Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Online Family Tree Conundrum & A Lesson in Genealogy Research: A Two-for-One Special

As I started to compile my Friday Finds list for the week, I realized that this find required an explanation well beyond the confines of a simple blurb about the find.  Be forewarned, this is a “bare-it-all” post.

The Armchair Genealogist encourages us to think about how we share our online family tree with a list of pros and cons for both public and private trees in the article Online Family Trees, Public vs. Private.  I generally agree with all of the pros and cons provided, but thought I’d share with you my rationale for why I choose to have my online family tree private.

I must say that before I added my tree to Ancestry, I gave it a lot of thought, as The Armchair Genealogist suggested, pretty much weighing the same pros and cons presented in the article.  My 3-year-old decision to go with a private tree was primarily based on my experience level at the time, but other factors figured in as well.

Poor Data

Oddly enough, this ties into another blog post I was going to include in my Friday Finds post for the week, but am including it here instead.  As much as it pains me to say this, I have to admit that when I first started exploring my roots, I played the Genealogy Video Game as James Tanner discusses over at his blog Genealogy’s Star.  At the time, I was really only interested in finding out if the family stories were true, that we were somehow related to Noah Webster.  I had a family genealogy in my possession (unsourced of course), which only provided the direct ancestors of my paternal grandmother…no Noah Webster was found.  Not knowing any better, I started to review all of the “published” information in online family trees and such, including FamilySearch (Ancestral File, Pedigree Resource File, and International Genealogical Index) and Ancestry (Public Member Trees, OneWorld Tree, and World Tree Project).

Determining that Noah was somewhere in my own tree (albeit determined via poor sources of compiled data), I downloaded PAF to manage what I had found in order to figure out the relationship, inputting the data acquired from the sources noted above.  (Wow, it really hurts to be admitting all of this, but live and learn!!).  It is through this experience that I realized how interesting these people (albeit “assumed” to be my relatives) were and thus began my genealogical journey into all the branches of my family, not just the ones tied to the Websters.  At the same time, being a researcher by nature, I wanted to know how on earth these people “knew” the information to be true.  I began to realize that the “sources” I had come to rely on weren’t really sources at all, thus leading to my quest for sound genealogical research.

Okay, so this was a long-winded explanation to the point about poor data and online family trees.  But the story does illustrate the point of my own poor data, and my not wanting to “publically” share my tree online.  Much of the one family line is poorly researched, AT THIS TIME.  I am working to correct that, using the information I acquired originally to serve as clues to assist in sound research.  It is because of this that I don’t want to share my tree for others to duplicate what could be (and likely is in some cases) incorrect information.


With the above said, a private tree allows me to be found by other researchers and at the same time allows me to choose what I want to share with those who contact me.  In cases related to the above, I can direct researchers to the compiled tree(s) I originally used if I have not done any of my own research yet.  This way, I am not sharing all of the information that I initially “borrowed” from others.  Instead, I am directing them to and crediting the trees I used.

In cases where I have done only some of my own research, I make the researcher aware that some of the information came from online trees (which are noted and sourced as such) and that some of the information is a result of my own research and that these particular conclusions are based on “real” sources, adhere to the Genealogical Proof Standard, and are sourced accordingly.

Another aspect to of control relates to living relatives.  Depending on the researcher and their connection to the family, I can choose what information I am comfortable sharing about any living relatives.  While I am not one to air my living relatives’ vital statistics to the whole world, there are some people I feel comfortable sharing certain information with, particularly more immediate family.

Additionally, the online family tree is not my primary database.  I do research almost daily and record all of my findings in Legacy on my PC.  Therefore, the online version is not a current version of my research progress.  By forcing people to contact me, it allows me to provide them with my most up-to-date research findings.

Prevents the “Stealing” of Information

While I illustrated above that I myself was at one time guilty of this crime, I did learn from my mistakes.  Having transitioned from a below-amateur to a beyond-intermediate genealogist, I do understand how much time, effort, and money goes into sound research.  That said, when I do consult a compiled genealogy (online or offline) I make sure to give credit where credit is due and only use the information as clues to conduct my own sound research.

