Accuracy of Genealogy Information on the Internet

NOTE: This article contains personal opinions.

Today I received an email message from a reader of this newsletter in which she bemoaned the quality of genealogy information found on the Internet. She went on at some length to say that the information found online is full of inaccuracies, is posted by people who don’t know what they are doing, and that “all genealogy information found on the Internet should never be trusted.”

I was sympathetic to what she wrote until that last part. NEVER be trusted?

I will be the first to agree that there is a lot of inaccurate SECONDARY information on the Internet. But let’s not overlook the fact that the Internet also brings us images of ORIGINAL source records as well.

Want to see the record of your great-great-grandparents in the U.S. Census? Click with your mouse and look at the IMAGE of the original entry without leaving your home. Want to see a naturalization record? IMAGES of many of them are available online. Would you like to see granddad’s World War I Draft registration form that lists information about parents? The IMAGE of the original document is available online. Want to see an obituary? Several online services provide IMAGES of the newspaper obituaries. And how about the Southern Claims records, many of which were never available before on microfilm? IMAGES of each record are now available online.

Yes, the Internet certainly is a mix of good and bad news, but let’s not condemn everything. Looking at images of original source records on the Internet makes us better genealogists than those of us who used to be limited only to transcribed (secondary) sources. We have much more information available today than ever before. Some of it is good information, such as IMAGES of original records. Other information found online is questionable, such as secondary information contributed by someone else. Let’s not condemn everything simply because some of it is bad.

We do have an education problem. We need to educate newcomers as to what information is immediately believable versus what information requires independent verification. This education process must be active on all genealogy sites, including this one, and must continue forever as new genealogists join us. However, I will suggest that this requirement for education should not stop us from looking at images of original records.

There is an old saying that pops to mind, something having to do with babies and bathwater.

Looking forward ten or twenty years, I suspect that eventually all of us will focus primarily on images of original records, as found on the Internet. As millions and millions of additional images come online, the references we all enjoy will continue to improve. I see that as a great advance in genealogy scholarship.

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I suspect a lot of us newcomers (I started back in 2014) fall into this trap. When I was first on Ancestry.com I made somewhat indiscriminate use of other family tree records to get my own tree going. When I realized how iffy a lot of this was it took about a year to prune this bad info out of my tree. My approach now to secondary sources is that if I’ve not corresponded with the source, don’t use it unless verified by a primary source. That said, other people’s trees can provide suggestions and hints, but as always ‘trust, but verify!’

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    Right on! A first and second step whenever dealing with others’ trees is to (1) check for the number of sources and (2) to certify the reliability of those sources by actually examining them. That said, Dick’s comments about using images of documents are well taken. Absent the invaluable tool that is the Internet, most of us would have little more than a reduced, localized tree of little interest to anyone who is not an immediate relative. Most people have neither the time nor the resources to dash all over the world in search of information. The Internet makes that unnecessary.

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Excellent reply, Dick. More and more primary information out there, much of it free, but even the sites that charge can save researchers a great deal of money. I know of someone who ‘finds’ massive amounts of information but can’t get it since she isn’t a member of any site. However she saves all the links and when there is a “free” time on the site, she just logs in and downloads everything. Mind you, her memory and ability to keep all the information updated is much ‘younger’ than mine so it really works for her. I’ve been so impressed with what she has done and nearly all that primary information has been FREE!
Of course your writer bemoans the ‘other’ information out there. I’m still dead AND my father’s sister on too many sites but no one will listen to me and make the changes. That kind of information is almost impossible to remove or deny and that is the other side of the Genealogy Information Coin.
I do well from the grave, don’t I?

