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

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Researching Online Family Trees

What real value is there in online family trees? Do the have any value at all? How do you use the information that you find in the online work someone else has done? What can you believe and what is beyond belief? Should you add information from online family trees to your own files? All of these, and many more, are valid questions that confront anyone doing online genealogy today. A search in any one of the online databases will often bring up suggested corresponding ancestors in online publicly available pedigrees. Is this information valuable or  just a complete waste of time?

I have been known to regularly rant and rail against the sloppy, inaccurate, less than helpful, duplicative and misleading entries in online family trees. But the number of entries on these trees means that there is always the slight possibility that someone else has found a clue to your family that you are not aware of. So do you spend time combing through these files ( a quick way to go completely out of your mind) or do you try to evaluate the information in the files to see if there is any value? I would like to make some suggestions in this regard.

First, and the easiest way to decide if the information is correct, is to look at who put the information into the online family tree. Over time, I have become acquainted with some of the online researchers through looking at the kinds of entries they make. If I see information from certain people, I assume that it is reasonable and may be reliable. Others, I copy automatically, because my experience is that they are meticulous researchers and would never add an entry without supporting sources. But do I automatically incorporate the information into the master copy of my own family tree? Only if I can independently verify the information, either by examining the source or talking to the person who submitted the information to verify that they have a valid reason for incorporation.

Now, very little of the online information falls into this category. Let me give a couple of examples of how I work.

I have uploaded my genealogy file to's Public Member Trees. Because I have a subscription to, I receive automatic "green leaf or shaking leaf" suggestions of connections to other family trees and/or sources. Here is a screen shot showing a portion of my family tree with the green leaves:

Each of the individuals in the pedigree with a little green leaf has either suggested sources or corresponding entries in other family trees submitted by other people. If I click on one of the leaves, I get a list of suggestions, such as this one for Samuel Shepherd:

First of all, not all of these suggestions are my Samuel Shepherd. I have to look closely at each one of the suggested sources to make sure they are talking about my ancestor and not someone else with the same or similar name. For this person, there are 9 potential matches from Public Member Trees. I could simply ignore these suggestions, but in this case, I decide to look at them. I do this by clicking on the link to "Review Hint."

Here is a screenshot of the top of the page listing the 9 suggested links to my family:

Now, I can review the list and see if there is any of the trees I am interested in looking at further. Out of these nine entries, the number of sources cited varies from 16 down to 4. This is one initial indication of the value of the work done by the person entering the tree information. Ancestry makes it relatively simple to add sources to your online tree, so the number of sources is a good indicator of the level of interest of the researcher in that particular person. They may be a good researcher, but they may not have looked at this particular person. Since one of these entries has 16 sources, I decided to take a further look. Here is the comparison page for that family tree:

Now it gets a lot more complicated. There are differences between the information in my family tree and the one from the other user. I have to make a value judgment as to whether or not to incorporate the information into my family tree or not. It is essentially a lot of work and I had better be prepared to make those decisions before I add any information to my own tree.

Sometimes, the various online programs give links to other trees but do not go through the extensive process employed by to give additional information. Then you have to decide if you want to copy the information or not. Under no circumstances do I assume that the information is automatically correct and incorporate it into my master copy of my family file.

Now, programs such as's Family Tree are entirely different. There everyone is looking at the same person. There is no "my family tree" to compare, so you need your own copy of your own genealogy on your own computer to make a decision as to whether the information shown is correct or not.

There is a lot more to be said in this regard and I will likely return to this issue in the near future.

1 comment:

  1. I'd been hoping you'd address this issue-- thank you!

    In my personal experience, I've found a few public tree entries to be VERY valuable in giving me an idea of where to look. If I were starting over with my research, I might make this Step 2 (after talking to relatives)-- record the trees and their sources (if any), then attempt to verify or disprove each item. I haven't fully thought this through and look forward to your future thoughts.