I have been following the discussion of online trees at Randy Seaver’s Genea-Musings (“The Online Family Tree Conundrum”), Apple’s Tree (“My Abominable Online Tree” and “OBMFM”), and several other blogs with interest. This is a subject that, like the trees themselves, does not go away. It has been discussed before but, as Randy and Apple have noted, there are some new twists brought about by recent developments, such as the One Big Family Tree envisioned by FamilySearch and the (relatively) recent addition of the Member Connect feature whereby family trees on Ancestry are connected to document images (and thus also indirectly to one another). These developments make it difficult to simply “ignore” the trees. The following questions occur:
Is it worth it to post a Public Family Tree on Ancestry or any of the various other GEDCOM-hosting sites?
What are the pros and cons of using these family trees in various ways in research?
How can the various online trees ever be reconciled into what Randy terms the One Big Monster Family Tree?
Posting Online Trees
I do not post a tree on Ancestry. Why not and what are my alternatives? I do not see myself uploading a GEDCOM from my genealogy program to Ancestry or Rootsweb for several reasons. In addition to the regular data entry fields, I use the notes field for many different things: transcriptions of censuses, pension applications, tombstone inscriptions, wills, obituaries, and other documents, e-mail addresses of research contacts, research notes and outlines, leads, and more. And, like other researchers, I do not claim that every little branch of the tree that I have entered so far is picture perfect, or even good, yet. There was that little matter of the grandfather, father, and son with the same name that I entered under incorrect parents, then tried to merge people instead of detaching and reattaching correctly and …. it wasn’t very pretty. It still isn’t. And some stuff I am just playing around and experimenting with and don’t want to share, yet. I know I could enter things the old-fashioned way, but I don’t have enough time to do that plus regular research and entry and oh yeah, write my blog, too.
However, I have chosen an alternative way to share a lot of my information: on my blog. I provide the basic outlines of family groups, sometimes with a bit of additional information, and an invitation to contact me for more. OK, so it’s your basic cousin bait.
And this “cousin bait” is just as susceptible to “click and claim” as other online trees are. At the same time, it is a bit more under my control. Not only can I easily go back to make changes in the original post, I can add a new post explaining and correcting previous mistakes. And in the original post I point out where information gaps exist or any uncertainty I have about the accuracy of certain information.
Using Online Trees
When I’m in “genealogist as detective” mode, I view online trees as the “tip line”: idiosyncratic, often highly unreliable, but capable of producing information gems and genuine leads.
How have I used them?
- For contacting other researchers. I did this for my Norman family and ended up with several goldmines’ worth of information and pictures. And I shared some of my own information and pictures.
- Touching (checking) all the bases. Just as Apple has noted that the “shaky leaf” has occasionally led her to a document of which she had been unaware, I have sometimes been led to other documents when I found trees listed on census pages.
- And here’s my favorite: whittling down a list of candidate families for my brick wall. The detailed information on a couple of Smith families in Tennessee enabled me to conclude that they could not be the family my great-grandmother Lizzie Smith Brinlee.
Not Using Online Trees
The best line I have heard so far comes from Randy Seaver in “The Online Family Trees Conundrum”: “I love online family trees, and I hate online family trees – often in the same moment in time.”
Though I’m disappointed when I find “bad information,” I’m no longer irritated. Sifting through the dross to get the gold and all that. They do make it somewhat difficult to discuss certain family lines: “But they’re shown as the parents in 24 trees – that other guy, the one you like, only shows up in 2, there’s hardly any information for him, and my guy has an entire line stretching back to some 13th-century dude in England.”
The Future of OBMFT
Randy asks: “What do you think? Are WeRelate and New FamilySearch on the right track here? Will all of this lead to a One Big Monster Family Tree (OBMFT)? Who will be the first company or organization to "get it right" with the right combination of collaboration, arbitration, judgment, and presentation?”
Apple asks: “Are we as a group ready for OBMFT? Are we ready to freely share all of the information that we've worked for years to gather? Will we share all of the pictures that we treasure, knowing that they will be there and free for the taking? Will we be willing to spend the time it will take to make all of the information consistent? What about putting in the hours to upload our documents and pictures? Or will we just dump our gedcoms and walk away, leaving to others to clean them up?”
Hmmm. Getting people to collaborate and share; getting it all properly coordinated and arbitrated.
Good luck with that.