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I sincerely hope that you do NOT suggest that a US Census form is proof of accuracy! If you do, than I must tell you that you had best think again. In fact, the census takers are some of the worst offenders for inaccurate statements and enumerations. And new arrivals not familiar with the language often do not understand what is being asked of them, so give misinformation.
Birth certificates all also full of inaccuracies, as are death certificates -both of which contain information given by a relative of the subject. (My mother gave ages for herself for the 3 children who lived , each age a few years younger than the birth before it… as example.)
Then, far worse is the almost total fabrication of what is called the adoptee’s birth certificate in which the only entry likely to be correct is the date of birth. If you doubt this, come on over and I’ll show you my adoptee birth certificate and my original one.
Immigrant information on ship’s Alien Manifest lists is notorious for misinformation on many levels.
Family bibles are a wealth of misinformation… all non-intentional but wrong never-the-less. My paternal grandmother has a date of marriage for my parents that is not true given that on the date in question my father was on a US Naval ship in the middle of the South Pacific -this confirmed by ship’s muster rolls from the US Navy ca WWII. In the same bible is the name of a young boy purported to by my grandmother’s next to youngest son… In reality he was one of my Aunts’ sons born out of wedlock and sandwiched in the mix of already 10 children of my grandparents -something very frequently done to keep the family skeletons in the closet while preserving the child’s place in his/her own family.
As for other ‘records’ they are just as much suspect as any other ‘history’ from a self-proclaimed family or other historian, published or non-published, academic or non-academic. The history proclaimed is not necessarily the actual event… Think George Washington and the myth of the cherry tree; or Johnny Appleseed; or David Crocket and the mythical bear… etc. etc. etc.
There are indeed records, as there are indeed facts. The two are NOT mutually inclusive, but they are often fictitious and misleading.
Information is NOT fact, nor is absence of record negation of fact. As PT Barnum once said, there is a sucker born every minute. Take care not to become one.

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    —> I sincerely hope that you do NOT suggest that a US Census form is proof of accuracy!

    Nothing is ever perfect.

    Original birth certificates, christening records, marriage records, death certificates, obituaries, census records, pension applications, and other records made at the time of an event sometimes contain errors. However, they tend to have much lower error rates than the typical “family legends” and “that’s what Aunt Millie told me” stories.

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    We will have to leave this as an unspoken ‘we will simply agree to disagree’. Family stories are often far more credible than records. To err is very human.. and very often, not your ‘sometimes’. And generalizations like ‘they have lower error rates’ than Aunt Hermione’s cat- and her kittens- is what you say but cannot prove-and just as much myth as other myths.
    Alex Haley would have a guffaw at your statement, as would others who have the benefit of a griot -one who can tell family history over millennia.
    Every piece of documentation you named above come from information retrieved from an individual who self -reports or gives information in the stead of another. Obits come from the family- and often were or are written by the deceased before he/she died, and sometimes altered by another after the person has died…Headstones are too often considered set-in-stone ‘record’, yet many are not accurate… And anything transcribed is automatically suspect… online sites are replete with transcriptions neither ascribed to the transcriptionist, undated, and inaccurate.
    Perfect example: the monolingual U S immigration officer daring to give information about a Hungarian who speaks Magyar and other languages ( but not English) on an immigration form or forms. Or Anglicizing an immigrants name … It still happens, unfortunately.
    And Adoptee birth certificates are all false! (that’s millions of ‘records’ not worth the paper it is printed on or the ink used to print it. It is estimated that, as of this date, there are upwards of 4 million adoptees in the US… with a good deal of those holding birth certificates from 36 states clinging fiercely to closed adoption-sealed file doctrine (if fairly recent; more if before 1960), each with false information on them-not sometimes but MOST times)
    BTW: there is indeed One Perfect Being in this universe… only one… and it is not any of us He said life Should be perfect. He never said or suggested that is WAS or WILL BE.

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    Your response can be easily summarized:
    (1) Primary sources are good.
    (2) Secondary sources are OK.

    The missing piece is to learn and practice the Genealogical Proof Standard by not simply discounting or omitting information (Resolve Any Contradictory Evidence). One should record and disclose all contradictory evidence, then document a sound reason as to why you decided one or the other was correct. If you’re not sure which dates or places are correct, then you should record them all and add a notation of being unsure and that it is open for future research. This provides both yourself and other researchers with the clearest possible understanding.

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    Having digital images of the actual census schedules available at the push of a button is way better than having just the indexes, and both are way better than having to go to a distant archive to troll through hard copies of either. Example: While researching a large family which emigrated to the US in the 1830s, I opened one of the images to find two different households of the same name listed one after the otherl, plus a third a few lines away. Only one of the households had been properly indexed. Only of the first two households does not appear to have been indexed at all. Perhaps the indexer was distracted and accidentally skipped a line. The last one was indexed under a mangled version of the surname (even though the correct spelling was obvious in the image) that I would never have recognized. Oh, and sandwiched between the second and third household, was a household bearing the surname of an eventual son-in-law. All important clues, discovered from a digital image of the original handwritten document in a matter of a perhaps 15 minutes work.

    One of the reasons so much bad information has gotten put on line is that sources like this used to be so difficult for most people to find that they relied instead on word of mouth, family tradition, scuttlebutt on bulletin boards and the like, instead of original documents created at or near the time of the event.

