Online Family Trees: A Genealogist’s Dream or Nightmare?

The topic of online family trees has been a debate on the blogosphere recently with posts by Lynn of The Armchair Genealogist and Jennifer of Rainy Day Genealogy Readings (I realize that I am a bit late to add to the conversation, but I’m putting my two cents in anyway).


I remember when I started researching my ancestors.  I was 12 and exclusively used the internet to find my information.  I never even considered sending away for records or visiting an archive.  I was allowed to use my aunt’s subscription and my mom would sneak some manila file folders from work for all of my papers.  I used the census records found on and the names I added to my family tree all came from other people’s trees.  I would read the various stories and family legends that people wrote on message boards or their family websites.  I believed every word – whether a source was written or not.

I bragged about the over 1,000 names I had in my database.  Since I spent the afternoons with my mom while she was at work, I would print page after page of information and charts.  My mom and I lived in a motel room at the time and I would cover the wall above my bed with my pedigree chart.  I was so proud of how far back my pedigree went.

There was only one problem: I was a name collector and not a genealogist.

The Difference

A name collector is someone who collects every name that could possibly fit into their family tree.  They don’t consider the sources – just cause it is on the internet makes it so.  They don’t think twice when a woman has a child at age 14 or when a man lives to be 120 years old.  Sources don’t matter unless you want to be polite and list the tree you got the information from.  In fact, many name collectors are more impressed with the large number of names in their database and not the number of stories to go with the names.

A genealogist however is someone who collects evidence in the form of vital, census, military, land, court, church, and every other record they can get their hands on.  Other evidence such as diaries, journals, newspapers, and letters are also collected.  Each piece of evidence is carefully examined, studied, and analyzed for information.  Genealogists also understand that while more and more records are being put on the internet, not everything is on the internet – sometimes you will have to get your hands dusty in an archive, courthouse, or repository.  Maps and history books are used to help understand the time period and place.  Conclusions are formed based on the evidence available and every source used is listed.  When one question is answered, five more are asked.  Genealogists are constantly trying to improve their skills by collaborating, connecting, networking, debating, and sharing with each other.

…Back To The Family Trees

Online family trees don’t have to be a bad thing.  An important part of being a genealogist is the ability to share, collaborate, and connect with other genealogists.  If I found an online family tree with one of my ancestors in it, and I have different information about that ancestor, then I want to talk to that researcher to figure out why our information is different.  What does that researcher have that I don’t or vice versa?  Is there something that was overlooked?  Together, we can figure it out.

I wouldn’t be able to find that researcher unless that researcher had an online family tree.

At the same time, if I post a family tree online, I wouldn’t want someone to just “copy” that information.  I would want them to contact me and understand how I came to the conclusions that I have.  My family tree consists of a lot of research work and I don’t want someone to just “take” it without understanding it.

Choices, Choices, Choices

Posting a family tree online is a personal choice.  Deciding what to do with the information found in family trees is also a choice – will you be a name collector or a genealogist?

Update (As of 8 Sept 2010): I am not saying that being a name collector is a bad thing (as long as the person realizes the difference between a name collector as a genealogist).  Using the information like names, dates, and places that you find in someone else’s online family tree as a GUIDE or a CLUE only is not a bad thing – on the contrary, I encourage it.  Sometimes you need to see what another researcher thinks about a particular family in order to get inspired or have an epiphany of where to look for the next record.  It is normal to get stuck somewhere and need the extra push that can come from using someone else’s information as a GUIDE or CLUE.  This does not mean the information you find in someone else’s tree is FACT – it might be – but you have to PROVE it using real records, documents, and sources.
I understand that there are people in the genealogy community who don’t see a need for their research to be at an academic standard.  I’m not saying it has to be like that anyway.  But why not try to make your genealogy as factual/proven/sourced/correct as possible?
Besides, I have the most fun in genealogy when I find the record that I have searched forever for.  The record holds more information that helps me understand my ancestor as not a name on a chart, but as a living, breathing person with a story waiting to be discovered.
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14 responses to “Online Family Trees: A Genealogist’s Dream or Nightmare?

  1. Elys,

    I am a name collector….I use the names collected from online family trees, newspaper articles and websites such as Facebook as a means to find distant cousins.

    Being armed with a name and date (especially for the Smiths and Browns) provides me with clues with which to search “vital, census, military, land, court, church, and every other record” I can find to verify the relationships of those names to my family.

    I spent yesterday doing just that. As I added the names to my tree I concurrently searched Ancestry, FindMyPast, Australian Government BDM indexes, NSW State Archives,Familysearch,The Ryerson Index, Australian Cemetery Indexes,Trove and The Sydney Morning Herald Online to try to prove whether these people belonged in my tree.

    By the end of the day I had identified one whole line of Brydon/Bryden descendents of my convict ancestor, Elizabeth Phipps. I uploaded this to my online family website so that other “name gatherers” might use what I have gathered as clues to solve their genealogical jigsaws.

