Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Playing Around with Online Trees

News Flash: Online trees are likely to be unreliable and poorly sourced. Oh, wait a minute, almost every single person who reads this blog is aware of that fact.

So why write about them – again?

Because last weekend I actually went into the Public Member Trees area on Ancestry and started pushing all the buttons. But let’s back up a bit.

In my previous post on this subject, I mentioned that I look at Ancestry’s Public Member Trees when links to them appear to the right side of images pulled up during searches on Ancestry. Some years back I tried a few searches directly through the “Search Member Trees” option and did not find anything useful, so I had not tried a direct search since then.

However, some comments in other articles on the subject and my recent experience in perusing the trees pulled up in my searches (which might be among some of the better trees, since they do link to the images cited as sources) prompted me to play around and search for some of my ancestors in Ancestry’s Public Member Trees, or PMTs.

Did I have any major research breakthroughs? Certainly not. But the format and capability for linking to sources have improved, and I was surprised at what you can learn if you click on enough links.

The following are some observations on ways to use Public Member Trees that I found to be productive when I tried this “push all the buttons” approach. The most obvious (and already mentioned) ones are listed first, with a couple of things that I did not expect listed toward the end.

1. As previously discussed, you can use these trees to find hints for your research, especially for what I call “problem families.” These are not necessarily brick walls (so far no joy on that front through PMTs), but families with gaps: an incomplete list of children, missing dates, etc. For me these are often families “in the middle”: the ancestors are often well researched and the descendants, my “near ancestors,” are also well researched, but this connecting family is not.

Two of the trees I checked out had a couple of extra children’s names for one of these families (Bolin Clark and Elizabeth Dyer of Warren County, Kentucky). They might be incorrect, but they might also lead me to more information on this family (and help to distinguish them from all the other Clark families in Warren County).

One feature I use to make a quick assessment of a tree’s information content on one of these families is to do searches on the family names (the main name and some associated names) in the search box. This will give you an idea about whether it is worthwhile to navigate around the tree.

2. You can ascertain who is researching your line, get an idea of the quality of their research, and contact the best prospects. Again, this one has been discussed. And PMTs serve this purpose only to a limited extent.

There are various reasons for this, including Sturgeon’s Law (“Ninety percent of everything is crud”) and the tendency of “serious” researchers to use many forms to present their research (academic, local history, and genealogy publications; books; dedicated websites and blogs; and, for some, online collections of family trees), whereas more “hobby” researchers tend to favor the last two. And there are still limitations and a bit of “clunkiness” to the formats of these online collections that keep some researchers from using them.

So, despite the occasional gem, what we often pull up is a bunch of dreck. But even this can be useful information to have in its own way. I did not realize how widespread the misinformation on the alleged parents of my great-great grandfather Hiram Brinlee Sr. was until I saw the huge number of trees with “John T. Brinley and Elizabeth Doups,” and many of those had a totally unrelated English Brinley line pasted to him. There is a well-researched hypothesis about Hiram’s parents, but it is not as attractive, because it does not lead past John T. Brindley and the only wife anything is known about was probably Hiram’s stepmother. But I need to know how persistent the “phantom in the tree” is probably going to be.

Play around with the various links and search options on the Family Tree page:

3. Find the “home person” by clicking on the link (usually, but not always, it is the owner of the tree) and then click on “family tree” for that person and his or her spouse (if there is one).

3a. The first purpose of this is to see how closely they are connected to the family you are researching. It is a good sign if your line comes up on that first page (before you click on the “go farther back” button); there is likely to be some major interest in this family on the researcher’s part.

Another thing to remember is that while research can and often does get spotty on these family trees as you get further away from the “Home Person,” a researcher is likely to possess accurate information about who his own parents and grandparents are, and possibly up through the next generation or two as well. The information on this page may be the best that you find in that family tree.

And in at least two cases this information helped me to fill in descendants of an ancestor. For some ancestors, I do “descendants of” research, especially for my main research focus families. Through these PMTs I have found a couple of children that I had missed in putting the families together.

3b. A second benefit is that the “Home Person” may be a close cousin. This is not just the usual distant “research cousin,” but possibly part of the family you grew up with. I knew that at least two of my Moore cousins were “into” genealogy and family research, and through the PMTs I was excited to learn that the son of a another first cousin and the granddaughter of yet another first cousin have also gotten into researching the family tree. I will definitely be contacting these cousins.

Tomorrow: Four more things you may find in Ancestry’s Public Member Trees.


  1. Greta,
    I too have found some surprising things on the public trees --- the kind of information that leads me in sometimes surprising directions. Thanks for the well thought out post.

  2. Hi Greta - I too use PMT from time-to-time much in the same way as you. One method that I use to quickly sort the "wheat from the chaff" is whether or not sources are present. My theory is that anyone making time and effort to enter sources for their work in the clunky PMT format, has to have more than the average amount of PMT credibility.

    BTW, my favorite PMT story is one in which someone had posted a photo for an ancestor who lived and died before cameras were invented.

  3. Greta, thanks for your insight into the PMT's. I always tell my students that the PMT's should be used as a roadmap - and unless sourcing is included to consider them fairy tales. Hopefully some of the newbies out there will stumble upon your blog and find the useful side of PMT's. As usual another great blog!

  4. Joan - Thank you for your kind comments! Just goes to show us - always check back on various sites - we never know what is going to show up.

  5. Hi Jack - I also use the "sources" criterion; as a matter of fact, since I was often linking to PMTs that were connected to source images, I was connecting to some of the better trees, and that was what made me rethink my previous dismissal of PMTs as a source of information.

  6. Karen - you are very welcome! I think that you are correct on the "fairy tale" warning. And it's funny, the "negative" information you can get from these trees is helpful in its own way as part of that roadmap - some of them are "Dead End" signs!