    Yes, the original documents often contain mistakes and even downright deceptions, but every transcriber and indexer has added a new layer of mistakes of their own.

    Now, I fear, too many newbies (and some more experienced genealogists who ought to know better, but are in a hurry to add more leaves to their tree) don’t bother to click the button that will allow them to see the image and study the information it contains. It’s easy to spot them — they enter the indexers’ and transcribers’ mistakes in their trees, instead of what the image shows the actual document says.

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    According to one family tree I am still dead, however, even information published by the person it is about can be wrong. I was taught to locate at least 3 different types of sources for each event. I did that for my in-laws marriage. There was the information my mother-in-law had in her date book, the announce published in local newspaper, and the wedding announcements she sent to family, and the day the family celebrated their anniversaries on. I could not locate the actual marriage certificate on the date and place she said they married which was Sacramento, California. I even went there trying to get the certificate. Then I decided they may have gone to Reno, Nevada which was not far from where they lived at the time. I got the actual certificate from Reno and the date and place of their marriage was totally different from what I found anywhere else. When my father-in-law died at the age of 104 in September 2016, I found their copy of the marriage certificate in his personal papers. It had the same date as she had told everyone. She had actually changed the date on the certificate she kept. If I had found the marriage certificate earlier I may never have tried to track it down.

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Perhaps your Newsletter reader is a glass half empty person – as you correctly stated the growth of digitised primary records available on the web is spine tingling. Of course you won’t necessarily find it if your entry of interest has been incorrectly indexed so we still need to use some of our sleuthing skills to find them. And there are some trees out there on the web that have been created by diligent researchers so there is definite value in looking at links and using OUR skills as a hint may just lead you in the right direction. You don’t have to accept the ‘fact’ but it is worth looking, asking questions and doing your own research. I look forward to the future but I do hope we are left with some research left to do as well as the chance to use our research skills – the challenge is half the fun.

I do feel sorry for the newbies – I think it is our job is to reply to their questions with not merely quick answers but the PROCESS used to get their – hopefully passing on some of our knowledge. How else do you expect the ones who want to learn to gain the knowledge?

Mantra: be discerning!

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While Census records, church records, family bibles, etc. may not be 100% accurate (nothing is), they have given me incredible hints and clues to complete major portions of my family tree. Plus I have the benefit is seeing these records online instead of having to drive to far away libraries and scroll through hours and hours of microfilm. I agree that the prevalent inaccurate family trees online are a pain and frustrating, but I’ll thanks the bad with the good. **eagerly waiting for more ‘inaccurate’ Irish church records to show up online 🙂

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I should be interested if gazelledz were to tell me what is false about my father’s adoption certificate. His date of birth is confirmed by other documents, and his sex is shown correctly. The name given is the one that he used during my life, and apparently even before his adoption. His adoptive mother’s details are correct (he had no adoptive father), and the identity of the court making the order tallies with what he told me when he was alive. I agree that information given in registers (in my experience especially marriage registers) is too often incorrect, but I cannot spot the error in this case, and should be surprised if this were the only example of an accurate adoption record. It may be that, as he claims, those issued in the United States of America lack veracity (I am not qualified to assess these, never having seen one), but some exist outside their respective jurisdictions.

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With all the proper caveats to be taken into consideration, I only rely on copies of original documents now. After 50++ years of doing genealogy research, I have made enough of my own errors that I had to correct, seen most mistakes, errors, transcriptions done by people who don’t have a clue how the patronymic naming system works (worse: they were on FamilySearch and I assume they’re still there and no one has deleted them; I haven’t checked recently, but it’s going to confuse a lot of newbies who are essentially copiers, don’t look at or try to find images, and get their trees all wrong), typos, gravestone names/dates set in stone, census info that had to have been gathered by dyslexics (for one family the only name spelled correctly was my gr-grandfather; the other “creative” spellings I’d never have figured out if I had not known the correct spelling in the first place), etc. As bad are the transcribers who can’t read well and get sloppy handwriting wrong (not even illegible handwriting!). FamilySearch has been a boon with the copies of documents that are now online, but some of the transcriptions leave much to be desired, and there’s no way to notify anyone about transcription errors; I just simply never use the contributed trees section of their site, just the section with the images and certain transcriptions that might be trusted if documents can be obtained elsewhere With enough copies of original documents, I can usually reconcile data and arrive at a (nearly) correct piece of info. I note all these things in the Notes sections for each person. That’s where I have all my important data and sources.