    For me genealogy/family history is not a serious academic pursuit but a hobby/passion/obsession about which I am very serious. By posting names for which I don’t have documentation on my website I have made worthwhile connections and entered into dialogue with cousins from all over. Some of these people have generously shared photos and documents relating to the names I have posted thus making the presence of the names in my tree legitimate.

    Name gathering can be a means to an end for genealogists.
    Geniaus´s last blog post ..Permanent Email Addresses – Essential for Genealogy Connections

    • Geniaus –

      Don’t get me wrong: There is nothing wrong with a name collector. It isn’t like I am trying to condemn all name collectors. As long as the person realizes that they are name collectors.

      But since you use the names that you find online and find the real primary sources that confirm or deny the stuff that you’ve read online, you aren’t really a name collector in my book (I hope you don’t mind me saying that). See, a name collector is totally ignorant of the records that exist in libraries, archives, courthouses, etc – a name collector, rather, just collects names and accepts them as immediately part of the tree, when in reality, that may not be the case.

      When I was a name collector, I collected tons of names and dates and places. When I started to become a genealogist, I found that many of the names didn’t belong in my family tree. But what would happen was I was copying someone else’s wrong information and perpetuating a bad cycle of misinformation. Turns out for many of those lines, that the people did in fact exist, the dates and places were at least close (most of the time), but they weren’t connected to my family tree. I was barking up the wrong tree.

      So when I completely started my family tree home from scratch, I kept the folders and charts that I had printed and used them as a GUIDE or CLUE only. Some of the information was proven with real sources (primary sources) and placed back on the family tree. The rest did not make it’s way onto the family tree, but rather stayed in the folders in the back of my file cabinet as UNPROVEN and probably false information (not definitely false…but there is a lot of evidence to the contrary).

      I agree that it can be helpful to post names that are yet to be unproven but it must be stated that these names and facts are UNPROVEN. As long as it is made clear, there is no problem with it. Even discussing your theories about an ancestor or family online can be very helpful – but it must be made clear that these are theories and that you need more evidence to prove it.

  2. I was the same way when I first began, Elyse. I collected names and never bothered to find out where the information came from. I have since learned better. While I do believe online family trees have a purpose (collaborating, getting hints, etc.), they should always be questioned. I have a notebook of names I have found on online family trees, and I periodically pick a name or two to research further. Some names I wind up throwing out, while the majority do end up finding their way onto my tree (but not without evidence).

    I have questioned some information on other people’s family trees, presenting them with physical evidence as to whey I believe they are wrong. I think some people have actually become offended by it (I think I am helping, by giving them documentation they might not otherwise ever get). Apparently they have become so accustomed to their beliefs of their own “genealogy” that they can’t see that it might be wrong.

    My biggest pet peeve is unsourced information. I admit, there is some information I have that is not sourced (yet), but I have that written clearly on individuals and information that is yet to be sourced.

    • Jacky –

      Sometimes I find that when I present someone with counter-evidence on an ancestor or even just point out something that doesn’t make sense (There is no way that that woman had a baby at 65, etc), people get offended. It is like they don’t want to be told that something is wrong with the information they have.

      Personally, I am always grateful that someone would take the time to notice a mistake and message me about it. I want my tree to display good information. I know I am not perfect and that incorrect or unproven information will sneak by me every once in a while. I am always so appreciative and thankful for someone who helps me.

  3. Elyse, I completely agree. Although I find “sources” (note the quotes) like Ancestry Public Trees, personal websites and International Genealogical Index to be great tools to provide CLUES about possible avenues for further research, I too learned long ago not to take them at face value. I can’t imagine why someone would want to spend time researching and putting on their tree people who may or may not be related to them. Documentation from official sources is critical. Keep up the good blogging!

  4. Hi Elyse,
    I make my online tree private for two reasons:
    1) so it can’t be copied
    2) the reader can contact me for more information
    Ginger Smith´s last blog post ..DNA Results for Wilson Ulysses Godwin

  5. Elyse – I too am a recovering name collector such as you, excited at every milestone of 100 people. Now, everything comes under great scrutiny when I see it. As for the trees on Ancestry, many simply copy what’s there claim their family line with no regard to the sources. I believe Greta called this “click and claim” genealogy. I find it very frustrating when I go to these trees for clues and they all point back to the same tree as a “source”, constantly repeating the same errors over and over again and you are correct – there is much contention when someone who actually has the proof in front of them attempts to communicate with or correct the submitter. I once had a cousin tell me that a child wasn’t born to a certain couple because they were working out of a published book – I had the birth record in my hand. The same holds true for published works on family lines. Often because it’s in the book then it must be true – Not so! Again this gets back to the name collecting problem and the not checking sources problem. Tru we can’t all be correct on every fact, but my take is “prove it!” Until the proof is evident, or the conclusion is justifiable based on evidence, then it simply shouldn’t be stated as a fact. All this being said, I do not have a tree on ancestry but I often go there to contact others researching the same families. If I decide in the future to put a tree on the site, it will most certainly be a private tree.
    Cindy´s last blog post ..Wordless Wednesday – Babes In A Washtub

