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Friday, August 5, 2022

Universal vs Private Family Trees: Pros and Cons


This is a blog post spoiler. When you weigh the pros and cons of universal family trees against those of private family trees, the universal tree always wins. By no means, am I undertaking to compare individual programs, the issues I see of overriding importance duplication of effort and preservation. As I have written many times previously, if you privatize your genealogical research you are almost certainly insuring its loss. I have never been able to understand how ownership became an issue with genealogical research. The reason why I come back to this topic from time to time is usually based on someone telling me why they can't share their research or their pedigree or whatever. See

Here is the list of reasons why a universal family tree, despite their inherent failings will always be a better idea that a closed, private family tree. I'll start off with private family trees.

Pros of a private family tree

1. The person who "owns" the private family tree is totally responsible and answerable for its content. 

2. All changes are predictable because only one person (or a very small number of people) can make any changes. 

3. The owner of the private tree does not have to answer to anyone about the content or accuracy of the incorporated information. 

Cons of a private family tree

1. There is a very high probability that when the owner dies, the information contained in the family tree will be lost. 

2. If the private family tree is not lost, it is also probable that anyone who inherits the information will consider it to be the Truth about the family and any errors will be perpetuated for many more generations. 

3. Because a private family tree is not, by design, cooperative, it is also possible that the information found and incorporated by the owner is incomplete and may also be inaccurate.  I make this comment because of the many times my own entries in public family trees have been corrected or added to. 

Pros of a universal, cooperative, source-supported family tree

1. Duplication of effort is minimized with all the information available to all users. 

2. Open wiki-based websites have a tendency to become more accurate over time because any information entered can be verified or changed by any user. 

3. A cooperative family tree can ultimately contain more information than any privately maintained family tree. 

4. Depending on the sponsor, information is preserved even when a user dies. 

Cons of a universal, cooperative, source-supported family tree

1. Users' frustration level is high because of claims to ownership of genealogical information. 

2. Specific changes can be arbitrary and inaccurate because of differing levels of expertise. 

3.  Resolution of real historical controversies is difficult because of the universal nature of the venue.

The solution to deciding between a private and a public universal family tree is mainly resolved by individuals using both venues. If a genealogist wishes to make their information private, they should take steps to prevent loss of their work after death. 

By the way, dead people very limited post-mortem privacy. See Post-mortem privacy for a start.

Despite any perceived or real shortcomings of universal, cooperative, source-supported family trees, I am strong advocate for their use, including the Family Tree,, and


  1. "1. Duplication of effort is minimized with all the information available to all users.

    2. Open wiki-based websites have a tendency to become more accurate over time because any information entered can be verified or changed by any user."

    Those two pros are very open to argument over their existence. The first can be countered simply by looking at the examples of the Mayflower passengers and similar entries in FSFT. There is MASSIVE duplication of effort on those profiles. Instead of duplication of genuine research the duplication is removing the entries of those who counter the second point posited as a pro: the lazy and/or stupid and/or naive who "contribute" to such shared trees.

    Those contributors create huge numbers of problems for users of shared family trees who actually know what they're doing. They make changes to profiles of famous individuals for whom they can make no serious contribution as exhaustive amounts of research have been done on those individuals. If such profiles are locked to prevent them making changes then they simply create enormous numbers of duplicates. Outside of the profiles of famous individuals they also upload huge amounts of complete junk to shared family trees (the dreaded "reason" of GEDCOM data in FSFT). They also go rampaging through correct information and merge profiles that any cursory knowledge of geography or history (see lazy and/or stupid) would show are nothing to do with each other.

    So completely open wiki websites do NOT fulfil pros one and two. Some sort of filtration or graduation of editing rights process must be in place to stop the endless cycle of addition of junk information. In addition sanctions against users consistently adding junk information must be in place. This is where the distinction between the naive and the stupid and/or lazy comes comes into importance.

    The naive simply know no better, and so a combination of induction tutorials and gentle guidance should be able to show them how to actually make good proper, correct contributions to the system should be available. Restriction of editing rights until a certain number of edits have been made similarly needs to be in place. For example no editing of any entries dated older than 1750 or 1800 until they are more experienced.

    The stupid and/or lazy on the other hand either cannot or will not learn how to use the system properly. For them the presumption must be at the start that they are naive. Only after they show themselves to be stupid and/or lazy should their pathway change. A system of moderation must be in place and an escalating series of sanctions for such users must be in place to punish them and restrict them and stop them doing damage. Ultimately a complete, permanent ban might be necessary.

    So shared sites are good so long as they have moderation in place, so long as they have sanctions in place for the lazy, the stupid and those extremely rare actual vandals and so long as they have graduated editing restrictions and tutorials for new users to deal with the naive.

    1. Good summary of all the suggestions and comments I have made for years.

  2. The real solution then is to maintain a personal tree which only you can edit and preserves your own research. It may be private but it's better if it's public, e.g., on Ancestry or MyHeritage, because then you can benefit from their shaky leaves and smart matches. From there, you should also add your information to the shared trees you mention, FamilySearch Family Tree, WikiTree and Geni and benefit from the collaboration on those sites.

    Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints have the benefit on free access and syncing with MyHeritage, and it would be nice if everyone had that syncing. Then it would be nice if there was a universal syncing program (AncestorSync was available for a while, but no longer) to help a person evaluate the differences they have on all these sites so they can determine what is correct and what is not.

  3. I noticed that you added adjectives to the title of the universal tree, i.e., "universal, cooperative, source-supported". And that my friend is THE problem. I certainly understand the huge negatives of a private tree. However, because of the lack of cooperation and the lack of proper sourcing, I will never join a universal tree site, such as that of FamilySearch. Certainly the benefits of the members' contributed well researched and sourced material are obvious. But I have only so much time left on this earth (I guess that you and I are approximately the same age). I have no time for willfully ignorant contributors, who can often be belligerent and stubborn. Again my friend, that is THE problem.

  4. While my main tree is on my computer and Ancestry (private), I do contribute to the FamilySearch tree for just the reasons you outline. Best of both worlds :)