Saturday, May 15, 2010

Online Trees

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.


  1. All good points! I have a love-hate relationship with online trees. I love to find them, but as soon as I contact the tree owner, I hate not hearing back from them! The trees sometimes have great clues and sometimes drive me crazy. I guess as in other areas of life, we have to take the good with the bad.

  2. Great column, Greta. I found you though Randy Seaver's blog. I thoroughly agree with a lot of your points.

    Jenna, I know most people hate not hearing back from the Owner - but there is an issue that some people might not be aware of. I, like many people, have a tree on I wish I could talk back with people, but I can't typically respond to them because I am not a paid subscriber of Ancestry. Or if I go to look at their tree to answer a question, I run up against the wall. I've been trying to figure out how I can list an email somewhere for people to contact me directly, but until I do, I unfortunately can't answer much as I'm dying to! :-(

  3. Greta,

    What a good way to sum this whole situation up! I have hand selected which parts of my family I have decided to put on Ancestry, mainly due to my client work, and put on only bare minimum as I feel comfortable. Despite giving someone true info for common ancestor, they choose to leave up wrong info that I am now seeing being passed from one tree to another.

    It all goes back to the golden rule: If you can't prove it yourself, it isn't true.


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  5. Great post! Like you I also use online trees for leads and to weed out lines. My feelings about online trees has changed over the years and will undoubtedly change again.

  6. The same. I use the online trees for leads and hopefully to contact the researcher for additional information. However, my tree is up on ancestry. I have worked diligently to put up supporting research...both what ancestry has to offer and those documents that I personally own. I don't mind sharing. I have no plans to write a book. My blog is my writing forum. Nice work Greta.

  7. Great post, Greta. I also use the online trees and the "shaky leaves" for leads and to, hopefully, make contact with a new cousin, however I never merge the online info with my tree - I'll write down what I find and then investigate further on my own. Just as I wouldn't want others to take my tree as gospel, I don't take chances with what I find online. I do have a tree on Ancestry and although about 90% of my data has sources, I have not put the source documents on my online tree (unless it's what Ancestry has to offer). I am more than willing to share my stuff, but I would like to be asked first. (is that wrong?)

  8. Carol, Jenna, Concetta, Kim, Apple, Linda, and Alana - Thank you all for stopping by! Concetta, I had not been aware that not all the trees belong to subscribers. I have known some people who have problems making changes. I have considered putting some partial trees on for families that I am really focusing on, but doing the whole thing would just be too much for me right now. Alana - I'm the same as you - I don't ask for a "trade of information," but I do like to hear from the researcher, and possibly explain how I know certain things or why other things are still tentative, for example. But trading family stories through these contacts is fabulous! Apple, I agree - our feelings may very well change, especially as the contact features change.

  9. Thanks Greta, online trees are a thorn in my side. I have them and I understand their powerful potential but they also have the potential to be extremely destructive to the entire concept of sourcing your information. The more we talk about this subject, the greater our chances of educating everyone to treading carefully when it comes to online trees.

  10. Greta, I feel the same way you do about using blogging instead of posting an online tree, and for the same reasons. Great post, and you left me laughing!