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

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Copy and Paste Genealogy -- Is this the future?

I got an interesting question again this week while teaching a class. I was showing the class how to add sources to an online family tree and one of the participants in the class raised her hand and asked if I really needed more than one source? I would guess that I am asked this question, in one form or another, regularly. This is especially true when I show someone from my family tree and the class members see a long list of sources for one individual.

The question is a valid one. In this day of cut and paste genealogy, don't we really need only one source to establish that the people existed and then we can move on to accumulating more names? In the context of the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I get a similar question about whether it is necessary to find out anything more about relatives once the ordinance work has been completed. In both cases, the ancestors are checked off as "done" and therefore of no more interest. Another example is the inquirer who brings in a rather large pedigree and shows no interest in any of the individuals except those that are missing. Why should I care about all of the people who have already been found, they say, "I thought the whole idea was to find new people."

So, we have two issues here; one is the idea that at a certain level the genealogy is "done" and another that finding one supporting fact and copying that fact is enough to move on. Of course, once that one copied fact is found, that individual or family is of no further interest.

Is it really necessary to keep finding source after source for people you already know existed and are well documented? Why should you care? Who will look at all those sources anyway. It is not unusual for me to talk to someone who wants to research a great-great-grandparent and does not know anything, even the names, of his or her grandparents. The attitude is that they are already there on the pedigree chart, why should I care about them?

Any answers I can give to these attitudes are totally unpersuasive. It is not merely a lack of education, it is a lack of interest and a total lack of desire to spend any time or effort in learning about the ancestors. I predict that this attitude will become more and more prevalent, especially if genealogy becomes more popular and the thing to do. It seems too common, mundane and uninteresting to search for information about people you already know. It is much more exciting to dig back into your history and find some remote ancestor especially if you can prove you are related to a king such as Charlamagne. Of course, if you are a careful researcher, you realize immediately that failing to verify your immediate ancestors can lead to mistakes and following the wrong line, but some people take years to come to that understanding or they never do.

It is so easy to go onto one of the major online databases now and find that your "research" has already been done. All you do is click on the leaf or the link and voila! your work is done. Copy and paste and you are a genuine genealogist. Even a child can do the work in minutes. There is no longer any need to think or even look at the record produced. Your genealogy is done. Isn't that fun? And of course, there is no need for those stuffy genealogists anymore. They just clutter up the landscape for those who want to continue to do their fun family history; sort of "five minute" genealogy or at the most an hour.

There are those who argue that attracting people to genealogical pursuits is all good, no matter what their skill level and no matter what kind of product they produce because some of those who are attracted will go on to become serious researchers. Isn't this sort of like allowing young children to drive cars because they will have fun doing so and some of them might become good drivers in the future? Isn't what is happening just clogging the online family trees with huge amounts of copied and pasted information that has no real value and like cotton candy no real sustenance? Or, like I pointed out recently, posting millions of photos with no provenance?

Who is interested in promoting copy and paste genealogy? Is it the genealogists or those who are promoting genealogy without ever having done any real research themselves. Whatever their motivation, financial or otherwise, those who are promoting genealogy are doing so on the assumption that all genealogy (of family history or whatever) is valid even the copy and paste variety because the end justifies the means. Then you can sell even more genealogy related products and services because you have even more people to sell to. Careful research and quality work go by the wayside.

Does it help to point out that the Emperor has no clothes? Or that many of the newly recruited genealogists don't either?


  1. [Corrected copy James. I had a missing NOT]

    Oh boy! This horrifies me James.

    Searching for missing ancestors and ignoring ones "shown" to have existed by others is a sort of glorified train-spotting. Even if I were being generous, I would not describe it as "family history", thus distinguishing between the mere creation of some lineage chart and a study of all things historical about your family. In the latter pursuit, all items of evidence are important since you're not simply wanting to show someone of that name existed - you want to fill-out as much of their lives as possible.

    With online trees, in those rare circumstances where someone has actually cited a source, that could be used to arbitrate when trees disagree with each other - a quite common situation that will never disappear. Hence, the more sources you can quote then the better your case stands against anyone else's. The credibility of some iitem depends on the supporting evidence, not on the number of other trees that agree with it. I know this through experience having found that I have well-researched data, with many supporting sources, disagreeing with dozens of others which have not one cited source between them, and which are likely copy-and-pasted from one another.

  2. Interesting article, James. It reminded me of how I once did the same thing - not researching the known ancestors on a pedigree chart because they were already found. I wrote about my experience at

  3. I use online family trees as guides. If I find the name of someone I'm researching, I click the link and examine the evidence. A lot of times there IS no evidence, but I still use what I find as a stepping stone. I love census records and am a HUGE fan of I must admit to doing the "copy and paste" thing when I first started, but not anymore. I've been "doing" genealogy now since the 80's, and seriously since computers caught up with the science of researching dead relatives. I greatly enjoyed your article. :)