Certified copies are all very good and well, but one fill-in-the-blanks cc for a paternal gr-grandmother did not have a blank space for a cause of death so I didn’t know what it was for one of my paternal gr-grandmothers until someone saw the record book and took a digital image of the ledger page. Yet another county was going to do a certified copy of a marriage license application for maternal gr-grandparents and added info that was not in the original document (I got a photocopy of the original).

Understanding clerks of court in small cities/towns will humor me when I request a photocopy of the original document, NOT a certified copy, altho I do pay the cc price. One county in another state sent me the photocopy of maternal gr-grandparents’ marriage license with the notary info at the bottom. I found that acceptable. I don’t mind paying full price as long as I get what I want: a photocopy of the original document – not re-typed info, with or without typos, with some info left out or other info added that is not in the original.

When our state’s birth certificate index became available online, I found extra children, infant deaths, that I was unaware of for siblings of my father. A friend who went to the historical society obtained photocopies of the original birth certificates for my parents and each of their siblings…, and the one for his youngest sister contained the farm name in Sweden where my paternal grandfather was born (only slightly misspelled!); every other document I found had “Sweden” listed as his place of birth. That broke my last brick wall of 45 years and I walked on air for a few months after that. I wrote to a genie list with Swedish people on it, and less than half an hour later I had my grandfather’s birth info, parents’ names, siblings’ names, emigration data for him and his one brother who came to the US…, and added to that info later with more generations, digital images from a Swedish web site, more info on maternal aunt and uncle who had preceded his emigration/immigration (which solved the question for why he settled where he did).

There are Genealogy Researchers who go the extra mile to get documents, verify family stories (sometimes the info comes years later accidentally, but at least part of what I was told was a tall tale was true, and the more accurate version was more interesting – I love Serendipity!), disprove other info (like an obit that had correct info for the spouse of the person who died, not the deceased), try their level best to get correct data, try to make sure data entered is correct. Then there are Copiers of other people’s work and the Copiers often have no clue about how to do actual research; they rely on other people’s work and fill in their genealogy trees indiscriminately, and take credit for research they did not do (which I find highly annoying), or they’ll track down the original researcher who is willing to share info and documents. Or, they’ll ask “how” to do research, the researcher spends hours writing a five page email giving links, tips, where to find info, they’ll reply back they still can’t find data…, but the original researcher ends up doing all the work because it’s easier to do that than listen to or read the whining.

There IS correct genealogy information “out there.” One must be willing to DO the RESEARCH to actually find the documents…, but whining Copiers don’t know that until/unless they decide to actually DO the RESEARCH.

P.S. My best “genealogy stories” involve serendipitously finding some obscure something-or-other that leads me to this, that, the other, or a book or a document or a newspaper or a web site or the right person who has THE answer or knows the location of documents I’ve been searching for for ages that didn’t turn up on a simple Google search…, even though some of my early stories of successful searches were simple Google searches right after I got my first computer seventeen years ago, and there are a lot more copies of documents and free books online now than there ever were back then (Archive.org has surpassed Google Books).

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Just like finding a location on a map, you need to “triangulate” family stores and documents from any source–Internet or not.

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    gwjchris – Your comments are very true. “Certified copies are all very good and well, but one fill-in-the-blanks cc for a paternal gr-grandmother did not have a blank space for a cause of death of paternal gr-grandmothers until someone saw the record book and took a digital image of the ledger page.”
    This is why I always ask for ‘photocopies of the record’. I prepare applications for lineage society prospective members and ask the same of them as transcriptions by clerks often don’t contain all the information given in the actual record. Also, they may not correctly transcribe names, etc, which the correct spelling will be recognized by a family member.
    I helped FamilySearch, I believe it was, who indexed the 1940 US Census. It was easy to identify the ones that had been collected by a person unfamiliar with the language of the family. Spellings often were phonetic, if possible, and many times just a guess. Since our directions were to index exactly as given, I was unable to change anything, but hoped the family looking at this would make the corrections, as they were discovered.
    I also taught beginning genealogy classes at our local libraries for several years, and always advised “newbies” to use online family trees as suggestions only as they might give a clue as to the location of the event, but to try to locate at least two documents to substantiate the information, especially if they were using transcriptions, books, manuscripts, etc.

