Tag Archives: Online Family Trees

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 Ancestry.com subscription and my mom would sneak some manila file folders from work for all of my papers.  I used the census records found on Ancestry.com 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.