Sunday, March 6, 2016

Evaluating and Improving Your Family Tree Data

Family history websites are making more and more records available to us online all the time. They give us "hints" about our ancestors to make it as easy as possible to build our trees. They make the trees that others have compiled readily available and some of them tell us when information on our tree seems to match that on another tree. The idea is that we can bring in all this information from the other tree to grow our own tree. All good stuff.

BUT, there is also a downside. Do you find yourself just clicking hints and adding stuff to your tree without taking much thought about it? How confident are you of the information on your tree? I used to tell beginners that information without sources is just a rumor. But sometimes, even with a source, you are not creating a reliable record of the past.

One of my sons has a presentation he has often given (or variations on it) at Rootstech and other events. He has allowed me to share his visuals. So, let's think a bit about a hypothetical ancestor and how we go about trying to learn about his life and record it for posterity.

Every life progresses from birth to death, with events in between. That we all know.

Likewise, for each person who lives, there are artifacts produced. Some have more than others, but in the western world there are some sort of artifacts for pretty much everybody: birth certificates, school documents, census records, photographs, marriage licenses, church records, cemetery headstones, obituaries, etc. 

The family historian goes looking for these artifacts.
The family historian is going to find some of the artifacts. It is pretty certain that we will not find all of them. It is also likely that some artifacts we find are not in fact about the person we think they are about.

The family historian looks at the information on the artifacts found and considers the claims each makes about the person of interest. Typically the family historian decides that some of the claims are valid and others are not.
Based on the evidence the family historian considers valid, he develops some beliefs about the life and death of a person and records that information.

The problem is that it is quite likely that the belief about a life is not quite consistent with the truth about that life. In our visual example below, for instance, the person in truth is still living. But we thought we found a headstone for the person so we recorded a death for him.
Let's review some basic strategies or best practices for family historians to help minimize our incorrect beliefs about our ancestors.

Get your ducks in a row before you start looking for records. In other words, take time to organize before you search. Create a record that you can add to as you research. Taking time to carefully organize your thoughts and your papers and computer records saves you time in the long run.
  • What are you pretty confident of?
  • What are your research goals? (What do you want to discover?)
  • What sources have you already found and what did they tell you?
  • Where have you already looked? What was the result of earlier searches? Are some places worth revisiting?
  • What clues do you have from family traditions or communications or pre-compiled trees?
Take a good close look at the information you already have. Look carefully at dates, places, and relationships. Are they all realistic? If using Family Tree on FamilySearch.org, look for duplicate records. Take time to merge clear duplicates and clean up the records. When you find apparent problems, such as a child who was born 4 years after the death of his father, can you explain the problem?

Search for all the artifacts you can find. Don't be satisfied to just click some hints on a website or link into a pre-compiled tree. Often that results in perpetuating errors. Don't stop when you've found a family in a couple of census records -- try to find as complete a record as possible:

  • Use multiple websites and search engines. 
  • Consider microfilm research to broaden your information sources.
  • Visit cemeteries if possible.
  • Visit courthouses if you can.
  • Talk to your family members!!! You'd be surprised at the memories and information they can give you.
  • Look at Family Bibles and journals if they can be found.
  • Read books: county histories, family histories, etc. You may find valuable clues in them.
  • Study photos and heirlooms for the story they can tell.

Get the whole family. Don't look for an ancestor in isolation. Look for all the family members: parents, siblings, spouse, children. Sometimes you will find the ancestor you are primarily interested in while searching for a close family member.

Keep careful records of your research. You can use research logs or whatever works for you. I just use a Word document. This is the step we most often neglect but it is one of the most valuable. Having it all in one place makes it much easier to notice inconsistencies and to see what you are missing and plan your research strategy.

  • Where did you look?
  • What search terms did you use when you were searching online?
  • What did you find?
  • Record when you found nothing too!
  • What do you believe to be true?
  • What seems to be contradictory?
  • What is your next step?
Examine all the artifacts and examine them all together. 
  • Are they consistent in their claims?
  • Are they reasonable?
  • Do you even have any besides trees others have posted? Remember that publication does not equal truth.
Keep your research notes and artifacts together in some organized way. Papers in binders or folders work. Scanned images and links online work. Desktop programs work. Websites work.Take the time to figure out a way that works best for you. I've found it good to use more than one way of storing your information. Redundancy decreases loss.

Look at the information in a different way. If you look at a tree view usually, try a fan chart or a descendancy chart. Create a timeline. Looking at things differently can help you see the gaps or the possible errors. Invite another set of eyes to look at your information, especially when you feel stumped and confused.

Study history and geography. The more you know about the times and places of your ancestors' lives, the better you can evaluate artifacts. And you have a better idea of what you can expect to find and where you might expect to find it.

When things get confusing (and they will)
  • Ask someone else to look at what you have and how you got there. Fresh eyes can see things you missed.
  • Try forums, online help, Facebook Research Communities. 
  • Keep looking and recording what you find and don't find.
  • Set it aside a while and work on other families. 
Admit that you are not perfect and will make mistakes. We all do. You will mess up along the way -- or already have. Suppose you are 95% confident of every parent-child link you make in your tree,  By the time you have made 14 of those links, the confidence that all are correct drops to 49%. So the statistics are against you! But don't be discouraged. Just be open to error and evaluate everything as carefully as you can.

Enjoy the journey. As you find the records of your ancestors and they become real to you, you can experience incredible joy and satisfaction, It's worth the time it takes to do that as correctly as you can.