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

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Peeling Back the Layers

Geology attempts to explain how every rock layer formed. It is a process, in part, of examining each layer and determining what could have caused it to be deposited. By peeling back the layers, one by one, geologists come to a pretty good idea of what happened in the past. To some extent, genealogists do the same thing with their family history. They try to reformulate what happened in the past and show how each generation is related to the past ones. Geologists have to document their findings so that the cumulative amount of information continues to increase. Unfortunately, many genealogists are not good at documenting their evidence, so each generation has to redo much of the work of the past.

It is this process of recording your findings and citing your sources with explanations as necessary that allows the work to progress past mere name collecting. Just as with geological formations, the genealogical past consists of layers of information. Again, unfortunately, many researchers never get beyond the superficial look at the outside of the layers. It is as if they wanted to make all their theories about how these rocks in the photo above were formed by merely looking at the photograph and never digging in to examine the reality of the actual site. How many of us could tell where this photo was taken and what it shows, without the experience of seeing it ourselves? Unless, and this is a big unless, who ever took the photo (me in this case) told us when and where it was taken. Likewise, we would know nothing about the rock layers and how they came to be, unless we did the work ourselves or unless I provided an explanation of when, where, how and what the photo shows.

The millions of undocumented names in online family trees are like the rock layers in this photo. They may make a pretty picture, but the information is useless without the source citations and explanation.

No, I am not going to tell you where the photo was taken. If I did, it would not be a good example of the lack of citations accompanying the online family trees.

What do I mean by documentation? I mean writing down the places where you found your information and if necessary, explaining why you think the source is correct or not. In this process adding documentation is the key. Here is an example:

Presently,'s Family Tree provides as common workplace for everyone to share automatically any information they have substantiating the family connections. As I have said before, this may be the first time this has been successfully attempted. One interesting fact is that despite this program which has been online now for going on two years, very, very few people have been adding sources even when the process of adding a source is so simple. Adding sources is not just a nice thing to do, it is essential to the integrity of the information and to making progress in identifying our ancestors.

I decided to show how this process works or doesn't work. In just a few minutes, by going back in my own family, I was able to find someone without any sources. This is despite the fact that I have been working on adding sources now for over a year. What is significant is that going back four generations, when I have thousands of cousins alive today, I find almost no evidence of anyone else adding or correcting information. This points out the importance of what we, as individual genealogists, are doing. My example is Shepherd LeRoy Tanner (b. 12 April 1859, d. 22 December 1934), my Great-great Uncle, who I am partly named after when they named my Grandfather LeRoy Parkinson Tanner. My middle name is LeRoy.

This Great-great Uncle lived during a time when there are literally hundreds of records of his life. In fact, there are entire books (without citations to authority) about his family. Despite all this, there is not yet one citation to a source in Family Tree for him. I have been systematically working through the names but have not yet gotten to this generation. What is the significance of not having any sources? Well, for one thing, there were about twenty different variations of his name on his individual page. There was also an entry showing him with a living wife. Note that he died in 1934, 79 years ago. None of this would matter if it were not for the fact that this shows that the information is easily correctable and very inadequately wrong. How can anyone have confidence in the accuracy of the information if there are so many obvious errors? The only way to break this cycle is to add sources, notes, histories, stories, photographs and everything else available.

I am not just picking on FamilySearch Family Tree. Family Tree is the solution to the problem, not the problem. If I go to and look at the Public Member Trees, I found 9 different trees, only five of which had any substantial (more than 2) sources. But in there is no way to reconcile the differences between the trees other than trying to contact all of those people directly.

In a future post, I will discuss the process of adding sources by layers.


  1. Thank you for this post, what a great analogy! I think the sourcing will start when we can actually get more church members into the FamilySearch Libraries. We work in Oakland and a relatively small number of our patrons are members.

    On another note I was just looking at your Pinterest photos and I saw several with the name Godfrey attached. As an example: Mystery Photo from Margaret Godfrey Jarvis Overson, Photographer.

    I heard you speak in Sacramento a few weeks ago and between classes we spoke briefly about the Mayflower. Do you know if this Margaret Godfrey has any roots in Massachusetts? I have a long string of ancestors from the Barstable County area.(Eastham)that tie into Stephen Hopkins and Francis Cooke. I don't know if any of that line landed up in Arizona or if anything I have might be of help but thought I'd mention it.

  2. James, I think this is by far the first column I've read of yours in the past few weeks where it adequately says what I want to say without coming across as whining about the quality of the trees online or just being as my nephews and nieces would say, old. There's a difference between work that is sourced and work that is not.

    The other outstanding issue with the sourcing on Ancestry, for example, is the quality of the source. There are SO many trees that cite other trees, OneWorldTree, AGBI, Millenium File, "Family Records", etc. on them. They look on the surface to be "well-sourced" trees but when you really look at them, you might find only one or two real sources on them like censuses, scanned family documents/letters, certificates, etc.

    But getting back to your main point about very few people adding sources to the FamilySearch family tree - do you think it is because people just aren't doing it from lack of knowledge/training or from lack of interest or are they not doing it because their habit is to enter without this (i.e. the Ancestral File, Geni, etc.)? I would be curious to hear your thoughts . In my own family, I've found that the people are mostly interested in names, dates, and photos, and less interested in the newspaper, census, and other fun sources to research.