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

Monday, January 11, 2021

How accurate is the FamilySearch Family Tree?

 


At RootsTech in March of 2013, FamilySearch.org announced the "new" Family Tree program. Almost immediately, the Family Tree came under scrutiny and criticism for its "wiki" structure. In the online world, wikis have been around for a really long time. Quoting from the Wikipedia article, "History of wikis:"
The history of wikis begins in 1994, when Ward Cunningham gave the name "WikiWikiWeb" to the knowledge base, which ran on his company's website at c2.com, and the wiki software that powered it. The "wiki went public" in March 1995—the date used in anniversary celebrations of the wiki's origins. c2.com is thus the first true wiki, or a website with pages and links that can be easily edited via the browser, with a reliable version history for each page. He chose "WikiWikiWeb" as the name based on his memories of the "Wiki Wiki Shuttle" at Honolulu International Airport, and because "wiki" is the Hawaiian word for "quick".

Because of the collaborative structure of wikis and the fact that they are open to editing by almost anyone who registers, wikis came under fire for being inaccurate and unreliable. It was common for school teachers at all levels to ban their use for student research. Obviously, the academic attitude towards wikis has changed somewhat over the last 26 or so years but there is still a residual amount of blowback about the FamilySearch.org Family Tree.  

The Family Tree is presently approximately the same structure as it was when it was introduced back in 2013. But the content and reliability of the Family Tree have changed and improved dramatically. Admittedly, there are still pockets of "revolving door" changes but overall, the Family Tree has matured into the most important way to determine the status of any level of genealogical or family history research. Each of the other large, online, genealogy database/family tree websites has hundreds of thousands or millions of individual family trees. The duplication of effort is staggering. Major and minor differences between the individual family trees are remarkably common. Arriving at a determination of the accuracy of any one family tree on any one of the programs is difficult and time-consuming. When you examine the FamilySearch.org Family Tree, you can immediately see if there is a consensus about the information based on well over a hundred years of genealogical research. 

Now, what about those areas of the Family Tree where there is no consensus? Most, if not all of the antagonism against the Family Tree comes from focusing on the individual entries where original source records are scarce or lacking or where "family traditions" have become entrenched at the expense of accuracy. The reality of the Family Tree is that millions of original source records documenting the information available are being regularly added. Those individuals who dogmatically try to force their "tradition" on the entries in the Family Tree at the expense of the documentation are literally dying off. On the other hand, the number of people who do careful systematic research is increasing. 

There is also a residual level of "anti-Mormon" sentiment about the Family Tree that surfaces from time to time. I get some extremely negative comments that usually condemn the Family Tree based on the beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the sponsor of FamilySearch. All I can really say about those who harbor hatred towards the Church and by association, the Family Tree, is that if you don't like it, ignore it and duplicate all your family research on your own. 

What about the accuracy of the Family Tree? Let me give an example. Arthur Augustus Bryant LH5N-522 is presently listed with a death date of "from July 1934 to September 1934" in Blean, Kent, England. Interestingly, there are 31 source records attached to this person. A quick look at the attached source records reveals census records, parish registers, and civil registration records. A link to Findmypast.com quickly shows a record from the England & Wales Government Probate Death Index 1858-2019 giving his exact death date and place. I can then modify the information in the Family Tree and add the source citation in a matter of under five minutes. The entry now has another source and a correctly supported death date and place. This is happening tens of thousands of times a day to the information in the Family Tree. 

It is now far past the time when the nearsighted and narrowly focused criticism of the Family Tree should stop. Rather than rail against the changes, how about spending the time and effort to document and collaborate those entries where there is little or no interest or dispute. Those entries, usually back in the 1700s or earlier that are the subject of so many changes will ultimately be resolved as the underlying entries become well documented. 

By the way, you are welcome to add your comments and rant all you like. Those of us who watch the Family Tree every day and are constantly adding source and correcting the entries welcome your comments unless they are irrational or uncivil in which case they will never appear as comments on this blog.

 

10 comments:

  1. I like family tree and use it all the time. Often I am able to harvest information nuggets that I was previously unaware of and have the needed supporting evidence to go with.

