Going Public

Today I’m going public…with my Ancestry member tree, that is! I’ve had a tree on Ancestry.com ever since the fall of 2011 when the Family Tree Maker 2012 software was released with the AncestrySync functionality. Prior to that time I kept my tree only in Family Tree Maker, protected from the online world.

Deena Ancestry Tree

My thoughts on public vs. private trees have evolved greatly over the last two years. This post is a glimpse into my thought processes any why they changed.

When I first began my professional genealogy education quest over two years ago, I had a very narrow view of what I was willing to share publicly. I had inherited the beginnings of my genealogical research from both my maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather, so the 2,000 or so ancestors in my tree had not been researched by me personally. I was nervous to share information that I had not personally verified, especially since the research I inherited did not come complete with source citations.

Because of my concern for accuracy, I was hesitant to share information online that could be freely copied by others and propagate beyond my ability of retraction, should I discover an error. Being the good student of genealogy that I was, I wanted to ensure that every “i” was dotted and “t” was crossed. After hours of pouring over citation models in Evidence Explained, I conjured up images of Elizabeth Shown Mills looking at my tree–heaven forbid there might be a stray punctuation mark or misplaced element in my source citations!

Fast forward a year, and it started to sink in that life is short. I may never perfect the family genealogy 10 generations back on all lines (that’s over 2,000 ancestors!). If I want to make serious progress, I really need to collaborate with others and prevent duplication of research that has already been done.

Sharing is not a one way street, it’s a give and take. How could I expect to collaborate with others if I have not made an attempt to publicly share my information with them? Without sharing information, I am practically invisible to them!

As I battled my inner-perfectionist, I realized something had to compromise if I wanted to make real progress. I had an epiphany when a genealogy buddy explained to me that she had two separate trees on Ancestry: one public and one private. The public tree was smaller than her private tree, and dubbed her “phishing” tree. She had enough information in the public tree to effectively be “cousin bait” and attract relatives who might find her via the green shaky hint leaves on Ancestry. Her private tree was larger, but contained some unproven information or details she was not sure her family members would want broadcast online. What a beautiful compromise: to share what was reasonably accurate, and use the less-than-proven information privately as clues for future research!

I was almost convinced that I needed to make my tree, or at least a portion of it, public. The clencher came when I took an Ancestry DNA test and received my results much faster than I had anticipated. Within a day of being notified that my results were in, and before I was even able to review the matches myself, I had 3 email requests from various matches imploring me to make my tree public so they could determine how we were related.  One email even schooled me that it was a waste of time for me to have taken a DNA test if I didn’t have the accompanying tree to make sense of the results.  OK, point taken.

So in response, I spent the last two days cleaning up my Family Tree Maker data file in preparation for placing a new public tree online. I tediously merged duplicate individuals (5 hours), resolved place names (6 hours), and downloaded and re-linked missing media (4 hours), as well as notated records where I suspected the possibility of errors or the need for further research. The tree is as ready as it will ever be, at this stage of my research. Only one nagging question remained: what if others judiciously copy information that later is determined to be inaccurate?  What if the discovery is 10 years or more down the road?

I have resolved myself to the fact that I cannot be responsible for the actions of others. I cannot force every other genealogist out there to follow the Genealogical Proof Standard instead of just collecting as many names as possible. I cannot ensure that care is taken to retype information accurately or evaluate it with logic and critical thinking. If I cannot control others’ actions, why should I deny myself the usage of a tool such as a public Ancestry tree that could benefit me greatly in my personal research and cousin connections?

So there, I’ve said it. I’ve made up my mind that I will be uploading my Ancestry tree tonight, even though I cannot guarantee everything is 100% accurate (can any genealogist make such a claim?). I now feel the benefit of connecting with other serious researchers far outweighs the chance that an amateur researcher might blindly copy a piece of erroneous information. It is by connecting to other family members that we might actually solve the puzzles together with each of our individual puzzle pieces, resulting in more accurate information for the genealogical community as a whole. And from the DNA perspective, I am related to my high-probability matches in some form, regardless of what the family tree on paper says, but that’s another topic for another day.

As I close this post, I am excited about the prospects of sharing with cousins yet to be discovered!