Monday, July 15, 2013

Interesting Questions About Online Family Trees

I gave my 60-minute "Growing Your Ancestry Member Tree" presentation on Saturday, 13 July 2013 at the San Diego Genealogical Society meeting.

During the short question and answer session at the end of the meeting, I was asked several interesting questions, including (thank you to Susi Pentico in her blog post Society Saturday, San Diego Genealogical Society on the Ancestor Seeking by the Root-Bound blog for writing come of them down and commenting).

I wish that I had given better responses to the questions, but time was short and I couldn't think that fast.  Here are the questions I recall, and the answers I could have given:

1)  "What are the disadvantages if a person does not put their tree on Ancestry?"

With more thinking time, I think I would say:

*  Ancestry has the largest collection of online family trees (46 million trees, over 2.8 person profiles) and provides the best opportunity to find other family members and cousins researching your ancestors, or to have them find you.  Once found, you can work with them and share information on the families of mutual interest.  You don't have to have an Ancestry subscription to add and maintain your tree, but you do need to be a registered user.  The disadvantage is that you would miss out on potential finding and working with other family members and cousins.

*  One way you can find these cousins is this: Ancestry Member Tree persons are found in a search from the Search page, from within an Ancestry Member Tree, or from within Family Tree Maker or other software programs.  You do need to have an Ancestry subscription in order to perform searches.  This short-circuits your search process significantly.  The miss out!

*  Another way that you can find these cousins is the Hints (green leaves) in your Ancestry Member Tree, in Family Tree Maker and on the Ancestry mobile App (iOS and Android), assuming you have an Ancestry subscription.  Same disadvantage - you miss out!

*  Ancestry makes it possible to contact a person with information in an Ancestry Member Tree using the anonymous Member Connect mail feature.  You can send a message to another registered Ancestry member without disclosing your email address or anything else about yourself.  Same disadvantage -- you miss out.

*  Another disadvantage is that you, and others, cannot compare your DNA test results with that of other AncestryDNA customers.  Ancestry provides a list of common surnames and permits searches by surname and birthplace to find matches.  Again, you miss out.

*  Another disadvantage is that you may not have a backup for your family tree.  Ancestry provides that.  The synchronization feature with Family Tree Maker is a plus, but you have to regularly sync it to keep both trees up-to-date.

*  Another disadvantage is that you won't have your family tree in your pocket using the Ancestry mobile App (iOS or Android) - and you won't be able to add content to it while at a repository, at home or at someplace without access to your computer.  There are other companies with family tree apps, of course.

2)  "What are the privacy issues with an Ancestry Member Tree?" 

*  Each tree can be made (and/or changed to) a "Public" tree or a "Private" tree.  A Public tree will be searchable by any subscriber.  A Private tree can be searchable or not searchable at the user's discretion.

* uses an algorithm to determine if a person without a death date is still living.  They use 100 years from birth as the date.  If no birth date is provided, I don't know what they do.

*  The user can also mark living persons as "living" in an Ancestry Member Tree.

*  The Photos for living persons are Private by default.

*  Only persons authorized by the owner of the Ancestry Member Tree can see information for living persons.

*  If you don't want information, or photos, or stories, about a person to appear online, then exclude the person, or their information, from the family tree that you import into an Ancestry Member Tree.  Or, you can delete information from within the Ancestry Member Tree.  If you don't post it, nobody will be able to see it.  You need to be careful who you share it with, however, because they might post it online.

See for Ancestry's answer.

3)  "What happens to my Ancestry Member Tree information after I die?  Can I pass it along to my family?"

*  A registered user (who is not currently subscribed) can still access their Ancestry Member Tree, maintain it and delete it.  If you die, someone in your family could use your userID and password to access your Ancestry Member Tree, if they know the userID and password.  If you want them to have continued access, then you'd better write it down somewhere for them to find or tell them directly.

*  I don't think Ancestry permits an Ancestry Member Tree to be passed from one owner to another.  However, a current owner could export a GEDCOM file of their tree to their computer, and give it to a second person, who could import it into their computer, register for an Ancestry account, and import the GEDCOM file into an Ancestry Member Tree on the second person's registered  account.

*  A major unknown is that we don't know if Ancestry Member Trees, or any other family tree website, will live "forever" in the digital world.  The company could go out of business, be bought and the trees pruned, or the company could remove trees based on the date last updated at some time in the future.

See for Ancestry's answer.

4)  I was disappointed to hear in Susi's blog post that some attendees sitting near her do not believe in putting their family tree online in a public way, or in sharing information with other persons.  

My view is that a significant percentage of genealogical society members have this attitude because:

*  they do not trust this "newfangled computer genealogy" fad.
*  they are fearful that their family tree information will be "stolen."
*  they are fearful that their information will be shown to be erroneous.
*  they've published their book and the research is done and cannot be improved.

If a person does not take steps to save their family tree information for their family, then the information may be lost when they die.  Putting the work onto an online family tree website will enable the person's work to live on, at least until the family tree website closes down.

5)  What do my readers think?  What other reasons are there to NOT put a tree online at Ancestry or another website?  What happens upon the death of an owner of an Ancestry Member Tree?  Why do you not want a public family tree?

Thank you to Susi for her comments and notes.  I'll try to add more humor to this add content to my relative, Preserved Fish, or another marriage for my Elizabeth Dill, to a man named Pickle.

The URL for this post is:

Copyright (c) 2013, Randall J. Seaver


Elyse said...

