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

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Online Family Trees do not cause bad genealogy

One of the most frequent, if not the most frequent genealogical rants that I hear and read involves frustration and sometimes real anger at online family trees. Usually, the person expressing the extreme emotions blames a lot of the problems they identify on the Family Tree. I have a one-sentence response to all of these rants:

The FamilySearch Family Tree is not the problem, it is the solution. 

Here is a one-sentence excerpt from a recent comment:
The LDS It might be merely a huge database of information of interest to genealogical researchers, but it is fraught with problems and beset at many turns by bad genealogy or, if you prefer, bad family tree gatherers.
The comment goes on to explain a major issue with a person from the 17th Century.

When I began my genealogical research in 1982. I was as unlearned and naive as any of the current contributors we find online today. It took years of research, formal classes, books, and conventions to "educate" me about adding sources, correcting entries, and looking for inconsistencies. Now, going back to that time when there were no computers, no online family trees, no massive digitized databases of information, and no people making comments about my lack of sources or accuracy, I can now look back and I realize that I found just exactly the same types of errors being complained about today on paper family group records from the early 1900s.

Let me be as clear as possible. There is no connection between bad genealogy and online family trees. The family trees, including the Family Tree, are not the problem. Even if there were some kind of internet disaster and all the family trees disappeared, all of the errors, duplicates, and date issues would still exist on the individual family trees of all those who submitted the information in the first instance.

Here is an example of a problem record submitted in 1960 to the predecessor of

I have cut down the image to just the pertinent information. All of the dates on this sheet are calculated from a U.S. Census Record from Newton County, Mississippi according to the notation showing where the information for this record was obtained. The problem is simple, from a search in the catalog, there are over 1000 records for people born about that time named Margaret Lane. The interesting thing about this record is that is supposedly has a source showing that this family was found in the 1860 Census. If I search in the Family Tree for George Lane married to Martha and with a daughter named Margaret,  I find that there 501,876 results and none of them, until I ran out of patience, matched this family exactly.

Hmm. I could look through the pages of the Newton County, Mississippi 1860 Federal Census records and see if this person exists.

Do you see the problem? This old family group record was supposedly created by this person from an actual record. I do not want to take the time to find the original record. I started through the county page by page but gave up with 160 pages to go. What if this family group record was in the pile of genealogy you got from your relative? What would you do to verify the information? Would you copy this person into an online family tree?

All of my time searching could be avoided if the person had been more specific in identifying the source and/or provided a copy of the original source record. This is just bad genealogy. It is an example of the type of work done over the past 100+ years that creates what we now have online. Stop blaming the programs. All that the Family Tree does is make all these types of issues visible. If you go into "genealogical isolation" you will just prolong and add to the problems that already exist.


  1. I wish I could agree with your assertion that the FamilySearch Family Tree is the solution, but in most problem areas I have reviewed it only perpetuates bad genealogy. I have seen several examples of corrections being made to data on individuals or families by experienced researchers using and citing sources with actual documents that show the correct data, only to come back later and see those corrections were removed and the old, inaccurate information reposted. After a while, you give up trying to show people what the records really demonstrate.

    1. If I were to sit at one of the intersections in Utah Valley for a while, I would inevitably see someone run a red light. I have seen up to five cars at a time go through red lights. Do the intersections or the traffic lights "cause" red light runners? Think about it. How does the FamilySearch Family Tree cause ignorance and sloppy research? Will those people doing "bad genealogy" somehow reform because you avoid using the Family Tree? Every time someone makes an unsupported change to the Family Tree, we send them a polite explanation about why their change was reversed. Almost uniformly, the people making the changes accept the fact that they need to learn more about what they are doing.