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Ancestry Tracing and the Internet

"There is a belief that seems to be increasing amongst those interested in tracing their ancestries that everything can be found on the Internet. In fact, this not only is erroneous, but leads to particular hazards in research."

Such is how Cecil R. Humphery-Smith began his article, "Ancestry Tracing and the Internet" in the latest edition of the BYU Family Historian electronic journal.

He continues by admonishing genealogists to perform careful research:

"Often we have come across pedigrees made up from the sources found on the Internet. The late W. H. Whitmore admonished genealogists nearly a century and a half ago not to insult true progenitors with false claims to others. Links to others who are entirely unrelated are readily established by using the Internet indiscriminately. There are those who resent any professional genealogists questioning the erroneous conclusions or trying to correct what has clearly gone wrong. But what is the point of producing a family tree that links you with somebody to whom you are simply not related? Or, why put effort into family history that may be the story of someone else's ancestor?"

The article gives examples of potentially inacurrate or incomplete databases and compilations so you can be better prepared when evaluating others' work. We recommend the article for researchers of all expertise. Click here for the article.


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I fully appreciate the work of genealogists. Nevertheless none of those we contacted the last 20 years in the US has been able to find the death certificate of a family member who emigrated from Belgium to the US in 1869, until I did last week through the website of a cemetery in St Louis. So I will continue working on the Net and by doing so avoid having too many expenses. Why is it that only in some states in the US certificates can be obtained for free? And that in some countries genealogical research is done for free by council employees?
Christine Gijssels, Belgium

I don't think that the article spoke about imaged documents or indices found on the Internet. It referred instead to family trees posted online. Many folks appear to consider them gospel without actually authenticating them, which is just plain bad form and naive in the extreme. I see no problem with using them as possible guidelines, with the caveat that everything must be validated.

Potential for error not withstanding the internet is fantastic research tool. This is particularly true whe it comes to indexed searches. One can do in minutes with a few keystrokes what once required hours of crank turning at a microfilm viewer. We just need to remember to cross check and verify.

As far as accuracy is concerned the internet is just a vastly larger version of the Ancestral File.


This link does not seem to work: http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cgi-bin/docviewer.exe?CISOROOT=/BYUFamilyHistorian&CISOPTR=378

I have learned the hard way that much family history on the internet is fabricated. I have used data from professional genealogical organizations, including commercial search firms, that I later found to be untrue. Two major errors turned up in my immediate family. My best advice is to accept nothing without source citations.

The article does mention "by using the Internet indiscriminately".

There are errors in trees posted to the internet (including, surely, my own), but I've gotta tell ya, I've seen quite a number of errors in official documents, as well (and I'm not just talking about inconsistent spelling).

Best idea is to get data from a number of sources. This should not be limited to posted trees on the internet, as many of those are simply copied from other posted trees (those posted trees can serve as a good starting point, until further proof is obtained through census data, birth and death indices and certificates, registry entries, etc.).

Another problem is transcriptions. Hand-written documents can be difficult to read to begin with, and errors can ALREADY be on the original documents, or data can be misread, or data can be mis-transcribed, and finally, there can be typos in the final preparation.

I always note in my source if the data are transcribed and give it a lower level of accuracy than my having viewed an original document.

I would like to verify everying I see on the internet also but the only way to do this is to purchase the birth/marriage/death certificates and this is very expensive and I think that is why a lot of people cannot verify the information. Also if you are (like me) not mobile going to the library and family centres is very difficult too.

I have found 3 people on the internet including a 3rd cousin that have provided me with a wealth of information. One is a professional genealogist that was tracing a direct line to my mother. My third cousin has taken me back much farther than I would have been able to go. He has been researching for over 20 years. I have E-mailed several individuals in Vermaon and New Hampshire that have provided me with gravestone pictures and more. There is no way I would have the data in my genealogy program with out the help of the internet.

William L. Tams

Amen! I've seen online trees with blatant errors - listing births in the US before that area had been settled by Europeans, for example. Or listing multiple marriages for an individual who had died as a toddler. The internet is a wonderful tool - I found a previously unknown cousin of my mother, I've been able to access photos of both of my grandfathers as teenagers, and I've been able to contribute to both US and Canadian census transcription projects. But tools require skill to use effectively, and many well meaning people lack that patience.

Have not been able to access the following site. Have they taken it off line??

Thank you. Carol

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