Why you’ll never be a good genealogist if you don’t collaborate with others

There are a lot of people who claim to be good genealogists but really are not.  These are folks who publicly gripe about collaborative genealogy sites like Geni.com.  They claim to be interested in accuracy, but really they only care about pretending to know more than everyone else.  Collaborative genealogy threatens them because it makes obvious how much these self-proclaimed experts are missing.

It’s easy to think of yourself as a great genealogist if you don’t really care about what you don’t know. But genealogy should be all about finding out new things.  Time and time again I hear people claim that their private trees are more accurate, but when push comes to shove and they show me them, they are not more accurate, just woefully incomplete.

If you start from the principle that every person you add to your family tree should have as complete a tree as possible, you quickly realize that this means spidering out in all directions.  Your sister-in-law needs her parents and siblings.  Those siblings need their spouses.  Those spouses need their parents and siblings.  And so it goes in all directions.

The number of people within just a few steps of you is overwhelming.  A while back I came up with the Geni Forest Density Calculator to figure out just how many people there are in close proximity to any profile on the tree.  The current leader, Brigham Young, has nearly 2 million people within 10 step of him (because of all those wives). But even John Adams, James Madison and Ben Franklin have over 400,000 people within just ten steps.  Even at just 6 steps away we find thousands and thousands of people.  For example, George Washington has nearly 12,000 people within just six steps of his profile, and he didn’t even have any children!

So, even if you wanted to develop a complete tree for one person, it is a herculean task.  You simply cannot do it by yourself.  No matter how good you think you are and how long you work at it.  You just can’t.

It’s not a response to this problem to say “I just don’t care” about all those in-laws and in-laws of in-laws.  Of course you care.  You just don’t have the time to figure them all out.  Who was at the wedding of your first cousin?  Not just your side of the family (the 25% who are directly related to you) but also all of the other 75%.  Each one of those unrelated people could have a photo or other information about someone in your family.  Don’t say you don’t care to know.  That’s not how genealogy works.  We care about everything!

When you get back to researching in small towns, you want to look at every family in the town.  There are connections everywhere.  Everyone was related to everyone else umpteen different ways.  If you are just going up and following your bloodline, you’ll never find everyone.  You have to expand and go sideways.  I can’t tell you the number of times I have discovered something about one family while researching another.  (For example, see the work I am doing on the Jewish families of Prague.) But of course this brings us back to the problem of having limited time.  You need a team of people to go through all the records and make all of the connections.  You need to collaborate on a public tree.  There is no other way.

The skeptics’ most common complaint about Geni is that they find “so many mistakes.”  I just have to laugh.  In a tree with 4 million users and 120 million connected profiles, you’re bound to have lots of errors.  Of course, those relatively tiny trees that these so-called experts keep on their hard drives are also riddled with errors and omissions.  It is just that no one ever finds them.  The paradox about collaborative trees is that the ease of finding mistakes, yours and other people’s, is actually one of the great benefits of the program.  All of these mistakes can be easily and quickly corrected.  Over time, this has made the tree on Geni more accurate and complete than any other tree in existence. Yes, more accurate than yours.  I guarantee it.

I have explained this before but it is worth stating again, collaborative tree-building is the more scientifically rigorous method of genealogy.  On collaborative trees, discrepancies get discovered, discussed and resolved. This is a direct result of the open nature of the collaboration.  Putting a name on a collaborative tree is equivalent to publishing a theory.  Once published, the theory can be examined and tested by others.  You may think you have solved a genealogical problem on your tree, but until you let others take a look and test your conclusions, you really cannot have any confidence in your solution.  As I have said before, there is no such thing as certainty in genealogy.  There is always the possibility that someone will come up with a new piece of conflicting evidence that forces you to reconsider your old conclusions.

For sure, collaborative genealogy can be daunting, especially for old-timers who are used to doing things the old-fashioned way.  But seriously, in what other domain would you listen to someone who won’t use the latest technological advances?  By now I have dealt with hundreds of Geni skeptics and complainers.  Most, I have to say, have severe psychological problems that prevent them from collaborating with other people.  Interestingly, these people often feel the need to offer their uninformed opinions to other people.  I don’t know why.  If they can’t play in the sandbox with the other kids, it shouldn’t hurt them that others are having fun there.  But it does.  They go on and on about how awful the sandbox is, as if seeing other people enjoying themselves and making progress is a great offense to their sensibilities.  You have to just tune them out.

I want to conclude with an explanation of a method I have developed that is a bit more advanced, and perhaps controversial, but has been very successful.  Many genealogists start with the premise that they should only put what is certain on their tree.  But this can make discoveries more difficult, because it is impossible to keep all of the unattached potential relatives in mind.  When working through 18th century records in Prague, I have come up with a method that allows me to easily revisit possible connections.  I set up a “Placeholder” for a given surname, and I place unattached people under the placeholder.  For example, let’s say I find a marriage record and it says that the wife’s father is named Josef.  I don’t know which Josef he is.  There may be several with that surname.  And I am working on the husband’s family.  So I attach this Josef to a Placeholder with his surname, so I can revisit it later.  After a while, you get a collection of these unattached profiles and you can work on figuring out how they all fit together.  The trees are always a work-in-progress, but I find that this allows me to quickly move from one family to another, as I go through the records.  You can also set up Placeholders at different generations.  To people unfamiliar with this method, it may look like I am making mistakes, assuming people are siblings when they are not.  But I can only judge by the results I am having, which are extraordinary.  Look, for example at 10 generations of the Teweles family. The Schefteles family, or Porges family, starting in 1500, are much more difficult, so you can see what this method looks like while it is still in-progress.  I am using this method on hundreds of trees with dozens of active collaborators and it works.  As we incorporate dna results in our trees, this method also has the advantage of bringing together likely related families so the dna results can be easily compared.

Collaborative genealogy on Geni is allowing us to build trees and make connections in ways that simply were not possible before, and are not possible when working alone, no matter how good you think you are.  To be a good genealogist today means adopting this new technology and collaborating with others.  Anyone who tells you otherwise just doesn’t know what he is talking about.

For questions, please contact me on Geni, where I am a volunteer curator.  The views here are my own, of course, and not Geni’s.

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