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This is not the first time that this problem has been raised.
Some responsibility has to be accepted by the online publishers (e.g. Ancestry, Heritage) which allow people to post family trees without identifying the sources for each and every entry so that they can be trusted or challenged.
Even the Mormons eventually realised that a lot of the connections that were made (by their well-intentioned but often geographically ignorant transcribers) in the old Family Search database had little validity and have worked to remove them. Perhaps the other online publishers should do the same?
You’ll never stop people making guesses at ancestral connections, often based on vague family legends, particularly when they are confronted by records from the eighteenth century and earlier which lack detail and whose coverage is far from complete, but if the family connections during the nineteenth and twentieth century in the online databases were soundly based it would take a lot of the irritation out of genealogical research.

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    Ian – you said:
    “Some responsibility has to be accepted by the online publishers (e.g. Ancestry, Heritage) which allow people to post family trees without identifying the sources for each and every entry so that they can be trusted or challenged.”

    I love that fantasy…. However, contrary to idiotic SCOTUS judgments that gave corporations human rights, corporations are not human. The only thing corporations are concerned with is the bottom line and how much profit they acquire so they can give their executives massive bonuses and large ROI to shareholders.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancestry.com
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MyHeritage

    Ancestry did have one feature I liked when I was a member for a while, and that was the ability to do corrections to transcriptions. I am an editor for several trees on their site, altho since they’ve changed the formatting and added timelines, I dislike their site more than ever, and I loathe those silly wavy leaves. They might be nice to look at on occasion if I’ve not already found what I was looking for elsewhere. Once I’ve looked at the info, I don’t want to see them again, particularly if the info is not for the person/family I’m entering, but those stupid leaves just never go away. Entering notes is ridiculous since even basic formatting is stripped and all lines run together.

    The images they have are nice, but since Ancestry does not stop charging one’s credit card – without permission! – until one calls and tells them to end the subscription, and refund the money they got without notifying one that the time is expiring and ask if one want to re-subscribe or end it, it only reminds subscribers that their bottom line is all they’re concerned about. I don’t know if MyHeritage does the same thing or not; I’ve never dealt with them. Correct transcribed data? Pffffffffffft!!! They don’t care; they’re a corporation that only wants profit; it’s the sole reason corporations exist: to make a profit.. It’s like clickbait: click and join to see what they have…, but one better send the cancellation order immediately after subscribing or one will have a rude shock when one’s credit card reflects their unauthorized charging on one’s credit card without asking.

    If you do a genealogy DNA test through Ancestry or MyHeritage, you can’t have access to your own data without maintaining at least a basic membership. Go with 23andMe instead since they don’t host genealogy web sites or have a collection of documents or transcriptions. They just deal with DNA and you have access to your own data whenever you want it.

    As with everything else connected with genealogy research, one must be a discerning customer as well as a diligent researcher.

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I think your first responder got it right. When you are new and really hungry for information you may be temped, despite all the cautions, to swallow information whole from any source and all those ‘hints’ in Ancestry are very beguiling. Family tales and legends usually have a touch of truth in them but are not really evidence let alone proof. We need to get to know the quality of sources and make judgements as all of them are prone to errors (even the primary ones) but some are better than others and some parts of the information are better than others. I always think that marriage certificates are the best as both parties and a minister/registrar plus witnesses were present and should have caught any errors. And someone will immediately tell me that they have a marriage certificate that is wrong because as Dick said, nothing is perfect. Hence the need to seek a second source of information to confirm the first.

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“What Aunt Millie” told me isn’t the problem–if it is documented as such. The great problem with accuracy is genealogical research done by people who haven’t a clue. Too often online enthusiasts believe that two people with the same name are, indeed, the same person. Too often they have people active years after they (themselves) have declared the people dead. Too often they rely on really poor sources. Too often they don’t document. I once had a newcomer tell me that I shouldn’t worry about proof because “no one needs that sort of thing anymore”. The problem isn’t Aunt Millie–it is her nephew/niece who is a sloppy genealogist.

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I want my genealogy research to reflect my standards, which are pretty high after 40+ years of training myself and others. I see a lot of shoddy research online and I cringe. It is usually futile to point out errors, which are everywhere at mega-sites like ancestry.com and other places online. I have given up on expecting others in such mass marketplaces to be accurate or committed to the standards of genealogical excellence, wonderful as that would be! My attitude now is to take responsibility only for what I choose to post and let everyone else do the same. It seems to be the only safe and sane way to cope with the wide influx of newbies and their relative insecurity and inexperience in managing their online genealogies.

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Using as many sources as possible, both primary and secondary, official and unofficial plus family stories, is one way to overcome potential errors in one source. Still, one must be careful that a more recent source isn’t just copying an earlier one. Recording conclusions when there are discrepancies, as mentioned above, is very helpful.