I don't have an updated tree on Ancestry only because I can't transfer my tree to someone else if I die. I know that technically my descendants could download it to a GEDCOM, but it won't look the same. I'd rather put my tree on WikiTree where I can easily pass it on to someone by just adding them to the Trusted List. (And no, I'm not just saying that because I work for WikiTree). What I like about collaborative sites is that you can share an ancestor profile - and if a tragic thing were to happen where I died or could no longer do research, someone could continue my work. This could work on sites like WeRelate (perfect if you never put living people online) or WikiTree.

I understand why people put their tree on Ancestry - I've just never really seen a need.

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

I'm like Elyse in that I do not use the Ancestry Family Tree function. I was an early and continuing contributor and participant in WikiTree. I like it very much. Yesterday, coincidentally, I looked at the FamilySearch Family Tree (wiki!) and connected my name (all I had since I first regiestered) to my parents - they, and most of the rest of my research over the years, was already there. I went in and did some editing on the far distant pass relatives...correcting errors from prior work, that they had picked up and recorded (from somewhere). It was actually quite gratifying to see it all there, for the world to access and comment on, should anyone so choose. What an interesting life we lead! ;-)

Victor said...

Most of the researchers appear to use only what is available on The few that have worked on my family do not have sources listed beyond US census records. A majority of the none attributed information appears to be based on my early shared research and/or my tree on the old usgenweb. I update my tree on, because my ancestors were Germanic Europeans and there are many researchers on that site doing original work in non British European records.

Geolover said...

All Public Member Trees are mirrored on Any registered user, whether a subscriber or not, can search and view any tree there. Anyone can create a new account just to view trees there. It is a rather clumsy interface, and has been in 'beta' for several years - but still free. Trees that are 'private' on are not supposed to be shown on, but there have been glitches.

T said...

I've been doing this for more or less 3 years. I put my tree on as a public tree BECAUSE of the misinformation on 99.9% of the trees I found when researching my own family. To name a few: wife's parents attributed to husband, brother's children included with own children, information about a niece of the same name as wife incorporated with wife's information, wrong place or date of birth, wrong spouse, extra children, children not assigned to the right mother or father, children born after the mother had died, children older than either parent, children born to a parent impossibly younger/older than childbearing age. I was astounded at the carelessness of tree authors.

Some of my ancestors were extremely hard to find. When I found them I wanted to be sure someone else looking for the same information didn't have to go through all that I did. I would guess 1/4 of the people on my tree are not "out there" and I had to do some creative thinking to find them. One shocking revelation was the extended family I had right in my own back yard and never knew it.

Yes, people help themselves to my documents and my work. It would be nice if they cited me but not all do. I've become more selective about which documents I will buy. It's easy to turn this hobby into a money pit.

I don't know if this will be the right solution to maintaining my tree in years to come but I have names a limited number of people as editors to my tree. They will have access and can add, subtract, and correct misinformation. None of my children are the least bit interested. I don't want all this work and money to end up in the dumpster when I die. Hopefully someone will keep my online tree alive. And who knows, maybe by the time a child is MY age they will become interested in family history and be thankful I have done so much work.

I have given a pedigree to our local historical society. They have quite a display of my great grandfather. The pedigree they have for my mother has several errors in it that I have documented correctly. It was written many years ago, I suspect from memory. Most families had 12 children who married into another family of 12 children. Then that couple had 12 of their own who also married into a family of 12. No wonder there were errors. And all my family on both sides moved around as if they had a private jet. Were they so poor that they had nothing to move but kids?

Donna said...

It never crossed my mind to not use the capabilities of Ancestry for my tree - it is free and is easy to attach supportive documentation so others can understand follow the trail that led me to my conclusions. Because I'm thorough [I add all siblings and children and their spouses/children, etc.) and attach documentation, there is a reasonably complete picture of my family - not just a direct line listing of names and dates. I have others who have or can have Editor capability with the tree so it can be continued after my death. And who cares if someone accesses and uses the information - sharing is a part of the reason for doing it. Then, of course, there is the benefit of connecting with relatives who find you by way of the tree and beginning to collaborate on the family history. I find the WikiTree, FamilySearch, My Heritage, Geni, etc. trees frustrating - although I do have my information available in all of them, I find myself spending an inordinate amount of time either correcting all the misinformation or deleting emails asking me to merge people from my own tree [documented by way of many research aids] with others' undocumented and frequently inaccurate trees.

Magda said...

Like Elyse and Bill , it is important to know WHERE your work is going if something unforseen happens ! The trusted list at WikiTree works for me . It's very reassuring to add my kin (and also not worry about membership fees ) .
I just got an account but I like Randy's idea of uploading hard copies onto SCRIBD too as well as donating to Allen County Library's WE RELATE.

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Bev said...

I received a reply from ancestry yesterday to my question " what if the owner of a tree died". They replied that ownership can be changed to someone else if the original owner died.
On another topic, I watched a "Barefoot Genealogist" segment yesterday on " Splitting or Combining Family Trees". I don't know how old it was but I wonder if it was a few years old because she referenced FTM 2012 and to buy that. Since I know it is no longer available to buy, I sent a message to as she advised if episode I watched was no longer live. Today, I got a reply that they don't answer every question and good luck. I'm furious! All I wanted to know was could they recommend something else perhaps an in the cloud software. If anyone sees this and can offer a suggestion, please reply. Thank you, beverlee lanning