01 September 2010

Online Family Trees- Good, Bad or Ugly? Or, a Rant in D-Minor.

I'm still thinking about Lynn's post from July about the worth (or problems) of online family trees. Her summation that the situation represents information chaos is a pretty acute one, but as I said in a comment to her post, I've fallen on the "what can I do?" side of the argument, and have decided to keep my tree online, despite the drawbacks. Her discussion was more about what happens when bad data goes viral via sloppy family trees, but I thought I would consider the issue in a more personal way in this post, since that's how I've been thinking about it. My experiences with online trees, both my own1 and others, have been all over the map, and I've seen the good, the bad, and the rather ugly.

The Good

I have certainly been guided gently through the research process by a few outstanding, detailed and well-sourced trees. These are few and far between, I know, but they do exist, and I am grateful to these people for putting what they have found online, to keep me from having to recreate the wheel. I like to think that by putting my tree online, I can or will save another researcher a few years by sharing the things I've learned. I get caught up in elaborate daydreams where we join research forces and push through the family tree with the power of multiple researchers, each utilizing their own skills and geographic resources to get to the truth! In short, I fantasize that my online tree will spawn a group of genealogical superheroes. Needless to say, this dream has yet to materialize.

The Bad

Of course, it can be disheartening to page through a site like Rootsweb, and see page after page of Broderbund, "WFT est.", or no citations at all. At all! I would much rather see a reference to IGI or Ancestral File, which would at least tell me that the author of that tree is as clueless as myself on the matter, but seems to know it. Yet when I see a tree with no citations, I still wonder: Does this person know something I don't know? The void in the Sources section is sometimes more suggestive than it ought to be.

And if you should email some of these researchers... so much the worse! How does one ask, nicely of course, "How do you know what you know?" without it seeming like "Hey moron, what kind of crap is this in your tree?" Typically, queries to people with no sources result in no response. I never hear back what I am hoping to hear: "Great-Grandmas's twelve page memoir" or "The old family bible from 1835!". I get, instead, a harsh and cricket-filled silence2.

Worse yet, they may well respond, but in a fashion that makes me more frustrated than ever. I've had this email exchange many a time:

Me: "Would you mind sharing your source for the death date of Joe Schmoe?"

Them: "It's in my files somewhere, let me get back to you."

Followed, of course, by the ubiquitous, soul-benumbing crickets.

Now these issues aren't issues with online trees per se, but they do present a frustration with the whole supposed-good about online trees, namely that they bring researchers together, and then we all morph into a highly-efficient cyborg-like research machine. So far it seems more "lone-wolf" than "hive of bees".

The Ugly

There are, alas, more egregious things than a lack of etiquette-in-discourse. If, for one instant, I was imbued with the power of the aforementioned Genealogical Superheroes, and could wave my magic wand over all those researchers languishing in Genea-La-La Land, I would immediately and without remorse revoke their right to GEDCOM download!

If I come across one more person who has simply downloaded a section of my tree and added it to their own, I shall scream. What, pray tell, does this download accomplish? Is the research so tedious, so unworth your while that you must depend on importing my work into your database in order to accomplish this hobby of yours which, I would have thought, was to research your family tree??? That item that you now have as a source on one of those imported people, how about that? You know, the one that refers to a piece of paper that my cousin sent me, and which I can guarantee that you have never seen, nor have ever asked for a copy of? Don't you see the ridiculousness in you having that there? And when you import all of my notes? My lord! I feel faint. This must be the genealogical equivalent of stuffing your pants. 'Tis a sham, and I won't stand for it!

The Denouement

In response to Lynn's post I wrote the following comment:

If someone wants to take some random online tree as gospel, they have much larger research-practice problems than the fact that any given piece of information is online or not. At least that's what I figure.

I'm not a nanny, and can't help tree-snatchers become better genealogists or more competent researchers. I know I benefit so much from the well-sourced trees (as sparse as they are) that I can't help but keep mine up as an offering to others who may use it properly: to locate articles, order records, make connections, etc.

I think the impulse to control information is an impossible one to sate, and the internet demands a way of thinking about data management that is less traditional. But that's another discussion for another time, I guess.

Apparently, I was feeling more generous to the online world that day. It goes to show that the ambivalence that Lynn refers to--the pure desire for things to work a particular way, but the helplessness you feel when they don't--it is alive and well, at least in the breast of this genealogist. In the meantime, I leave my tree up, but I do admit, it is getting harder and harder every day.

1. I first put my tree online about seven years ago, as a convenience to my own research. I was working at the time, and tended to spend lunch hours at my desk doing background reading and research, and it was handy to me to have dates and names online to reference while I worked, since my files and my database were at home.

2. Can you have silence filled with the sounds of crickets? Or is that just cricket-noise? Sounds less poetic. Let's stick with what I've got.


Greta Koehl said...

Very much the same experience here. There are a few excellent trees out there and I am grateful to those people. As for the rest ... I guess they illustrate the 90 percent/10 percent rule. I'm keeping one tree private; people will actually have to go to my blog, copy the information to a document, and enter it by hand.

Alex said...

*clap clap*

Personally I don't want to be part of GeneaBorg. Resistance is not futile! Surely genealogy should be about the research process, the exploration of other places and times via the connecting thread of our ancestors? I don't understand how you do that if you are just out there sucking data from online trees, or why that would be anyone's idea of a fun way to spend their time.

The whole online trees thing makes me all bah-humbug-y, so I make very careful decisions about what and how genealogical information I've worked on appears online.

Nolichucky Roots said...

I agree wholeheartedly, am endlessly frustrated by the glaring, screaming, blatant errors, shoddy research and plagiarism in some online trees, and have sworn them off – repeatedly.

And that’s the problem. It’s so difficult to look away. The bad tree arouses such indignation, such passion. The good tree, admiration. Yawn. It’s probably the same reason my first boyfriends were so, ummm, human.

Lynn Palermo said...

Great post,I'm glad I am not alone in my frustration. And Thanks for the shout out.

Mestephil said...

I feel your pain over and over. I have not abandoned the on-line tree yet as on rare occasions it attracts a fellow researcher with unique and accurate information. I figure I am far from perfect in my research, but at least try to the best of my ability. There is the frustration of endless searching, thinking you have finally found something and it is your own information copied two years ago blindly word for word... or worse: they copied it and applied it carelessly.

I on occasion sigh and provide polite input, but the name collectors and blind data copiers out there are legion.

Great rant, though.

Ken Piper