Sunday, March 31, 2019

Dear Randy - Newbies Need to Be Warned!

Genea-Musings reader Sherry emailed me over the weekend, saying:
"DNA has been instrumental in discovering new relatives who are NOT family researchers. Newbies need to be warned about the dangers of importing trees that may contain errors.  
"One of my new family members has created a tree - fine - but has assumed that all Ancestry trees are accurate and he has imported a line based on some of our family names that includes Mary Todd Lincoln and other ancestors going back to Scottish nobility. ('I’ll bet you didn’t know we’re descended from famous Scottish Nobility.') His 'un-sourced research' is based on gleanings from Ancestry trees and Wikipedia. He wrote...'Most of the time I just wait for it to tell me there’s a Potential Parent, compare the names and dates and accept their recommendations if it all matches perfectly.'  EEEEEEeeeeekkkk!  
"When attempting to explain that everything needs proper sources - using GPS or, at least, something akin to that  - this is the answer I get: 'Seriously though, am I wrong to trust the Ancestry database?' 
I don't hear from him much any more and he is perpetuating the rumors throughout the family. Giving him the benefit of a doubt...he may have made some important discoveries, however I see no 'proof' - am I wrong? 
"I know there have been articles/blogs/webinars addressing this - will you point me to some?"
My response was:

I feel your pain and agony and frustration!  I see it every week at my local genealogical society meetings and online.

1)  Here are three articles I've written about "Potential Ancestors" on Ancestry Member Trees:

*  How Accurate Is an Ancestry Quick and Dirty Tree? (posted 5 November 2018).  In the Quick and Dirty Tree post, I found that five of my 64 ancestors (back through 4th great-grands on my father's side) were wrong just using Potential Ancestors suggested by Ancestry.  That does not give me confidence that they should be used without doing a lot of research - they should only be used as clues for research.

* Suggests "Potential Ancestors" For your Ancestry Member Tree (posted 19 June 2018)  I did find that two of the many Potential Ancestors suggested by Ancestry were correct.  Others may be correct, but I have seen no conclusive evidence for many of the suggested potential ancestors in my Ancestor Member Tree.  A 5% to 10% error rate in "Potential Ancestors" seems to be the norm, not the exception.  Is that "good enough?"  I don't think so. 

A Reader's Take on Problems - Part IV: The Ancestry Big Tree (posted 13 February 2019).   That post explains how we know that there is a BIG Ancestry Tree and what is in it.  That BIG Ancestry Tree is used for the Potential Ancestors in Ancestry Member Trees, for the ThruLines DNA common ancestor feature, and for the We're Related mobile app, plus for a Google search for a person profile.  Again, a 5% to 10% error rate appears to be the norm, not the exception.

2)  Other writers and bloggers may have written about these topics; I don't keep a bibliography of things like that.  You might do a Google search with suitable search terms.   Or you might look through my Best of the Genea-Blogs weekly posts because I tend to pick blog posts about these topics.

3)  Every newbie will benefit from reading "how to" books like the Val Greenwood classic, The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. 4th Edition.  There are many more genealogy books (for beginner, intermediate, advanced and professional researchers) available at public libraries (city, county, region, state, etc.).  

4)  Every newbie will benefit from taking a beginner's course in genealogy - many local, state and regional genealogical societies have classes every year.  Have your cousin look for a nearby genealogical society.

5)  There are quite a few "Beginner" videos online in the FamilySearch Learning Center.  You can search subjects like "beginner" or "sources" or "census" or "England" or or "church records," etc.  You might recommend the video  "If I'd Only Known - Beginner Genealogy Mistakes."

There are many more videos online on YouTube - just search for "genealogy."  The big companies (Ancestry, MyHeritage and Findmypast) have "Help" sections on their websites to provide education and information.

6)  Doing genealogy research online seems so simple at the beginning - just point, click and add ancestors to your tree and attach records that seem to pertain to those ancestors also.  What is lost in this age is the experience of:

*  Discovering new records in a repository (in books, periodicals, microfilm, digital microfilm), 
*  Obtaining vital record certificates at the county clerk's office, 
*  Finding and corresponding with other researchers, 
*  Learning local, state and national history, 
*  Learning and sharing of experiences in a group of researchers at a repository or in a genealogical society.  
*  Making basic research mistakes and learning from them.  

