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

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Why I am not a fan of fan charts

OK, so you know that I am opinionated and you can read the title to this post. I am also aware that there are a whole lot of people out there in genealogy land who love fan charts. There are even some of my friends that make a living designing and printing fan charts and other family charts. I tolerate these printed charts but I am not a fan. I certainly do not wish to offend any of these people, nor do I wish to disuade anyone from making a chart of their family. If it works for you, do it.

The fundamental reason I have problems with fan charts is not really very simple. It has to do with the tentative nature of genealogical research. Past a certain point all entries in my family file are liable to be revised with further information. Printing out a chart, even for decorative purposes, codifies the entries. It makes people think that the information is "etched in stone" and cannot be changed.

But, you say, I can use a fan chart to easily identify those areas in my family that need research. Hmm. The problem is that the fan chart makes you look at the holes, not at the incorrect information that may be lurking just below the empty entries. There is an unspoken inference that the information you find to create your fan chart is correct. That may or may not be the case. But those who print out fan charts automatically start looking in the blank spaces and, for the most part, in my experience, ignore the information they already have in their file.

But aren't they pretty? Don't they help give you a graphic idea of how your family is organized and who you are related to? Aren't they impressive at family reunions? Yes, to all of those questions, but fan charts have been around for a very long time and so have 12 generation pedigree charts and I haven't been enticed to use either. There is something about printing out a "final" copy of your research that makes it seem final. Would you reprint a new fan chart every time you made a change to your information? I think not. So who is going to use the fan chart and who is going to rely on it?

Just like surname books that keep repeating the errors of the genealogical past, fan charts become a transmitted preservation of errors. Once it is on the wall or on paper at all, it is now a formal document and becomes the authority for the rest of the family. So how do I go about changing my relative's printed fan chart when I find a whole new line or correct a whole new line? How many fan charts have you seen where the information on the chart was not completely accurate?

But, you say, you are being an old fuddy-duddy and need to get a life. What harm is there in making a fun chart for your family? Maybe, just maybe, the budding genealogist in your family will be motivated by the chart to dig into the records and do some real research? Again, I am not inclined to disuade anyone from making any kind of chart they like, I just don't think they work for me.


  1. OK, James, what do you really think? I rarely print out charts, mostly because I want to gather more information to fill in all those adorable little boxes. I do have a yearly family gathering & sometimes display charts to show my family what I have discovered. Your insights have me thinking now. I should be sure & let them know, as you have pointed out, that these results are not written in stone.

  2. Right on!

    Below is a portion of a comment I posted on "Get Satisfaction," without expecting anyone in Family Search to pay any attention to it:

    "I am concerned that we are more interested in engaging youth and other newcomers with fan charts (which may well contain erroneous data, as has too often been my experience with FT), and with the opportunity to include photos and stories than we are in teaching them how to find ancestors and relatives not yet included in FT who need temple ordinances performed. I believe we need a better balance between trying to appeal to newcomers, providing them with adequate training on how to do research, and making it clear as to how to find the research resources available on

  3. Does your argument apply to _anything_ printed out? Each year around holiday time, I print out a 700+ page PDF "Ancestor Book" (produced by Legacy). It's a way for my relatives to see where I'm at with the research. But it's always out of date within a month or two. But they all know that.

    I'm not sure what the difference is between my "book" and the fan charts -- or, for that matter, printing _anything_ out.

    One great way to get new people in one's own family interested in genealogy, is to show them interesting charts of various kinds about their own family.

  4. This sounds pretty curmudgeonly. Yes, many people are sloppy with unsourced connections, and on-line searching has worsened the problem while offering wonderful benefits for researchers. But people have always been sloppy. Creating a fan chart doesn't make them more so. In fact, one can make a fan chart and put red, blue or green lines or some such notation to designate the surety of the links. Some of us are just more visual and such a chart help our brains see the big picture. We're not frozen by fan charts any more than we are by digital databases.

  5. Everything you say is true, but dismisses the central point for why I do fan charts. Most of my family have an interest in their history. But, they are only interested as long as they don't have to work very hard at it. Fan charts are simple enough that they can be engaged without a lot of effort. It's not for the genealogists who crave detailed accuracy, it's for the family member who only wants the big picture.

    With computerization we can have both!

  6. I have to say a little something about fan charts. When I started doing research about 3 years ago, I was overwhelmed! I didn't know where to begin, it was very confusing to me. I kept saying to the awesome researchers who were helping me that I needed a "map"! Something to tell me where I was, where I was going and where I had been! After months of saying this to them, and a difficult year of discouragement...I finally laid eyes on a fan chart!!! I couldn't believe how much it made sense to me! I have dyslexia. I get lost when I turn the page. A fan chart is one page!! It saved me! I had a map! I finally could tell where people's the only way I can tell if research is right, because I know who they are talking about. Before the fan chart I couldn't tell where in my tree I was. Chronology is miserable for my disorder! I prayed for a way to be capable of research...voila! chart!:) Ironically I read your article because I googled fan charts so I could buy another "map" to do my husband's side of the family:) A fan chart isn't the destination, it's how you know where you're going:)

  7. Your argument as framed would seem equally to apply to *anything* printed, including traditional ancestry charts, which, after all, is really all a fan chart is. But while I applaud and fully subscribe to the thrust of your concern -- quality over quantity -- I think its direction is misplaced. A bit like blaming bad penmanship on the pencil.

    The problem as I see it is not so much that fan sheets holes tempt immature genealogists, but that immature genealogists are tempted by fan sheet holes (among other questionable genealogical practices). And that is a problem better solved by training than by removing a useful tool.

    I tend to concur with Julie. While I don't use fan charts a lot myself -- I can spend years dwelling in one branch whose contours are so well known to me I don't need a fan chart to visual it -- I have found fan charts to be a wonderful visual overview of my research, and an irreplaceable index for quickly locating branches when memory fails ("Heatons? Heatons? Now where we're they again?"). I could get by without them. Just wouldn't want to.

  8. We're looking for a company that prints nice looking half fan charts that we can give to clients (with the caveat that the information is not set in stone) ;). Does anyone have a recommendation? Thanks, Jessica Taylor