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  2. ABM van HelsdingenJanuary 11, 2021 at 5:52 PM

    I used the FSFT for years without realizing that information entered into it can be used for Latter Day Saint ordinances for the dead. I wish I knew, because I personally object to this practice in some circumstances. Nowhere on the website, or in the Legal Notices, is this mentioned. To be frank, I felt duped. Just as Latter Day Saints have the constitutionally protected right to practice their religion and perform ordinances for the dead in accordance with their beliefs, others have the right to not be tricked into participating or aiding religious rites they object to. I have tremendous respect for FamilySearch, but they should inform their non-LDS users about this so that individuals can make a personal and informed choice about whether to use FSFT and potentially aid LDS ordinances.

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    1. Perhaps you should look at the Terms and Conditions of use of the websites you use. There is usually a link to these important statements on the start-up or home page of the website. You will probably be surprised at the content of these lengthy statements.

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    2. In the Terms of Use, there is mention of giving FS an unlimited right to use submitted data that it "deem[s] appropriate for the furtherance of our mission to promote family history and genealogical research". But not religious purposes. The section "Submitting Names for Church Temple Ordinances" makes no mention of the link between ordinances and FSFT, and does not explain to non-LDS what ordinances are.

      The Privacy Notice talks about "ecclesiastical" purposes, but only talks about ordinances for living people.

      There is no indication in these Legal Notices that FSFT data submitted by non-LDS users can be used for LDS ordinances for the dead. You could argue that non-LDS FS users should deduce or suspect this, but something so controversial should be written out explicitly.

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    3. I am not sure what you mean by your reference to controversial. Apparently, you are confusing the use of the data by the Church with the use of the data by the members of the Church. Here is a link to an explanation of baptisms for the dead. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/topics/baptism-for-the-dead?lang=eng As you can see, a baptism performed for a dead person has absolutely no effect unless you believe in life after death and also believe that those who are dead have the agency to accept or reject their "baptism." You may also want to review this section the Church's Doctrine and Covenants for further insight into the practice: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/138?lang=eng By the way, the information in Ancestry.com, and any other genealogical information can also be used by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to do the work for their own dead ancestors. I don't understand why, if you do not believe the ordinance work we do to be needed or valid, why you would object to my personal belief?

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    4. To be clear, I am talking about how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints uses the FSFT as a database for managing ordinances for the dead. When a non-LDS user creates a profile in the FSFT, a Latter Day Saint can at a later date reserve ordinances for that profile if they are deceased, born at least 110 years ago etc And all without the original creator of the profile being notified.

      I hardly care or object if ancestors who died beyond living memory receive Latter Day Saint ordinances, particularly if they were not exposed to the teachings of the LDS Church during their lifetime. But when people who died more recently, or who made an informed and conscious decision during their lifetime to not join the LDS Church have LDS ordinances done on them, that is raw and emotional for some people.The whole idea that a religion can claim that a deceased person may have posthumously converted is objectionable to many people.



      I still contribute to the FSFT, but only for people who died a long time ago. I avoid entering any living profiles and those who were born during the late 19th or 20th centuries.

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    5. If you add living people to the FamilySearch.org Family Tree they are not visible to anyone except you.

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  3. I agree with your stance here. While I have a few misgivings about the FamilySearch Family Tree, I have done extensive work on my lines there and am still a regular contributor. I'll say this to anyone who will listen: I have more faith in their Memories Gallery tool to preserve my photos and document images than in anything else currently available.

    Thanks for an insightful post.

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  4. While I do have issues with some of my lines on the tree, it never enters my mind to make assumptions based on the faith other people working on them follow. I'm sorry some people are so narrow-minded.

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  5. Glad to see this well-reasoned defense of FSFT, a brilliant tool and resource that I am happy to help get more accurate as time goes by. Ancestry of course has a "one world tree" as well, but it's not public, it's proprietary, none of us have any idea how it works - but that's what they use to generate their hints, and that's what they pull all of their customers' work into.

    I prefer having the "one tree" be public and open as on FSFT, every data bit that I can add and document I can attach will help their algorithms pull things together, with the help of other dedicated users, and work to the benefit of us all.

    Folks just need to remember - it's a fully public tool, owned by others. Whatever I put on there no longer belongs to me.

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