Family Trees

   When I was little, I can remember believing that anything you saw in print was true and accurate. I don't know where I got the idea - probably nowhere, just a trusting little kid's reaction to the bright new world around him.
   As I grew older, my beliefs changed. I became sure that newspapers and other "instant news" sources were usually more wrong than right. Still, I held on to a general belief that books and magazines - you know, publications in which the contents had been really researched - were likely more accurate than otherwise. Now that I am old... well, it's tough to put complete faith in any form of written or oral communication.
   That brings me to the Internet. If you own a television, you've probably seen the ad (I don't remember the product it was advertising) where the woman tells the man that she "saw it on the internet," and that "they can't say anything on the internet that isn't true." The man asks her where she heard that, and she answers, "On the internet." She then walks off with her new boyfriend, who she met on the internet and who is (clearly not!) a French model.


   That seems laughable - I'm sure it's the irony that the ad producers were aiming for - and yet it seems that many people currently "doing genealogy" are treating internet information like the naive woman with her "French model" boyfriend. Perhaps the greatest repudiation of the statement "they can't say anything on the internet that isn't true" is the ubiquitous "family tree."
   Today on the internet, you can find Ancestry trees, Wiki trees, and another dozen or so associated with some of the many, many genealogy websites that have sprung up on the World Wide Web. This isn't strictly an internet phenomenon; it grew out of the Mormon practice of gathering information on deceased relatives, so that they can be baptized posthumously. Over the years, church members gathered so much family information that the Mormons began making it available not just for their rites, but to anyone who was interested in genealogy. Before the days of everyone having their own computers, the information was available on microfilm, and sometimes in a printed format. With the increasing availability and popularity of computers, each Mormon family history library was equipped with computers for both data retrieval and data entry.


   Any of us who have been "doing genealogy" for more than about 20 years have used the Mormon ancestral files, and we often found good information in them. But they had a serious problem from the start: the additions to the system were not monitored or edited in any way. Consequently, a database developed that had absolutely no reliability. You might enter the most complete, best documented genealogy ever prepared; I might enter the worst. The database treated them just the same. While it was sometimes possible to check the original submittal, it was a difficult process, and I suspect it was seen by few people who were not advanced genealogists. The upshot was that, while some of the resulting family trees were good, you couldn't know how good - or how bad - without considerable research to try to verify the information. That's how research is done, of course; unfortunately, most genealogy is not "done" by trained researchers, so most of the Mormon family trees were used just as they were entered into the system.


   Poor family trees were always a problem, but they became a much bigger one as genealogy developed into one of the most popular computer pastimes. Instead of one suspect ancestral file on the Mormon computers, there were suddenly thousands of suspect ones on a variety of websites. Some are probably "good," but there is no way to know which are the good ones. Like the Mormon ancestral file, most trees are not evaluated or edited. Most do not cite the sources of their information; probably well over 90 percent of the "sources" cited with family trees are Federal censuses, Find-a-grave records, and other family trees. Censuses put people at a certain place at a certain time; there are more errors in them than you might think (ages, birthplaces, spelling of names, middle initials), but are generally reliable. Find-a-grave reports are good for death dates, and sometimes for birthdates, and some of the reports include photos of gravestones, family portraits, and even transcripts of obituaries. Another on-line family tree that does not include references is worthless for supporting or verifying your own data. You may preface your citation with a phrase such as Ancestry.com uses: "This source provides evidence...," but it doesn't.


   By all means, use on-line family trees to find clues - I still do, although the number of errors I've found in just the 50 or so families I've researched the most is pretty discouraging. Just remember that the information included is probably just as likely to be wrong as it is to be right. If you're serious about your genealogy, then find real sources.


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