Using Online Family Trees in Genealogical Research
Americans searching for their forebears as a hobby has grown remarkably in the past few decades, especially since the advent of personal computers in the 1980s. At the same time, there has been little growth in the number of genealogists who are considered scholars in the field.
Some are of the opinion that too much emphasis on scholarship “takes the fun out of genealogy”, according to Harry Macy, Jr. That might be a true statement, but hobbyists often forget (or don’t know) the problems caused by failure to document facts. This is especially true in our current world of online family trees. Just one undocumented relative placed on one twig of one online tree (in error) can start a ripple that turns into a tsunami.
More than 150 years ago, American genealogy was considered the equal of history, biography and other academic pursuits. Researchers were forced to use primary sources, because so few “compiled genealogies” had been published. This gradually changed as more and more hobbyists began to publish their own family trees, and these mid-1900s paperback books, usually done on a typewriter and stapled together, were often poorly documented.
“Professional” genealogists (who compiled other people’s trees for pay) during this time were not required to have any certain education, experience or ability in the field. Consequently, the resulting genealogies were sometimes accurate and sometimes imaginative. Many people paid good money to be told that they were kin to Daniel Boone or King Henry VI when that relationship could not actually be proven. Since there are now hundreds of these volumes sitting on shelves in libraries all across the country, they are used and/or copied as authoritative references, when in fact they are part fact and part whimsy.
In spite of some attempts to rectify this situation, the number of recognized scholars in the field of genealogy has remained small. Hobbyists are posting their unsourced family trees at online sites in record numbers. Management at ancestry.com has posted the following disclaimer on its “Public Member Trees” search page:
“We take all tree data "as is" and cannot guarantee the completeness, accuracy, or timeliness of the information contained in this database. We regret we cannot assist you in your personal research or prevent duplication of data. Our goal is to provide this user-contributed data to aid you in finding and/or correcting your family information.”
It is undoubtedly in the best interest of all genealogists, both professional and amateur, to see an improvement in the level of genealogical work. This can be achieved only if all researchers can be inspired to compile their trees in a more scholarly manner, citing original source documents whenever possible and paying close attention to details.