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Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Has Ancestry Dot Com Made Us Lazy As Researchers?

In the last two weeks I have heard so many stories about incorrect information on public family trees and that because the information gets shared exponentially, it makes the  mistakes that much more widespread.

In the past week, I have also held two online webinar/workshops to assist people to become more efficient at Using the ScotlandsPeople website. It takes a completely different tack to use this website because it is NOT a subscription website. However, it is also the only website where you can view original images of the Scottish registers and see all of the information that was gathered at the time of the event. And Scottish documents are some of, if not THE best for providing genealogical data.

It occurs to me that part of the issue that ties these two things together is that subscription sites like Ancestry Dot Com have created a slew of lazy genealogy researchers. Part of the joy in genealogy is the thrill of the hunt. We tune into, hone and cultivate our inner detective. But the subscription websites like Ancestry Dot Com take the need for these skills away. We upload a tree. Shaky leaf appears. Click. New document. Click and attach. No thought, no detective skills. It doesn't even matter that this might not be YOUR ancestor. The website has become more of a computer game than a tool to enhance our genealogical skills. And that, in turn, leads to all sorts of false information being spread all over the 'net.

I see a leaf, click. Oh, this tree says my gt gt grandfather died in Ohio. If I haven't learned to hone my inner detective, I might take this with a "thank you for all of the work you have saved me" and incorporate this information into MY tree. Except my gt gt grandfather never left Scotland. In fact two couples and one single man were the only ancestors I have that emigrated to the US. No matter how many shaky leaves I get, that fact is not going to change. My personal frustration with Ancestry is that despite the fact that my tree details that my ancestors were all in Scotland, I get matched with records that are 5000 miles from the land of my ancestors. My professional frustration with Ancestry is that it requires no detective skills, and is raising a generation of lazy genealogy researchers.

Let's look at what skills are REALLY needed to be able to be successful as a genealogist. You will note that neither clicking a mouse nor copy and pasting make the list.

Know how to find information
Yes, Ancestry Dot Com is a rich database. They host a wealth of records. I can remember how hard genealogy research was before Ancestry Dot Com made records from other states and other countries available. They have enriched our experience as researchers and our opportunities to access the information we crave. Use them as a database and be grateful that your subscription gives you unlimited access to the records they hold.

Other online databases are also fantastic resources. As are libraries, local, state, provincial or county archives, genealogy societies and family history centres. Don't limit yourself to just one point of research.

Cultivate an eye for detail
Look at every piece of information on that document. Look again. Put it aside for a day or two and then look at it again. You will be surprised at what you see that you didn't see the first time. Remember those posters that have words written backwards, numbers interspersed with letters and yet we can read what the poster says? Our brains read without paying attention to details. But to be a good genealogist, we need to pay attention to the details on the documents. To do that, we need to look at every detail. Put the document aside and then look at it with fresh eyes a few days later.

Develop your reasoning skills
Being able to think through a problem without making illogical leaps will help you resolve conflicting information. And it will help you to understand what caused the conflict in the first place.

Pay attention
This isn't the same as cultivating an eye for detail. Pay attention to what the information is telling you. Is this really your gt gt grandfather? If you pay attention to dates of events, you will know that he can't possibly be because that would have made him 8 when your gt grandma was born. Same name. Same location. Same father's name. But the dates are terribly wrong. Therefore, he can't be YOUR gt gt grandfather. He may be your ancestor so don't discard the document. Just don't ignore the information that shows he isn't the ancestor you think he is.

Keep notes
Notes are important. Keep notes on who you have received information from. Where you have checked for documents. What you have learned and what you still need to find out. Notes will keep your research focused and will help you to make better sense of the documents you find and who the information should be attached to in order to be correct. It will also help you know who also knows a particular ancestor so that you can go back and re-visit what they know that you don't and vice versa.

Critical Thinking
Simply stated, use your noggin. Piece the parts of the puzzle together and know why the flat sided pieces don't fit in the middle of the picture.

Active Learning

As with any activity you are passionate about, keep learning. Listen to webinars. Go to conferences. Attend talks and workshops. Read blogs. It's important to keep up to date with what is new, what others find useful, new record sets that have been released. It will make you a better genealogy researcher and will really help you hone your inner detective. 

6 comments:

  1. I simply will not use Ancestry.com. Back before I knew what little I know about genealogy, I clicked on their "terms of use" and uploaded the GEDCOM that I was working on at the time, having no idea what I was doing. They took my flawed information and sold it on CDs to unsuspexting researchers. I began to see my wrong data used and quoted as a source for proofs! I contacted Ancestry.com and told them it was wrong and that I had no idea that they would be taking my bad information and selling it! They flatly refused. I guess that as long as they can use your data to make a buck. It is OK with them. Left a really bad taste in my mouth.

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  2. The key is "critical thinking." There is no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater, Frank.

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  3. +Christine,

    Great blog post. Totally agree with you.

    And, I'd like to add that Facebook is not far behind. Put the query "out there" and someone will find the answer. Don't even have to search.

    If I am paying for a subscription at Ancestry.com, why would I want to do my research on someone elses research (those online trees). You can say the same for FamilySearch and other online tree websites.

    There is rarely a day that goes by, when I am not on Ancestry dot com researching and finding RECORDS for people in my genealogy database.

    For me, the key is One Genealogy Question at a time.

    Do I have an online tree at Ancestry? You bet, but for two specific purposes. 1) cousin bait and 2) for the Hints in my tree that leads me to answers to my question(s).

    I agree with "critical thinking", but I'll back it up to one word, THINKING.

    Russ

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  4. So true, Russ. I love it as a "springboard" to knowing what records to search or as a way to connect with others researching the same ancestors. And I love it for the records it does contain. Makes for one stop shopping. I can get the hint of what record set to look at and the actually go and look. All from the same website. The trick is not to miss that second step. That's where the thinking comes in!

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  5. Christine, Thank you for this very accurate description re: Ancestry.com
    It does HAVE valuable info, but as you mention, it is essential to THINK through what is being offered on the site. For instance, I frequently find there are NO research notes proving the accuracy of members' submissions.
    Since there is no documentation, the info should only be considered a clue.
    I can't describe the tangled mess of family errors (both sides) on Ancestry and FamilySearch, relating to my family. So frustrating!!

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  6. I have been a member of ancestry since the beginning but I STAY AWAY FROM TREES at all costs. I want to see documents but all else means little. I love ScotlandsPeople and newspaper sites, I like a dusty basement room filled with old files in county records offices, large heavy books filled with deeds, maps, wills, tax records etc. Give me days in a court house, land office or cemetery and archives that allow me to see original documents. That is researching! Researching is interviewing & recording, extracting, transcribing and documenting, It is puzzling out, adding up and making sense. It is hypothesis and proving. It is not a shaky leaf, someone else's work or simple, easy or free.

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