What a provocative title: Online Trees: The Root of All Evil? And it was an interesting panel discussion that I participated in at RootsTech 2014.
So are trees the root of all evil? In a word, no. And in fact, not only are they not evil, if you are doing genealogy correctly, they must be part of your research plan. Yep, I went there. Now, I’m sure some of you just spit coffee or whatever you were drinking at your computer screen. But bear with me.
Now I am paraphrasing here, but his point is don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Yes, we all know that not every tree online is accurate. And some of those inaccuracies get copied and duplicated much to the frustration of those who have good information. But does that mean everything you find in an online tree is wrong? It does not.
“Genealogists who categorically disdain certain sources risk overlooking the information they seek or references to that information, thus blocking their research. Genealogists who categorically trust preferred sources risk accepting incorrect information, also blocking—or sidetracking—their research. In contrast, effective family historians consult and assess all sources, regardless of type, that might help answer their research questions. They exclude no potentially useful source, and they trust no unverified source.” — Tom Jones, “Perils of Source Snobbery”
You can’t assume a given source is always going to be reliable. Can you count on a death certificate always to have the correct death date? Or a tombstone? Usually. But not always. My great grandfather’s tombstone is an example.
Can you always assume that information in an online tree is wrong? No, you can’t. You must look at the information and prove or disprove what you see. If you don’t look, you could be missing something quite critical in your research that will block you for a mighty long time.
So next time you are trying to solve a problem, create your research plan that includes all of your favorite “reliable” resources. Census, vitals, immigration and military records. But don’t forget to include some of those that you have been ignoring. Family histories, locale histories. And online trees. You just never know where the clue is going to come from that sets you on the right path. If you don’t look at every possible resource, you might just miss it.
About Anne Gillespie Mitchell
Anne Gillespie Mitchell is a Senior Product Manager at Ancestry.com. She is an active blogger on Ancestry.com and writes the Ancestry Anne column. She has been chasing her ancestors through Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina for many years. Anne holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Finding Forgotten Stories.