Not My Family

Family Tree is a free public collaborative genealogical source on which everyone should know about. Think about how many family historians who pass away each year and whose lifetime of research is lost because the family doesn't know what to do with it or doesn't care. By putting your information on Family Tree, it is preserved for future generations. And did I mention it's free? What's more, your portion of the tree can grow as others find new sources of information to add to yours. Are there any downsides to Family Tree?

The following anecdote illustrates the downside of Family Tree. I remember overhearing a conversation between a patron and a librarian at a local FHC. The patron was complaining that the 'correct' information he posted on Family Tree was being changed by someone with 'bad information'. The patron was frustrated and I was mildly amused as I pondered whether this patron was the sole owner of 'correct' information. My amusement dissipated later after I put up my family information on Family Tree and saw the same thing happen.

You may feel that your work is done after you have posted your data but you may want to revisit your information from time to time to see that it hasn't been arbitrarily changed. In the past, I admit to having been lax in stating my sources but Family Tree made that a whole lot easier and I do it regularly now. At a genealogical meeting long ago, I heard a speaker say something to the effect that genealogy without sources is mythology. Even without an 'official' source, it would be nice to know where the information came from-- family letters, family lore, etc. Such a source has more credibility than no source at all and can help others make sense of your tree. The following story illustrates my point.

I was doing research on a family in the region I was originally from. A child was said to have certain parents that didn't make sense to me. I communicated with the person who posted the information. She told me that the mother had remarried her brother-in-law after her husband died. That is not particularly unusual except her brother-in-law was already married! Now knowing the story, I did some digging and was able to find that while they had the exact same name (and were related as cousins), the brother-in-law and new husband were different people. The family lore was based on a wrong assumption.

Most of the errors on Family Tree are the result of similar wrong assumptions. Perhaps there's a belief that all people with the same surname are related and end up getting attached to the wrong family. Or as in the above story, all people with the exact same name are assumed to be the same person. Other errors deal with language unfamiliarity-- perhaps thinking that Hedwigis, Hedwig, Jadwiga, Harriet, and Hattie are five different people when they all refer to the same individual. Even legitimate 'official' sources can be misused as when Family Tree offers 'Research Help'. You need to take into account location, time frame, and family relationships (if given in the record). I once had someone add a source to one of my ancestors that was in the wrong country (location issue) and whose relationships did not jibe with other documented family members. More recently, I dealt with the record of a person who was born when his mother would have been just 7 years old (time frame issue)! This same person had the wrong parents (relationship issue). Sometimes reaching out to the person who submitted the information helps in resolving conflicting information issues. Also, each person in Family Tree has a 'Collaborate' tab (an underutilized feature) that could be used to discuss conflicting information. As time goes on and people add or change information, you need to reassess the credibility of their information against their sources (if any) and decide 'family' or 'not my family'.

As a matter of full disclosure, I made a bone-headed mistake in Family Tree that someone caught and corrected. It happens!