referring to user generated information as opposed to searching information in an existing database. I understand that efforts along this line are already underway.

Really the last note. New FamilySearch has created a huge interest in family history in general and inspired a lot of people to investigate their families origins. I only hope that as a tool the program can be improved. I also hope that any criticism I have of the present database is viewed as constructive rather than destructive. I would like nothing better than to have the opportunity to weed out the problems shown on New FamilySearch in my family lines.

1 comment:

  1. James, thank you very much for taking the time to write this thoughtful overview.