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Thank you Dick for this useful reminder of the pros and cons of internet information. If you allow me to cite my domain of expertise, French-Canadian genealogy, the sites I am associated with give both access to the original sources and to the genealogical interpretation we have made of them. This allows the prudent genealogist to verify our decisions and, eventually dispute them. They are «Pay per view» sites.This brings me to question the proponents of «free» content. People have to realize that establishing and maintaining large quality data bases requires a lot of effort. You pay for your car don’t you? If you were offered a «free» one, would you not be wary the brakes will fail or something? If you primary goal is to get everything for free, then do not complain what you are getting is often garbage. Quality is worth investing in. If one can’t afford it at home , there are libraries or genealogical societies to use to access reliable information

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All of these comments should be required reading for beginners and a refresher course for experienced researchers. I have worked under the guidance of “Let the buyer beware.” It has kept me out of a lot of quagmires. Thanks for the forum.

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I got a “leaf” so it must be right !!

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Re the gazelled comment: Alex Haley’s griot stories are highly suspect as is much of his book. A quick google search on “alex haley debunked” or similar will turn up some facts regarding the reliability of his research.

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One comment that needs to be beaten into management at Ancestry.com: Ancestry family trees should not be listed as a “source”. Maybe as a “reference”. Any family tree on Ancestry.com that only has one source and that is another family tree should be considered almost useless!

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    I’ve always felt that Ancestry should, at a minimum, provide a clear (and easy) walk-back on family tree sources to the original tree providing the information. You can then at least see the initial entry for the information to allow you to judge whether or not it’s reliable. Or perhaps a tree citation block wherein all source Ancestry family trees referenced in a particular individual’s “leaf” are listed with links to those trees.

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This is a hot topic! The “trees” that I’ve found on line – some are accurate and most aren’t. Also, sometimes, when a ‘cousin’ has been given the correct info, they refuse to fix their tree. I’ve found that the researchers who are ‘hunters’ will be thankful for the hint – the ‘gatherers’ couldn’t care less about accuracy. I posted the fix of a long held inaccuracy and a few weeks later saw my corrected info being preached as truth. Well, it is the corrected information of a many many year error – but the people spreading the fix, they were gatherers trying to correct other gatherers. So not everything on the internet is invalid but for me if the info on the record comes from anyone other than the actual people involved – that info needs more than a second look.

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I agree that there is a lot of wrong info floating around on the web but I think 80% is a bit high as being wrong info. Everyone needs to remember genealogy is a “work in progress”. We can only use or put down what is available at a given point in time. Next year that info might need to be thrown out when better/more accurate info comes along (such as new primary documents/images of documents, etc found & now added to the web, etc.) People should look at every piece of info as “questionable” unless it is a primary document & the image is available for study. Info should not be thrown out just because a primary document is not shown but should be included in a persons research. However, it should never be taken or considered as fact. All genealogists should read & have in their library as a guide the book by Christine Rose “Genealogical Proof Standards”.

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    The most important tool a genealogical researcher needs to learn how to exercise is their own common sense.

    A special problem affects many trees supported by accurate copies of primary source documents — researchers who unthinkingly combine information from any and all documents that include the “right” name, such as:
    1) a birth record for a John Smith born in the 1600s to John and Mary Smith in a small English town in one county, plus
    2) a christening record for a child named John Smith, son of John and Mary from a Parish in a different county several hundred miles away, plus
    3) a marriage of John Smith to Elizabeth Jones in yet another Parish in a third county,
    4) a few christening records for children of John and Elizabeth Smith from a couple of additional Parishes and
    5) an emigration record showing John and Elizabeth Smith and family (no names) from yet another small English town (where, incidentally, serious researchers have actually found no record of them at all) leaving from a seaport in yet another distant part of England,
    to tell a story that, when taken as a whole, defies common sense for a day and age when it would have taken a minimum of several days to get from any one of these locations to any of the others.

    Despite the reliability of the individual documents as proof of the facts stated in them, in the absence of any explanation as to why John, Mary, and Elizabeth would have behaved in such an unusual way, all these impeccable sources prove nothing.

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Interestingly, my mother-in-law’s entries in the ‘family bible’ are more accurate than any original census image. All her maternal ancestors had three or more forenames, and none of the records list all of them.

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Short and sweet observation: Exactly HOW does any researcher manage to have 33,000 people on their tree? Seen it, don’t believe it ! Was it all researched in less than 5 years they have been on “Ancestry”?

