SPOILER ALERT – This post relates to the hobby of Genealogy.
I’ve been at this genealogy thing in one way or another for about 25 years now. I worked full-time for many of those years, so it was an on-again, off-again hobby when I started. Now I’m retired, have done some serious coursework in Genealogical Research, and have helped some others as well.
About 10 years in, I started getting serious about sharing the information I had acquired. I helped my cousins put together a book for a family reunion of my paternal relatives, complete with disks containing over 1500 images, the text of the book, and digital trees of our ancestors. I’ve done books for my husband’s family as well, and I put together one for each niece or nephew in the next generation as they marry. I even have one of my grandsons interested in family research now!
By the time I go, I’ll have several decades of research on paper and in digital files, and what happens to all that work? Will my kids know how to access it? My paper files speak for themselves, but my digital research is in desktop programs and, to some extent in online trees that need subscriptions for access. I am in the process of collecting that info, with instructions for our children on how to access everything. I’m sharing much of the actual results with them and some other family as I go, as well.
So why not just put everything in Dropbox? Or in an Ancestry.com or MyHeritage.com tree?
Well, here’s the thing. Once you put anything online, anywhere, it’s out there in the cloud forever, backed up in multiple places so that it probably can never truly be deleted. Genealogy sites merge or get sold. Any site could get hacked. Digital protocols change. Online security is actually pretty good at the sites I use, but it will never be perfect.
My desktop trees contain personal data and copies of family held records, photos, and stories that probably never need to be public – especially on living individuals. For years I have assured family members that I will never post that information online, so I keep my trees and documentation on local drives and backups. But that frustrates other researchers, who want to compare my trees to theirs. They argue that most sites have “privatization” protocols that keep profiles on living people from appearing. That I can select the data that I upload (photos, stories, etc.). That I am hampering efforts of the very people I hope to find to advance my own research.
But I have promises to keep, so what to do?
Well, there are options. First of all, if my goal is sharing with my family (most of whom are only moderately interested – certainly not enough to pay for subscriptions), the main subscription sites where researchers are clamoring for public trees probably aren’t the answer. If my goal is to help other researchers, or to advance my own research into the past, there is a certain amount of data that can be posted accomplish that. After all, if the living people would be “privatized” and not visible anyway, why include them in an online tree at all?
My own solution for some time has been to post a public online tree that is limited in scope. Since I use this tree partly to match ancestors with DNA matches on several sites, I have limited it to actual relatives. For example, I don’t include the colonial genealogy of my husband’s sister in-law, which is quite extensive, and available on other trees. I include all of my own and my husband’s direct line ancestors, back as far as I can go (Note: for DNA matching, going back more than 8 or 9 generations is interesting, but not particularly helpful – but going back only 2 generations doesn’t usually help much either.) I include names, dates, and locations for birth, marriage and death (BMD) facts. I attach no family docs or photos, although I do include sources readily available online (census records, gravesites, BMD certificates.) I also include the siblings of my direct line ancestors, with their spouses and children. That assures that all meaningful surnames I have for people who might match me are there. I include no living people, other than DNA testers (and in some cases, necessarily, their parents), who I identify only with initials or as “Private”, and no BMD info or other data.
What does this accomplish? Well, contact, hopefully. And when I contact DNA matches, I can refer them to my public tree and ask if they see any connections. On Ancestry.com, this is also enough data to create “Shared Ancestry Hints” with DNA matches – these suggest how my tree and a match’s tree connect. (Of course the other person has to have posted a public tree that goes back to the common ancestor as well). It accomplishes connection via messaging or email, with people who have pieces to the puzzle I can’t get any other way. And I have pieces to share with them.
This is especially true with overseas ancestors – my family are fairly recent immigrants to the US, so I’m searching in Germany, Scotland, and Ireland. My husband’s maternal side is recently from Poland. And when I say recently, we both grew up with our maternal side immigrants living in our homes. We have some original documents that came with those people, stories they told us, photos of family we never knew. The people we connect with often have the same.
For me, connections, the stories behind the facts, the legacy of determination, the good, bad, and ugly of their journeys – that’s what makes learning about our ancestors so fascinating. I am currently in correspondence with previously unknown family in the US in Pennsylvania, Texas and Oregon, and overseas in Australia, the Netherlands, England, and Northern Ireland – sharing photos and stories of our mutual family and the places they lived. I “met” all of these people through data in online trees.
I don’t want to just harvest facts and photos from online databases or online trees (which are only ever as accurate as the research of the poster). I want to understand WHY a grandfather’s brother came over to the US in 1903 and his wife and only one of their children came so many years later. WHY one family suddenly moved from a longtime home in one city, across the river to a different city and state. WHY my paternal immigrant great-grandfather left NYC after 20 years to start a farm in Upstate NY. Those are the things only family knows (or believes), and the reasons and the stories are fascinating.
But I digress.
My online research strategy includes a separate, focused and meaningful family tree that I can post a publicly on genealogy sites, without fear of accidently displaying any information on living relatives (as promised), and without getting “into the trees” with in-law histories. By doing this, I have reduced the size of my posted tree from about 4500 documented people to about 540. And I’ve created some great “cousin bait.” Once I connect with someone, I can and do share more, as appropriate – and so do they.
The question of whether to post a family tree online publicly – or at all – doesn’t have to be just a matter of yes or no. It can be matter instead of investing some thought into what your goals are, and some time into developing a meaningful tree that you feel comfortable sharing.
The returns for me have been wonderful so far, and I hope there are many more rewards to come!