If you’re a family historian you most certainly have a family tree. And, if you’re like most people, you have chosen to host this tree online, or in a downloadable program that syncs with an online tree.
You may have chosen a collaborative tree provider, such as FamilySearch, a downloadable program like RoostMagic, or you may host your research directly on a subscription site like Ancestry. But, wherever it is, unless you have specifically kept your tree private, there’s a good chance that your data is being shared with others.
FamilySearch, for instance, is designed to make tree data available to other users. And trees that are not specifically marked as private on Ancestry or MyHeritage are automatically included in searches conducted by members. Even a dedicated family tree site like RootsFinder requires an extra yearly fee to keep your tree private.
This is because the information from family trees is incredibly valuable. Both not-for and for-profit genealogy companies use the data to increase the genealogical information available to their members, and to drive new users to their sites. Family tree details may be served up during searches on a genealogy site, in Google, or as hints directly within a tree.
It makes perfect sense for genealogy sites to do this – a family tree can provide a huge amount of new data to someone on the search of their family’s past. And, at its core, there is nothing really wrong with this practice. Genealogy is collaborative by nature and most of us are happy to share what we have learned with others. As long as we have willingly opted in to having our data shared then these sites are doing everyone a service.
The Problem With Using Family Trees as a Source in Your Own Tree
The issue arises from the fact that many people don’t view the information contained in a family tree any differently than they do the data found in a record source. When they are presented with individuals from a tree that appear to match their needs they see the data as existing research and very often copy the information without a thought.
This would be fine if every researcher took the time to carefully review the facts, make sure those facts had solid supporting evidence, and then added those facts to their tree along with attached record sources. But that is not how it usually happens.
Several popular genealogy research sites have made it far too easy to find, skim and add another person’s family tree data to our own.
Ancestry, for instance, presents hints to its members that come from other people’s trees and allows researchers to add any new information they like from these trees to their own without ever viewing sources. And, when new data is added to a tree as part of the hint process, the other person’s family tree, not the attached records, are cited as the source (although, often, this “source” is not even connected to the new fact properly). We cover this in detail in our online courses.
And this, of course, causes a couple of problems.
The first is that those who have not been researching for very long, and some that have, are simply unaware that another person’s family tree may be riddled with errors or lacking valid sources, or that the “matching” individual from another person’s tree may not be the person they are looking for at all. For this reason, it is easy to copy incorrect data.
The second problem is that, when a person does decide to copy information, the original record sources attached to that tree (if there were any at all) are usually not added as a source citation in the copied entry. Instead, the tree itself is added as the source.
And this has become a much too common practice.
Many people see a tree as a perfectly valid standalone source, just as they would a birth certificate or draft card.
Others believe that as long as they are not copying whole individuals or multiple generations out of another person’s tree that they are immune to the problems associated with the practice of copying trees.
And still others think that as long as the family tree they are linking to is well-documented that it is OK to skip the extra step of adding actual record sources to copied facts.
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But this couldn’t be further from the truth. In genealogical research, every single fact matters, every single fact requires one or more valid and well-researched sources, and a family tree you find online is never a valid source.
Any record can contain errors and all should be used cautiously (the census is a good example), but a family tree, however accurate, should only ever be viewed as a helpful aid in your research. It is a compilation of data and nothing more. Instead, it is the record sources in a tree that should be considered and, if proven relevant, cited in your tree.
And, yes, this is true for many published pedigree books and family websites as well. We’ll get back to that in a minute.
How can the information from a family tree be properly used?
That doesn’t mean that other people’s research should be disregarded – far from it. Family trees can provide a wealth of clues, insights, records and photos we cannot always gather on our own. But we must always view the details in trees with caution, no matter how carefully it appears that the research was gathered.
We need to look to the record sources cited by a tree’s facts if we want to draw information from them. We should always ask ourselves – What evidence is given for the fact? Is that evidence valid? Does it make sense for the fact it is attached to? Do we have other information that supports it?
We need to examine every source record and then discover for ourselves if it is valid and makes sense for the fact we are attaching it to. Then, if it does, we can consider adding that fact to our tree and citing the record as a source – not the tree we drew it from. Trees come and go and change all of the time, and the records attached to them may disappear. You always want to be able to go back to your research in the future and know exactly where you found every single piece of information.
If a fact you find in a family tree has no record source, disregard it. Use it as a clue if you like to find your own records but do not add it to your tree without evidence.
We also encourage you to never add an entire individual from another person’s tree to your own (and especially not a whole family line). It is nearly impossible to verify all of the information needed to make this practice a good one. Instead, if you plan to pull from other trees, create individuals on your own and carefully examine each fact as you add it (and attach record sources).
If you need help figuring out what makes up a valid source we suggest you start by reading this entry on genealogical evidence on FamilySearch. It is a straightforward help article with many additional suggested resources.
But what about old pedigree books, published genealogies or family sites?
An important rule of thumb is that a family tree is only as valid as the sources in it.
Generally, family sites are no better than online family trees. They may be meticulously researched and sourced (and many are) or they may be riddled with errors. View them with the same caution as you would any other family tree.
Pedigree books, modern or old, are also unreliable. There was more than one reason why these books were created, and not all of them benefited from careful research. Read the article from FamilySearch above about examining evidence and then ask yourself the important questions about books you encounter – When? Where? Why? and By Whom?
Really take the time to understand a published pedigree, its creator and their methods. And then look to the book for references as to where each fact came from. If they exist, do what you can to verify them. Find and view the original sources yourself. If there are none, then view the book as little more than a collection of clues that can help you find actual source records.
It can be very tempting to simply take published pedigrees at face value because sometimes there are no other existing sources for the data in them. But this is never a good idea. Instead, ask yourself, Are these facts generally accepted by the professional genealogical community? Do they make sense based on what I have discovered elsewhere? Are there additional records available that could back up the information? Has the information been published in other forms? For what reason? Why whom?
Even after all of this, it is still not always possible to establish that the data as accurate. At that point you have to make the call. If you do add some details to your tree make sure to properly cite the book or published pedigree as your source (if nothing else exists) and make notes for yourself and other researchers about your efforts to verify the information and why you chose to add it.
The Exception to This Rule
It is important to note that there are some well-accepted family trees out there that come from highly respected sources – such as those pertaining to famous events like the Mayflower – that can be wonderful sources of accurate, well-researched data.
These are almost always easy to identify since they are published by organizations or individuals well-known in the genealogical community and the research presented it always meticulously cited (you will know where every piece of data came from).
If in doubt about a published tree, contact a professional genealogist or local genealogical society for help.
The availability of online information for genealogical research will continue to grow. And part of that growing information will always be family trees, in whatever form. Don’t take them at face value. Use them as a tool, be cautious and always find and attach record sources for every fact you use.
No matter how easy, or reasonable, it may seem to add another person’s data to your own, and simply use the tree as your source, this practice will never pay off for you in the end.
For more information on this topic also read The Huge Genealogy Mistake We All Need to Stop Making Now (where we discuss the perils of copying and pasting trees) and Are You Sure They’re Your Ancestors? (where we focus specifically on how this practice impacts the connections between generations).