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

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Why do we need the Family Tree?

The Family Tree, by its very nature, engenders a measure of controversy. Part of the controversy arises from the original data. For the past 100 years or so, individuals and families, primarily members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have been working at gathering information about their ancestors. Nearly all of this work has been done in isolation from other family members with the same ancestors. Much of this information was submitted to the Church and compiled in huge databases, first on paper and later in computer files such as the Ancestral File (AF) and the International Genealogical Index (IGI). As I have pointed out many times in previous posts, this massive amount of genealogical data was compiled into what we now have as the Family Tree.

Because of its origin, the Family Tree inherited two obvious, massive problems: an immense number of duplicate entries and a significant number of unsupported and likely erroneous entries and conclusions about relationships. Fortunately, the Family Tree as it was developed, allowed users to merge duplicate entries, correct those entries that were inaccurate, standardize entries, and realign relationships that were unsupported and also inaccurate. Since it took over a hundred years to amass all this data, it is going to take a significant amount of time to correct and substantiate all that has been accumulated.

The nature of the Family Tree includes the fact that there is no "central" authority governing what is and what is not included in the entries. Those tasks are left entirely up to the users. Some of us can clearly see the advantages of having an open, collaborative, and user-directed Family Tree. Others are bothered because their autonomy is threatened by no longer working in private isolated from the opinions and actions of others. No one likes to be told they are wrong, but the Family Tree does this every day on a massive scale. Primarily, for this reason, working on the Family Tree can be overwhelming, frustrating, and even threatening.

Since every entry in the Family Tree eventually has to be supported by historical documents, if they can be found, the main task of working with the Family Tree is finding those historical documents and using the information to correct and extend the entries. Unsupported entries will eventually be "pruned" from the program. This process can become highly emotional for some who have pet theories and conclusions about ancestral connections that are not adequately supported by historical documents. Much of this unsupported information has come from "traditional" family stories or compiled genealogies that were poorly done. Presently, almost every extended family line in the Family Tree ultimately ends in speculation and fantasy. As these wrong conclusions are challenged and changed, the response from those who want to maintain the status quo is sometimes confrontational.

There is a relatively small number of genealogical researchers who view themselves as authorities in all matters dealing with genealogy. Many of these people look down on "online family trees" as being more a nuisance than a help in doing "real" genealogy. Some will refuse to put "their" genealogy online because they don't want the commoners or whatever to mess with their work. These people want to maintain the isolationist, traditional way of doing genealogy and they become some of the most vocal critics of the Family Tree. They would also like to see genealogy become a regulated profession requiring admittance to a professional organization or requiring a college or university degree. This is particularly true of those wanting to make a living from being a genealogical authority.

Not all of this desire for professionalism is bad, but in many cases, these same people are being left behind by the changes in technology. The Family Tree exists because technology now allows it to exist. All forms of authoritarianism are threatened by the advances in instantaneous communication. The Family Tree is just the genealogical manifestation of this explosion in online information. Ignoring the Family Tree is like ignoring the internet altogether, it can be done, but puts anyone taking that isolationist position into a corner where they cannot function adequately.

How does this affect genealogy? Suppose I am a very experienced and capable genealogist. I write books, I attend conferences and present classes, I am honored by genealogical organizations as a "leading" authority on genealogy etc. etc. I do work for others professionally and get paid for my efforts. Now, let's further suppose that I ignore online family trees and particularly the Family Tree. How can I ever be sure that any of the research I do has not been done by someone else? The answer is I can't. No one has enough time in one life to search all the sources and read all the books and make all the trips necessary to do a complete search. If I think my work is exhaustive, I am deluding myself. How can we be certain what we are doing is accurate? In the academic arena, the process that has developed is called "peer review." However, peer review is an illusion because the peers are self-selected and have no more experience in most cases than the publication being reviewed.

What we have today is the ultimate genealogical peer review: the Family Tree.

Here is a comment I received recently that expresses what I am writing about.
I began to use the Find feature of the Family Search Tree recently and was extremely disappointed in the quality of the data for the hundreds of people in my own family. I know it is only as good as the data entered but apparently those who entered info for my own ancestors don't understand the necessity of source citations and genealogical proof. In short, the information entered was garbage. No different than the trees one finds in the Ancestry trees. Furthermore many people didn't enter their email address so that I could correct them. I don't have the time to straighten out the data nor do I wish to.
This comment is based on the concept of ownership. See the use of "my own." It also exhibits a lack of understanding of the whole process of doing family history or genealogical research in light of the ability to collaborate. Also, the Family Tree program provides a way to contact every user by using the Message function of the program without knowing a user's email address. What this person fails to realize is that what he or she has in "my file" may not be accurate. By keeping his or her "accurate" data private, it is guaranteed to be inaccurate in some respect, sourced or not. By not sharing the information, it is also guaranteed to be lost.

Working through the entries in the Family Tree is a way to validate or correct your own research. By the way, I can sit through a whole genealogy conference and not have one presenter even mention the Family Tree or any other online resource unless the class is specifically about online resources. 


  1. From my standpoint the FamilySearch tree is gaining more credibility and being used more over time for more than just LDS church members. In a recent online discission with a group of professional genealogists, several genealogists were saying that they no longer have a personal tree online but instead use the FamilySearch tree and were encouraging others to do the same. As the quality improves over time, more people will use it. With MyHeritage building tools to update it, and the announcement from FindMyPast at RootsTech to do the same, it will grow even better. In time I believe it will be the best source for quality genealogical information available.

  2. My problem with Family Search Family Tree is that existing information that has a source based on historical documents, can be changed by a well meaning individual without requiring that the new information be supported by an historical document. All changes to the Family Tree should require a source based on historical documents. Obviously the computer can not evaluate the validity of the source, but this would be a start. Always enjoy reading your blog. Keep up the good work!

  3. I enjoy reading your blogs, also have read books you recommended. Why don't people use discussion more? I know this sounds obvious but if I don't have the document (s)that supports changing a fact, I don't change it. If something gets changed and I'm not going to keep making the change back I start a discussion about the fact - not the person making a change. Also proof conclusions could be entered in memories for all to read. I might title my discussion something like "How could James Tanner's father been born in 1976?"

  4. Before I read this, I had not visited the FS Family Tree. I have read nothing but complaints about what a disaster it is on Facebook, so I didn’t see any benefit. After all, I can see all kinds of disastrous trees on Ancestry. Who needs more of the same?

    But you made me curious, so I downloaded the app and gave it a try.

    My question: where do you see the source documents?

    1. They are in a section on the detail page of each individual if there are any attached. You might want to see the manual it is The Family History Guide