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

Friday, March 6, 2020

More than one online family tree? Pros and Cons

Maurice Prendergast, born St. John's, Newfoundland 1858-died New York City 1924
Note: The above image is part of a new online collection of about 2.8 million images put into the public domain on the Smithsonian Open Access website. See

One of the tragedies of modern genealogical research is the fragmentation of the huge collections of digital online genealogically valuable resources. There are presently four huge online family tree/database websites and a huge number of smaller more focused collections. But there are also valuable digital resources on websites that do not even mention the words "genealogy" or "family history."

The four large genealogy-focused websites include the following with estimates of the number of images or files or collections or whatever in each. These numbers are calculated differently for each website but will give you an idea of the enormous number of records available in just these four.
  • -- 32,744 Collections for about 24 billion records
  • -- 3.14 billion digital images with 4.93 billion searchable records in 2,724 collections
  • -- 11.9 billion historical records in 6,641 collections
  • -- Over 4 billion searchable records
Why are these numbers a tragedy? Because very few genealogists use all four of these programs when doing their research and either don't know about or ignore the vast number of additional places to look. In addition, even fewer genealogists have a family tree on all four programs.

You may well ask why you would want to have more than one family tree? The first and most common excuse for a second or back-up family tree is fairly common among users of the unified, collaborative Family Tree. It is possible that some unresponsible changes to the Family Tree could wipe out sections of your part of the Family Tree and having a back-up of your data and sources makes restoring that information easier. I hear horror stories of irresponsible changes fairly frequently but most of the stories relate to a particular ancestor or at most, a particular line. There are several ways to back up your work but none of them will automatically restore "correct" data to the Family Tree. If you have this concern about the Family Tree, I suggest you watch the following videos.
Besides back-up issues, there are some other exceptionally good reasons to have a family tree on all four of the major genealogical database programs. The main reason is simple: they all have exceptionally helpful automatic record hints and no, they do not all have the same records. Of course, there are those who claim that these record hints are "frequently" wrong and don't help at all but when I hear that, I often find that the person complaining does not have a family tree on all four programs and does not even try to use the record hints available on the one program they do use. I also find that a significant number of people fail to review the record hints they add to their family tree or in the alternative fail to correct the entries from the information in a validly discovered record. 

I admit that the number of record hints or matches can be overwhelming to some users. For example, I presently have 17,634 record hints waiting to be confirmed and attached for 13,006 records on my family tree and 2,470 people with 7,737 Record Matches on My own experience is that the accuracy of both is very high. It seems strange to me that a genealogist can be bothered by too much information. It is usually the other way around. 

This past week or so, I helped a patron in the Brigham Young University Family History Library with some Irish research for a "brick wall" ancestor. She said they had been looking for this person for a long time. However, I soon discovered that she was not acquainted with the website. After making a search for the person she was stuck on, I found his birth record on the parish register where he lived in Ireland on, Granted this does not always happen, but don't underestimate the huge number of records on just these four websites. 

I think one main reason why more genealogists don't have family trees on all four programs is simple inertia. It takes effort to learn all four programs. It takes more effort to add information to all four trees and harvest the record hints. 

For some genealogists, looking at or participating in a "family tree program" is beneath their dignity. They do research in libraries and archives and do not deign to use such public resources such as an online family tree. Whether through lack of computer skills or for whatever other reason, they can be found teaching an entire class on research in a particular country or writing a book about genealogical research without even mentioning any online sources. Paraphrasing a well-known quote, those who ignore online family tree/database websites will be bound to waste their time looking for sources that are easily found online. 


  1. Your article is good and makes a few great points, but I think there are a couple of points to bring up. I think expanding on the why a genealogist doesn't have their tree on multiple programs is not only effort, but cost as well. The other point is yes, all of those sites have all those records, but a good portion of those records are behind paywalls. So those 4 web sites soon become a matter of cost as well. I know that is free, but you run into the wiki tree effect, where your data becomes public use and everyone can change it or take your documents that you so diligently search for or paid for and put them on their own tree without a howdy do. So for me, the reason I don't use all four sites is a matter of cost, effort and fear of losing control.

    1. Thanks, you did a good job of summarizing the same reasons given over and over for not taking advantage of all of the programs. Yet, these same genealogists will spend countless hours researching records that are automatically searched by the websites. Apparently, genealogists do not value their time at all. I have discussed the other issues of changes on the FamilySearch Family Tree many times and done a number of webinars on the subject. The problem with changes is an excuse more than a reason. The last issue is the one of ownership which is also an Issue I have written about and talked about multiple times. I am painfully aware that these issue exist with some genealogists, i just don't believe any of them are valid. I used to have genealogists in Mesa, Arizona who were winter visitors driving $250,000 RVs who complained about the cost of a genealogy program that was selling for $29.95 at the time. The cost issue is a matter of where you put your money and how you value your time.

  2. Many of us live on less than 30k, and I agree with everything 'J me' said. Perhaps you should get off your high horse and take a good look around.

  3. Interesting comment about living on less than 30k since "Unknown" has no idea how I live and whether or not I am on a high horse. Apparently, Unknown has access to the internet. So, my question back would be do you use the FamilySearch Family Tree which is free? Do you use Wikitree which is free? How about the free version of Geni? How much of your less than 30K do you spend on "non-essentials?" Is genealogy an essential or non-essential? I would quit doing a lot of things to keep doing genealogical research. I moved partly so I could walk (if necessary) back and forth to the second largest genealogy library in the world. What are you willing to give up to do genealogical research?