Mar 8, 2017

Should You Use Family Trees as Sources?

In my last post about making your family tree public or private I talked about the downfalls of people using trees as sources often resulting in incorrect information passed from tree to tree (Here you can read it).  So should you ever use an public tree for sources for your own research?
For my research I use the trees of other researchers as a guide.  When I start to research an ancestor I first look for as many records as I can to confirm birth, death, burial, marriage, etc.  If I am having trouble finding information I will look at that ancestor in other family trees to see if they have any of the facts I am missing.  Then I will use the family tree information to further search for a confirming record.  For example I may have an ancestor who lived all their lives in Michigan but cannot find a death record.  If another researcher has this person as dying in Wisconsin I will use that information to search death records in Wisconsin.  I estimate that about 70% of the time I can find a source record to confirm the other researchers data.  If I cannot confirm the fact I do not add it to my public tree but will make a note in my own software program.

From years of following this guideline I have developed a few tips when looking at public trees to help determine the accuracy of data.  While these tips do not confirm the information in a tree is correct I have found them helpful in guiding my own research.

1. Does the Public Tree Have Sources?

A tree with sources (both from and others) attached is a good indication that the researcher checks their facts and the information in the tree is proven by records.  Beware of trees with no sources attached or trees where the only sources are other family trees.  This indicates they just copy information from other trees without verifying facts.

2.  How Closely Related is the Researcher (usually the home person) to the ancestor in Question?

If the researcher is a direct descendant they may have personal information about their ancestor not available in published records.  In my example above for instance, the person who ended up buried in Wisconsin may have moved there late in life but there may not be any records to show the move.  A family member might have knowledge of this fact however.  To see how the researcher is related click on tree view in their public tree to see if they are a direct descendant.  If they are not a direct descendant you will need to search around in the tree to try to figure out how they are related.

3.  Are There Any Other Sources Listed That Did Not Come From

Sources from Family Search or other sites are good indications the facts in the tree have been researched, plus you can follow up on these to find the original record yourself.  Non published sources such as family bibles can also offer information you cannot find elsewhere.

4. Are There Posted Pictures of Source Documents?

You can look in the "gallery" for a person to see if any pictures of source documents have been posted.  Death certificates, wills, funeral cards, etc. that are not available elsewhere on line all offer documentation of facts.

5.  Tips for Determining Accuracy of Photographs of Ancestors.

 I always get excited when I find a photograph of an ancestor in a public tree because I love seeing what the people looked like that I am researching.   However you have to be cautious--I have found my own photographs attached to the wrong person in other trees.  Plus I found one picture of an ancestor that had the date written on the photo--it was 10 years after she died--believe it was a picture of the second wife, not my ancestor.  Here are some tips to determine the accuracy of photographs.
  • If the researcher is a direct descendant it is more likely they would have a picture that has been passed down in the family.
  • Writing on the actual photograph such as names, dates, locations can give clues to accuracy.
  • If the researcher was the original poster of the photograph it is most likely in their possession and they have more information about the picture.  When you open a picture from the gallery of a tree on the right hand side you can find who originally posted the photo along with any other details the researcher might has listed.  

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post. I do not post trees on for several reasons. Have had people take pictures of my web page even though I had a 'do not copy pictures' note and used them without permission on and then would not answer me as to what their relationship really was. There is too much copy copy copy on of inaccurate information.... But did one for DNA testing and only put dates many without month and day, as I would appreciate someone getting a hold of me for information. All my sources are on my software program and not online as I am getting ready to publish. This is my own situation. You hit the 'nail on the head' so to speak as to how to use those trees....