Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Should Online Family Trees Be Used in a "Reasonably Exhaustive Search?"

Michael John Neill, on his Rootdig.com blog in Are the Online “Trees” Part of a Reasonably Exhaustive Search? today, asked for responses to his question.

My short answer is "Yes, but ..."

1)  The "buts" include these:

*  A well-sourced profile in an online family tree is a thing of beauty,  The owner who has used original records, derivative records, and authored works to support their conclusions, meaning names, relationships, dates, places, etc. A profile like this can be believed after doing sufficient sanity checks on the information.  Sanity checks might mean reviewing their sources, their media attachments, and their notes (if available).

*  A poorly sourced profile in an online family tree is a thing to wonder about - if there are derivative sources and authored works, they should undergo a sanity check for the persons in question.  In addition, the researcher should try to extend the research by searching for other records that might be available for the persons in question.

*  An unsourced profile in an online family tree is a thing to be ignored.

*  If an online tree had significant new information about a person, without source citation, I would contact the owner, if possible, to request more information, including their reasons fro drawing a specific conclusion.

*  I think that source citations to authoritative records or documents is the key for believability.  I don't even look at sources for other trees, but I do look at sources for actual vital records, military records, probate records, etc.

2)  I trust original sources more than derivative sources, authored works, and indexed information.  Even original records can be wrong in a detail.  The other record levels have more of an opportunity to get a name or date wrong.  Sometimes the original source is no longer available, and derivative sources must be used (e.g., probate clerk records, land recorder deeds, etc.).

3)  The typical online family tree usually has several families that are well sourced, typically the researcher's birth family and grandparents' families, and perhaps earlier families.  Then there are the families that may or may not be well-sourced, but the sources are typically vital or church record indexes, census records, Find A Grave memorials, etc.  Many online trees have a number of families that are copied from other trees or from books and periodicals.  This typical tree can have both believable and questionable conclusions because of the researcher's experience and interest, availability of sources, etc.  It's a judgment issue, and a "sanity check" issue, I think.

4)  My goal in my online family trees is to get my ancestral families as correct as possible, with source citations to original and derivative records, attached documents, and biographical and research notes.  I also have a lot of profiles in my online trees whose information is based on indexed records, census records, and other online trees, mainly because I am collecting information about several of my key ancestral surnames - e.g., Seaver, Carringer, Auble, Buck, Vaux, etc.  So my online trees are a mixed bag - some profiles are well-sourced, and others not so much.

5)  I firmly believe that no family tree is ever finished.  It is always in a state of correction and addition as more records become available and more research is performed.

I have over 46,000 Ancestry Hints to review at this time, of which over 33,000 are for records, not trees or photos.  It takes hours to resolve 100 of these records - ignoring the ones that are from a poor derivative source, adding those from reliable sources to my database.  Ancestry.com keeps adding Hints every day for my tree persons so it is a challenge to keep up.  I typically ignore the tree Hints for persons that are not at the end of my ancestral lines.

The MyHeritage tree has 119,000 Record Matches, but two thirds of them are from other online family trees.  I try to resolve these records occasionally, adding content and sources to my database.

I don't trust the online collaborative family trees like FamilySearch Family Tree, WikiTree and Geni when they extend back before 1600.  I think that there are many errors in these trees before 1600, and there are some significant errors after 1600 in some of my colonial American lines too.  It is a challenge to correct the pre-1600 lines.

6)  What do my readers think?  When do you use online family trees to get leads or clues?  


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Copyright (c) 2016, Randall J. Seaver

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Linda Stufflebean said...

I regard all online trees as clues, whether they are sourced or not. That's because I have come across trees that have sources cited - real sources, not someone's tree - but the information is still wrong because the sourced person is someone else of the same name! A good exsmple is when I found my husband's grandmother married to someone we had never heard of, with the marriage record attached to the tree. You might think that there was another husband out there that she kept secret, but this one had to be really secret because the marriage took place after she died! Occasionally, I contact tree owners, but most of the time, when I find what looks like a possible new clue, I hunt for the source myself to verify.

But, yes, online family trees should definitely be used in a "reasonable exhaustive search."

Elizabeth Lapointe said...

They are clues only! I find that people are still using them as fact, but they should be very careful when using them as a basis for research. For my clients, I always say that they are clues only, so I agree with Linda. My specialty is cross-border migration (Canada and the US), and the brick walls that I deal with are compounded by the use of online family trees. I would much rather deal with primary records, and that means going to archives, libraries and local genealogy societies.


