Browsing public family trees online can be exciting. You might suddenly come across a treasure trove of information about one of your ancestors — their parents’ names, other children, or even further generations back. But that doesn’t mean making your own working tree public is a good idea. In fact, it’s much wiser to keep your working version as a private family tree.
In this week’s genealogy prompt we’ll look at the problems with publicly-shared trees and why your main version should be kept private.
Why You Shouldn’t Share Your Active Family Tree Publicly
First, to be clear, when I say “active family tree” or “working family tree,” I mean the same thing — the version of your family tree you’re working with and updating for whatever branches you’re currently researching.
Why shouldn’t this working version of your tree be shared publicly?
Think back on the scenario I mentioned previously, of excitedly finding that treasure trove of information in another amateur genealogist’s family tree, unlocking new generations, or smashing through walls in your research.
Now I want you to imagine something else.
Imagine you continued to build on that information found in a public family tree for months. No, for years. You put hours, and effort, and perhaps money into digging even deeper into these uncovered roots.
Now imagine, years after you’ve compiled generations’ worth of research, you find out that public family tree that handed you the hints you were looking for was… wrong.
This happened to me a while back. It was surreal. But it was a mistake anyone could have made.
You see, there were two couples living in the same area, very close in age, and both members of each pair shared a name. Both their first and last names. Including the wife’s maiden name.
There was every reason to believe the documentation the other researcher provided was about my ancestors. Worse, quite a few other Ancestry users had this same information in their own trees — far more occurrences than those citing the records for the proper two individuals.
It was a nightmare.
But this is a risk when you rely on other people’s public trees in your research. And it’s a risk you pose to others if you make your own active family tree public.
Why You Should Use a Private Family Tree During Research Instead
By its very nature, your working family tree isn’t well-vetted yet. It isn’t finished. It’s a work-in-progress. And because of that, it should remain private. Anything else is irresponsible and risks causing problems more than being helpful to others.
Instead, keep a private family tree as a working version, whether you manage that online or off.
If you want to keep a public family tree accessible to help others with their research, that’s admirable. And you should do it.
But that public family tree should only contain information and records you are absolutely certain of.
Share the information and documents passed down from your own relatives that others won’t have access to. If you are 100% certain an official record, photograph, or other document belongs to your ancestor, put that information in a public tree.
It’s a little more work this way. But you won’t cause others to lose months chasing down bad leads based on your mistakes. And, hopefully, the process of maintaining this separate private family tree will not only cause you to vet your own tree’s data more carefully, but perhaps it will make you more cautious about the research you gather from others. Sometimes saving time is, well, not really saving you any time at all.
In my case, things worked out in the weirdest and most wonderful of ways. As it turns out, I’m still related to the key branches the bad information led me to research more deeply. Just through a slightly different ancestral line. So all wasn’t lost. And who knows? Perhaps those two couples themselves were related somehow and there will be yet another fascinating story to find.