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AG I have used the Internet for a lot of mine and my husbands genealogy and when I have compared it to church records censuses I have found most of it to be accurate. Thank Goodness for such help!

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I found a relative’s gravestone with his name, birth & death dates but could find no obit in the newspapers. A few months later, while searching for a different family member obit, I happened upon the other obit – published one year earlier. Apparently the obit was published right after the death but the gravestone was ordered a few years later. I usually note the discrepancies & let the reader come to their own conclusion. Also – I consider records to be the framework of my family tree but ALWAYS do my best to confirm the info and if I can’t I either don’t use it or note the issue with it. Both my grandmother & great grandmother aged only 5-7 years by the next 10-year census. Fortunately my mother was a good record keeper.

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I have read through all the comments and truthfully, if I were a “newbie” I think I would throw in the towel! The negativity surrounding this hobby is SAD. Yes, many points made are valid but I found most to be complaints with few if no solutions and I say to those who wrote them “what good have you done to enrich and teach the newbies?” Has anyone thought that without “newbies” coming along into the game that our own research will have no use and therefore will likely be tossed by our next generation? I am not a professional but a “life long” learner with always more to learn but also willing to work and share what knowledge I do have to give help and give guidance – how? – I volunteer where “newbies” may come for help and belong to Society’s both to help and to get help from others who have knowledge for areas I haven’t yet ventured into.
Who sends their children to school and after the first few months complains because they can’t read or do algebra?

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    Hi Barbara,
    I think you’re making the mistake of tarring everyone with the same brush! I also have been reading all the comments and there were many encouraging and supporting newbies. There was also a comment from someone who considered themself a newbie. I’d also say that professional researchers are also life-long learners – that’s the way they learn – never consider that you know everything (another of my mantras). I also applaud people like you (and me) who are volunteers with multiple societies and share their experience and knowledge to help them with their research. And professionals can be volunteers too. The more newbies we can encourage and help the better for the future of family history / genealogy.

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    As a “kinda-newbie” (started in 2014) I agree and disagree with your comment. I have run into old-timers with “attitude” who look upon us newbies with our easy access to information via the Internet with a bit of disdain and superiority. I’ve learned to just tune them out. There are a lot of people who have been doing this for many years who are very helpful and friendly to those of us just starting out. They main take-away from this ongoing thread regarding quality of documentation is that a newbie has to understand that there is a lot of “fake genealogy” (sorry, but I could not resist) out there on the Internet, mostly in various sloppily-constructed family trees, but that by taking some care information posted by others can be very useful in getting your own research started.

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    Hello Susie, I noted a comment further back where you also note “feeling sorry for newbies” and take some offence at your saying I am making the “mistake of tarring everyone with the same brush!” I clearly noted that many points made were valid and in going back to the beginning and made note of negative posts to positive ones and they weighed in more heavily on the negative/complaining side, this after the recent article on “Trash Genealogists.” I believe strongly in the “newbies” and I’m also sorry you interpreted my comment about my not being a “professional” as somehow demeaning those who have worked hard to get that status and only made mention of it to ensure people would understand my comment wasn’t coming from someone who should and would be recognized as knowing much more than I do. Not a comment any different than Dick saying he is affiliated with My Heritage or some one saying they aren’t. So, if I offended others by saying I am not a professional I sincerely apologize.
    As for the “life-long learner” comment – goodness, I only meant from birth to grave – not that it was anything more special than that – just that I have so much more yet to learn – who knows, I could be around for another 30 or so years and lots to learn in those years!

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    Hi Barbara – I’m so sorry my comments upset you – they definitely weren’t meant to and basically I was agreeing with your comments. You’re right – sadly there were more negative than positive comments. And I definitely didn’t interpret your comment about being professional as demeaning – I was really pointing out that amateurs or professionals had a lot to offer newbies and that I admired anyone who was a volunteer. And I was completely agreeing with you about life-long learning – anyone who claims they know it all is missing out on the chance to learn something new.
    I really do apologise if I’ve upset you – I obviously didn’t word my comment correctly.
    All the best … Susie Z

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    Susie: Nice to see a sincere apology on the Internet; what a change from the usual pace! There is so much invective and aggression there that, at times, it overwhelms one. Thanks for being a “stand-up commentator”.

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    Hi, Barbara:– i think a lot of the comments you may have perceived as disapproval directed at newbies was not intended as such. We were all newbies once, and if we are all too well aware of the mistakes newbies can make, it’s because we once made them ourselves. We recognize there is a learning curve and no one becomes an expert overnight. A lot of us are still somewhere on that curve, working towards that elusive goal of expertise.