  6. Very well written and I totally agree with you. There are many Ancestry trees that I would like to chop down because they are giving out the wrong information on my family, and I have tried in vain to get the right information out there. I think most of the name collectors must only look on Ancestry and never even search for other information on the web. Until recently, my tree has been on my web site for 10 years, but they never seem to have found it. Or, maybe they find so many trees on Ancestry which repeat the wrong information that they think mine must be wrong and the Ancestry trees must be right.
    Debbie´s last blog post ..Tombstone Tuesday

  7. I think we all probably start there, Elyse. I put a tree up on when I was first starting out and man do I wish I hadn’t done that.
    Sassy Jane´s last blog post ..Follow Friday – OLD GERMAN PROFESSIONS- OCCUPATIONS and ILLNESSES

  8. I appreciate that you make a clearer definition of “name collecting.” I think that the phrase is often applied to those of us who have rather large online family trees JUST because they are large. Sure, I have a lot of VERY distant relatives, because I’ll search out clues to a 5th cousin’s life if I find him or her interesting. BUT (this is the big BUT), I make every effort to clearly note the source of my information in that online family tree. Very often it’s a secondary source, yes–I can’t afford to pay for every primary document for distant relatives, nor do I care to–but I’m OK with that and welcome additions and corrections from others.
    Tracy´s last blog post ..Tombstone Tuesday- Stanley Wangsgaard

  9. I loved the image of you hanging your family tree above your bed! I started my family tree when I was about fifteen, and I used both sides of my bedroom and closet doors to do the same thing. This was before computers, so it was all done on pre-printed charts and filled out with colored pens. My friends all had John Travolta and the Bay City Rollers on their doors.
    Heather Rojo´s last blog post ..Family History Day! Concord- New Hampshire- 23 October 2010

  10. Melissa Abernathy

    I don’t understand why someone calling himself a genealogist would not want the information to be at an academic – or at least semi-academic – level. It’s not difficult to learn to write meaningful sources, and without supporting information, a tree should never be posted anywhere with any hint that it is fact. This is one reason I have a love-hate relationship with Rootsweb – I sometimes find useful information, even if it’s only a lead on a name, but mostly I find thousands of incomplete trees.

    That said, I do collect names as a first step, and I do put them in my tree because I’ve found that the easiest way to keep up with their possible place in the tree. I view Ancestry as a research site ONLY; therefore, I share my trees with other members. I’ve gone to great lengths to state, however, that it is a research tree. Sometimes I have to dig a lot through Ancestry’s records to find what I need – case in point, my great-grandfather Hatton listed on a census record as “Hattna.” That was on about page 43 of the search returns, after even the vaguest of Soundex suggestions. I like to save others the trouble by making it available. I source everything and use icons to indicate the level of completeness, so people who have been researched but have missing sources or questionable information get an incomplete icon and notes about what is missing. You can only see the tree if you are a paid member of Ancestry, and my thinking is that – in general – people who are paying Ancestry’s fee are at least somewhat serious. For the most part, I find people appreciate the detailed information and use it wisely. Of course, I also occasionally find people who list as an individual’s mother someone who was supposedly born after the child, and I think, “Did you not even review the hint as you added it to your tree?”

    To everyone who mentioned offering corrections on trees, I say: if you ever come across any of my trees (wallabyLP on Ancestry), please do write to me with corrections! Even my OCD research style can produce bad results, and I want my tree to be as complete and accurate as possible. I hope that the people who get offended by corrections don’t dissuade others from offering them. Genealogy is a huge undertaking – it’s not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle – and help should never be turned away, even if it’s just an opinion that provides a lead.

  11. I’m working my way through your blog to catch up on anything useful I have missed, and this post was something that struck home with me.

    I, up until probably a month ago, was a name collector. I just wanted to know who they were, where they lived, and what they did. Then I found John Elders, a man who was a secretary to a public company, had three children, but died of pneumonia 15 days after the birth of his third son. The family then had to split up so the mother could try and earn some money.

    This story made me realise there’s more to genealogy, and I’m now in the process of documenting those stories, as well as beginning a brand new, definitely correct tree on WikiTree. I fell into the hints trap on Ancestry and I now use that info purely as a guide, I don’t really believe any of it without seeing some sort of evidence, online or in an archive.

    But the most frustrating thing is owners of trees don’t reply to emails asking where they got their information from! Massively irritating!!

    • Hi Katelyn – I’m so glad I could inspire you to search deeper for the stories of your ancestors. I hope you find this journey rewarding and fascinating as you begin to put flesh on the bare bones.

      If you are having any trouble with WikiTree or looking finding matches, please feel free to send me an email to my WikiTree email account: and I’ll see what I can do to help.

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