7)  All of that contributes to the knowledge base of each person.  I've seen it said that it takes about 10,000 hours of study and experience to be competent in any subject, and I think that's true of genealogy and family history.

8)  I know that many Genea-Musings readers have suggestions for books, periodicals, and websites that they can recommend for a "newbie genealogist" - please share them in Comments to this post.


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Linda Stufflebean said...

Randy, I agree with #3 - Val Greenwood's The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, 4th edition. I think all researchers should read this book. I'd also recommend reading journals like that of the National Genealogical Society and New England Historic Genealogical Society's Register to read examples of well done research. If a newbie doesn't want to invest the money in joining, local societies and libraries often have past issues of the journals on their sale tables for not much more than $1 each. Joining a local society is another must do to learn more about genealogical research.

Marian said...

It's difficult to approach the issue with someone who seems to be naive about genealogy. When someone tells us with a big grin, "I just started on Friday night, and I've already learned that Charlemagne was my ancestor," where can we start? How can we possibly be gentle enough so we don't turn the person away from family history (and US) permanently?

Is there any point in saying something like this? "Man! I've been taking classes, reading text books for ten years, and spent so many vacations traveling to archives around the country. But I haven't found my great-grandmother's maiden name. I've just had a hard time finding any handwritten documents about my family before 1850. Getting real proof of relationships is tough."

Is that hint too gentle to break through the ecstasy of Charlemagne's descendant?

Marian said...

Even experienced researchers, whose education about other subjects I really look up to, seem to think that there aren't any sources beyond They have asked why I would need to document a particular fact with a citation on my Ancestry tree, because Ancestry documents them for me automatically.

Marcia Crawford Philbrick said...

I would also add the suggestion to find a local genealogical society and check out their programs and educational programming.

Diane Gould Hall said...

Marian said it succinctly. I’ve had the exact same experience with a new research, telling me excitedly "I’ve got my family back to the 1400’s and I’ve only been doing this for a month."
Wow! Where to start? How not to offend them? I can’t even identify the parents of my maternal great grandfather or my paternal 2 great grandfather, after 16 years of diligent research and hiring 3 professionals. They hear me say that and just think I must not be very good at research.
The proliferation of bad trees is only getting worse. All we can do is continue to guide them and hope for the best. Meanwhile, I’ll still be documenting my sources, attending seminars and classes and collarberaring with other genealogists.

Irma A RDSM said...

Hello Randy. I recently found this article in Pinterest and then opened your amazing blog to read through your posts.
Today when reviewing my bookmarks in my research notes and then reading again this post and its comments, I feel the need to share my thoughts about this topic, especially because it has been almost 2 years and half since the last comment… and the situation is still as described in your article.
My experience with the “suggested potential” parent, or spouse, etc in Ancestry was kind of good only once when I used it not long ago after finding out in their help center that if you have missed someone in your tree, you look for a close relative (in the family tree view) to that missing person and then -Not sure, I don’t remember now if clicking on it-, that potential parent or so, will show up in green, like in the image above. I followed that advise and got that ancestor back, BUT when I looked at its profile, the sources where missing. That’s why I wrote “kind of good”. This takes me to mention about those Family Trees hints…
Never again I will accept or even lose my time in the majority of the cases, taking a look and comparing those trees. First, because I have gotten frustrated when I attempt to review those trees and finding out that 1st, there are 4 to 20 “private” people in them; 2nd, because they don’t have sources. No sources. Zero! If any, other Family Trees. And 3rd, most likely the owners or managers got their information from MY tree. Seriously! I know because I used to have my own 2 main surnames capitalized in all my tree relatives that have those surnames. When they accepted my tree suggestions from Ancestry, the system copied those names the same way I had them before, and they have not even been edited.
My last comment, and this time positive, in favor of Ancestry, is that they added the tags. As a non-Pro-Genealogist (Pro = Professional), I appreciate that because I can tag people in the tree as “wall brick”, “researching”, “hypothesis”, “researched and proved”, etc for the sake of everyone, especially those above my level of knowledge, so at least they know that I got that information not from my intuition or by copying it from a non-resources source.