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.
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".
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!
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.