Having a private online tree makes it hard for others to simply steal my hard work (and in some cases, as already indicated in my story above, the hard work of still others).  They can’t simply download the information and import it into their own tree.  And in fact, when I do share information, I am a bit of a scrooge and provide a PDF genealogy of the portion requested (with sources)—not a GEDCOM file that they can save, import and move on.  This forces the researcher to actually (I would hope) analyze the information and draw their own conclusions before manually inputting the data into their own database.  I realize this may seem hypocritical, since I admitted to being guilty of “borrowing” information myself.  And in a way, it is, but as I’ve already stated, I have corrected my research practices with regard to compiled genealogies.

Final Thoughts

Whew!  This was a hard post to write (not because of the migraine I have, or the fact that I should be working on a journal article that is due in a few days), but because it was hard to admit some of my former bad practices.  What started out as an interesting “find” for the week, turned into a “baring-it-all” blog post.  But I am one to admit when I’m wrong, and if it helps just one person not make the same rookie mistakes I made, then it was worth it to share.



GrannyPam said...

Interesting and complete explanation of your reasoning. I have no "on-line" tree, for many of the reasons you have given. My database contains some less than thoroughly proven relationships. I just keep on keeping on, as you are doing. I will have to give the private option some consideration.

Victoria Jane said...

I think it's a buyer beware situation. I started my tree on Ancestry and relied heavily on public trees. After deciding to join DAR, had to document everything and they don't accept on-line genealogy "proof". The on-line trees were a great starting place for me. As for privacy, I enjoy sharing my info, helping others. I'm accurate to the best of my knowledge but it's up to each individual to substantiate .

Julie said...


You bring up a great point about "buyer beware" and that was definitely part of the lesson learned...not all trees are created equal.


Greta Koehl said...

Excellent points, and I found both your article and the one in The Armchair Genealogist interesting. For various reasons included in both articles, I am choosing to do the families of three of my grandparents as public trees and the fourth (where I have done a lot of original research) as a private tree. I do share the information in that tree - it's all over the place in my blog. Researchers will have to at least go to the trouble of googling the names to find, copy, and paste the information, however, rather than just clicking. Instead of importing GEDCOMs, I am adding a few ancestors at a time to these trees, with sources, at a very leisurely pace. The public trees may not include every last piece of information, but I am happy to share what I do include. This was the compromise I ultimately decided to make.

Michelle Goodrum said...

Excellent post. I think many (if not most) of us have been guilty of the same at some point.

I am hesitant about posting my tree at Ancestry and have not done so. Part of my reasoning is that I don't want someone copying it and then I find it and am wondering where it came from. I don't like running in circles. You give a good analysis of the problems that arise.

I like your idea of providing a pdf instead of a gedcom to other researchers

Julie said...


Thanks for sharing your scenario. I had thought about splitting up my trees awhile back, but decided against it. Reading your comment has me rethinking that.


Julie said...

Thanks to everyone who has commented so far. I appreciate your views on the situations presented in this article. More food for thought :)

Bill West said...

Good article. I had my tree on Ancestry private for a year but decided to go public with it in hopes it would result in more cousin contacts, which it has to some extent. Plus there is so little out
there on my West line I wanted to get what I had out there for others in case I wasn't around any more which given my health problems earlier this year is even more of a reason now.

That being said, I am afraid I too played the Genealogy Video game when I first started online and I'm "pruning" my tree but it's a big job.

Julie said...


You bring up some good points, too. And I like how you put "pruning" the tree...great analogy.


A O'Brien said...

Thanks for this very interesting post. I know I have also been guilty of borrowing other people's research in the past.
I have all my trees on Ancestry private. I do admit that I use some of the private trees as 'working' trees where I add Ancestry Hits when I believe they look like possible research leads, sort of like a 'To do' or 'I'll look at that later'. I've found this method just causes confusion though and I am in the process of re-educating myself on sound genealogical research practices. It will be a big task but I hope to start at the beginning again and make sure I have valid sources for each 'fact' and that I have analysed the sources thoroughly. I will use my 'working' private trees on Ancestry as a guide though.
Thanks again for this great post.

Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

I have broken my tree down into smaller branches that I have at Ancestry and WeRelate. Some of the trees at Ancestry are private as I work to clean them up but my plan is to make all but one of them public. Lots of my information on distant lines comes from other online trees but that is reflected in my source notes so others can see where it came from. I have been adding digital copies of source documents directly to my trees so that others can find it. I have also been experimenting with "inviting" others as editors to my private trees so that they can add - and take - information as they see fit. I've had mixed results with that. I actually get many more requests for information and new connections from my private trees!

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