    Any negativity is reserved solely for that small subset of people who just can’t be bothered to learn. It certainly wasn’t addressed to readers of Dick’s blog, who are all here precisely because we do want to learn.

    There may also be some frustration with those big genealogy companies who broadcast glossy ads promoting the idea that people can get all the answers by simply pushing a few buttons and furnishing a sample of their DNA, instead of promoting resources that will people learn how to tell the difference between the right answers and the tempting impostors.

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Some years ago I was at the LDS library in Salt Lake City checking out microfilm when I overheard a librarian trying to explain to a man that he couldn’t just walk in and receive a copy of his family tree. This has always remained with me because the man was very annoyed and rude about the fact that it wasn’t just sitting there waiting for him to pick it up, that he actually had to do a bit of work himself. I agree that there are a lot of inaccuracies in online records, especially family trees. It seems people are often not interested in the process, only in “results” and in posting whatever seems most plausible. My father-in-law is a good example of this, finding the searching, even online, as “time-consuming” (his polite way of saying boring). He also swears by information told to him by his parents, or just things he remembers hearing, as absolute truth when I have found it inaccurate. The tenet of good research is always to have at least 2 sources, preferably more, and original documentation when possible. People’s personal information is all well and good, but our memories aren’t always as good as we think they are!

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My problem with online family trees is getting bad information corrected. I put my name is Ancestry and found two trees which show proof that I am dead. According to them I died in 1982 in California and never married as the death record was under my maiden surname. I contact both of them and one responded that she had copied the other person tree. She apologized and changed her tree. The other person has not responded to three attempts to contact her. If she had done even a little bit of searching she would have found two marriage licenses plus one divorce record for me right on Ancestry. Some of her tree is correct, but obviously she was not an experienced researcher so published what she found even if it was wrong.

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I agree. The Internet and genealogy is both very good and very bad. When one has difficulty getting to genealogy libraries and can’t devote an entire vacation criss crossing the US to original locations, it’s great to have the Internet. But the “very bad” is very bad! I naively uploaded my entire family history to Ancestry.com soon after it came on line – way, way back then! There were a lot of errors and misinformation. One perpetuates to this day. I had included information about my X4 Frederick Peebler’s possible wife Mary when it was only in my records as a “possible” wife – no reliable sources and unchecked. Now, on Ancestry.com, there are dozens and dozens of families who’ve included Mary Pierce as his wife. But I KNOW the truth. Not one of those families have a clue. Though the wife COULD be correct – doubtful – not one family have a reliable source and most no source at all for the addition.

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I have declined to put my information on Ancestry for the reasons so many have cited here. I learned years ago that there are people who just want your information, good or bad, right or wrong, so they can include it in their trees. One time I happily gave a woman all I had on our common gt-gt-grandfather and within a week she had posted this information without giving credit or any documentation whatsoever. Needless to say, this annoyed me, but what can you do? Since then I have seen this information re-posted in other trees as gospel, with mistakes in dates, names, etc. that were not originally mine. I am personally grateful for the internet genealogy movement as it has made things much easier and cheaper for me to do my research. But it does have its downside.

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    One feature of the shared family trees on FamilySearch and WikiTree is the ability to write life sketches and notes pointing out questionable information, or explaining the reasoning and evidence, or lack thereof, for some of the relationships, dates, etc. entered for a given person. Also the ability to send messages to the people who have posted particular details to ask where they found the information. If more people made use of these tools, it might help to eventually resolve some of the confusion and errors.

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I just got an account with myheritage.com and sent in my DNA for testing a couple weeks ago. I’m new but my sister-in-law has been doing this for years. Used to do research and investigation for the Feds before I retired so I have experience in finding folks. This should be a fun adventure.

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As a newbie I stand guilty as charged for having copied without checking. Thankfully, the internet has plenty of experienced professionals and amateurs out there who are happy to share their knowledge, put us on the right track and help us learn how to do it better.

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    We were all newbies once, and most of us are happy to pay it forward out of gratitude to those who helped us (and continue to help is) learn the ropes.

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    Research has to begin somewhere, with something, even if it’s “just” a family story. Citing sources, such as “XXX family story, told by XXX” is a start. From there, find more sources and work to verify or disprove the story or unfounded data. It’s a game of “Prove It!” and what gets me going on family history research, early every day! And remember the three basic rules of genealogy: ”Cite your sources! Cite your sources! Cite your sources!”

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