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

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Trees, Sourcing and Duplicates

My comments on the lack of sources for online family trees brought some critical responses. As I expected, I got comments explaining the benefits derived from online trees. I do not doubt that there is some benefit to be derived, as I have obtained pictures and other information from online trees. But there are still some serious challenges facing anyone who dives into the morass of online family trees submitted by users.

The first question is simple. Does correct information online move from the correct source to those trees with incorrect information or does it happen the other way around? In short, do those who submit online family trees try to find correct information in others' trees and correct their own trees? To believe that somehow having more complex, accurate information will somehow correct the inaccurate or missing information in other trees violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It is natural for the entropy of the online trees to increase and it would take a considerable amount of work to reverse that process. Although online family trees are not part of the physical world governed by the Laws of Thermodynamics, the information in online family trees behaves in a similar fashion, i.e. it tends to degrade over time.

Assume that there are ten nearly duplicate records posted in an online family tree ( or whatever) and that nine of them contain inaccurate or missing information. Only one of the ten records has a correct birth date for a particular ancestor that is in each of the ten trees. What are the chances that the other nine references will be copied by the next person submitting the same tree as opposed to a copy of the one correct and sourced record? In my experience, virtually zero, not even ten percent. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have correct information posted online on my family trees and the only time I have seen anyone consider adding the correct information was my own daughter, who probably verified my information for herself.

One excuse made for the lack of sources in online family trees was a comment that the submitters probably did not have subscriptions to the service and could not add sources but had them in their own records. Guess what? This is not the case. I work with people and their own individual files day after day and I find an insignificant number that have recorded sources. In fact, I have been on the newer Family Tree program now for months, adding sources since that feature was available, and out of my thousands of relatives, so far out of the individuals I am watching, almost no one has added any new sources. They have made changes, but not added sources. Why is that? 

In my experience, for the vast majority of potential researchers, genealogy is not about dates and sources, it is about stories and relationships. Those of us involved in dates, relationships, stories, events and everything else, often fail to realize how little people care about filling in the details. Correcting grandfather's birth date is not nearly so important as learning who he was and what he did. Putting "my" family tree online, proves that I am somebody and a member of society. The fact that there are no sources or that the dates may be wrong or even that the information may be wrong is simply not a concern of the vast majority of those "interested" in genealogy. I have seen this time after time as I help people "find" their ancestors. Almost none of the so-called beginners care about recording the dates or sources of the information. Many times, just seeing the census record or birth record is enough. They just want validation as a member of a family and thereby part of the society as a whole.

Can we then expect our "relatives" to correct the information online? Not even a valid expectation. Can we expect them to add sources? Not on your life. Will duplication cease with any new program? No, in fact, it will increase in direct proportion to the number of people participating. Will posting the correct information online or correcting existing information somehow affect those looking at the correction? I don't want to seem overly cynical, but no it will not. Will that stop me from correcting the information or adding sources? No, never. 


  1. A lot would depend upon how any system designed to display family trees sorts the order of duplicate facts. For instance, a system that sorts sourced facts higher than unsourced facts would contribute to a higher likelihood that the sourced facts would be copied, and perhaps even a higher likelihood that the sources themselves would be copied.

  2. If nine people have it wrong and you have it right everyone will think you have the fact wrong..

    I sent an email to a person and asked where he got the information about one of my husbands ancestors and he honestly answered "I got it from an on line tree" I have not posted it yet. Hopefully it will get better with the emphasis on citations, or again maybe not.

  3. ''Re: Adding sources citations to FamilySearch Tree .'' I find that it's not a perfect working function to add source citations yet . I still do it but only the persistent genealogist will work on it .Just my thoughts .......something is amiss with that source citation feature . SOURCE BOX is better now , if they could LINK or SYNC source box & citation together smoothly ,add dropdown lists for specific localities, FHL Film #'s ,repositories, ect ( like they do on We Relate Wiki ) for the new added citations and then go into a COMPARE function to root out the bad stuff....well, I am dreaming , am I ?