Colleen G. Brown Pasquale said...

Unfortunately, a majority of the trees on line are of the copy & paste variety with no sources except other copy & paste trees.

Marcia Philbrick said...

Great reflection on using online trees! I often use trees to evaluate census records to see if I'm looking at a source for the correct family. This is especially useful when doing FAN research for a family I don't know much about. However, it assumes the relationships in the tree are correct. I've experienced the "same name" issue a lot, so I'm often questioning the source (almost any source) as to whether it is actually for the person(s) I'm researching.

Russ Worthington said...


Thank you for your comments.

I was part of that conversation on FaceBook and totally agree with you.

At the "end of the day", I DO think that any online tree needs to be included in our "reasonable exhaustive search."


Unknown said...

I learned early on to be extremely wary of online trees, though I have at least my fair share of serious mistakes.
I am using them now quite happily to find much more recent information about descendants of siblings of my ancestors. As I contact DNA matches, I am finding that hardly anyone recognizes any names. I have had several delightful email exchanges with DNA matches, most of which ended with neither of us being able to figure out how we are related. I realized that if I take descendants those relatives down, a DNA match may be able to recognize some much more recent names! After I get names and dates, I go looking for obituaries to verify that what i have is correct. Those names and dates really help me find obituaries.
Lately, I am bothered by the fact that so many in our genealogical community are so eager to assume that no one else has a clue what they are doing. It is so easy to fall into a judgment mode. I told a recent online acquaintance about maybe my best find--finding what happened to my ggrandfather's brother who went to California and stopped communicating with the family in Minnesota. I had photos of him, but he disappeared after the 1900 census. I worked and worked at it, and eventually his granddaughter found my queries. Long story: she had no photo of her grandfather; I had three (she found another unlabeled one in her home later). We researched together; I stayed with her twice in California. We know an awful lot. My new online friend sent me a list of other men in California with the same name and asked how I knew I had the right one! Well, GOOD GRIEF. I am so sure we found the right one--everything we found fits together absolutely perfectly and we are a strong DNA match. We have so much documentation. But my acquaintance wanted to take pains to correct our research! And that is incredibly insulting.

Jacquie Schattner said...

Thank goodness for online trees. Yes there are the good, the bad and the ugly, but I definitely scour them for clues and have made some terrific connections. I too use them as clues, not fact, until I've found the source myself.

I wish people who have submitted their DNA had more public trees. I think they see the commercials, and submit, but don't follow up with information of their own or answer requests. With submitted trees, you are more likely to get a response. That's just my opinion. Thanks for bringing this subject up, Randy.

DanniDoodle said...

Online family trees are records and therefore should be included in a “reasonably exhaustive search”. I have found that family trees may be the only record that a person existed, or only source of the spelling of a given or surname or a relationship.

Geolover said...

Randy, your cautionary notes are on-target.

I think the best use of on-line trees is a path to the creators, who just ~might~ have found something that might help solve a problem. Not all tree-owners are in the clickophile category, and sometimes an inquiry does indeed lead to fruitful exchange.

Linda in Lancaster said...

I found my tree cut and pasted in so many others and this is the very reason I tend NOT to put everything I know on it. I'd like to have somebody contact me to see what else I have, rather than to have them grab and run with all of my data.
like WikiTree over Ancestry because of the Souce requirement and the ability to to check anything that does not agree with my information. There seems to be more "conversation" on WikiTree.
Ancestry trees are good for clues. My main complaint about them is once I find one that has a bonafide connection in it and I contact the owner, they seem uninterested in exchanging information. Case in point: a 2nd cousin who simply said, yes he was the son of so and so. End of conversation.
Rant over.

Genbook said...

Just this morning I got an email notification of a possible match on an ancestor. Since I have worked with these records for more than 35 years, on film and in person, I am reasonable familiar with them. (They are German records from a village in Hessen). While I like having so many more records available, it has made attaching records which are wrong so easy, and spread so wide so quickly, that it becomes a hobby in and of itself just to clean up others' mistakes.

At any rate, FamilySearch has an entry which is ridiculously wrong, since the submitter obviously is not familiar with old German script, and neither was the indexer who made the index that this person relied upon. Sad, but true. So yes, search online trees for clues. But for goodness' sake, do not take them as gospel truth!