Mar 4, 2021

Are You Recording Fairy Tales in Your Genealogy Records?

WARNING: This is a “soapbox article” in which I rant and rave a little.

A newsletter reader wrote to me a while ago expressing unhappiness with all the erroneous information found in online family trees. The bogus information is usually found in family tree information submitted by other users of whatever online family tree service is being used at the moment.

My belief is that this newsletter reader wasn’t spending much time looking at online images of census, birth, marriage, and death records or at other online documents of value to genealogists: old newspapers, military pension files, and such things.

I decided to share my response publicly in this newsletter so that others could either benefit from or reject my ideas and suggestions.

Instead of spending your time looking at other people’s fairy tales, I suggest you look at original records and newspapers (or digital images of original records and newspapers). That’s the manner that experienced genealogists have used for decades, and it has always worked well.

Luckily, millions of such records are available online today, unlike the days when I started doing genealogy in the 1980s. In “the old days,” I often had to go to the locations where the records were kept. I spent a lot of money on travel and on photocopying machines. However, the expense was worth it. I got accurate results most of the time.

Back in the 1980s, we also had thousands of self-published books written by other genealogists with claims of their family trees. Those books were just as inaccurate as today’s online family trees. Those books often were a mix of facts and conjecture, often accompanied by so-called “family coats of arms” and similar fictitious material.

Sadly, in the 1980s and earlier, thousands of new genealogists did not understand the difference between unsourced information versus documented records. A lot of junk claims were copied, republished, and distributed all over the place.

I will suggest that online databases of genealogy information intermixed with fairy tales hasn’t really changed genealogy very much. The only difference today is that computers and online capabilities allow genealogists to publish accurate and inaccurate information alike faster, easier, and at less expense than ever before.

My belief is that the PERCENTAGE of inaccurate genealogy information hasn’t changed much in many decades. What has changed is the QUANTITY of both accurate and inaccurate information available today.

The reality is that the basics of good genealogy research haven’t changed in the past century, even though we certainly have more convenient access today than ever. In short, any genealogy claims you find that are not accompanied by verifiable source citations to original records should be treated as a potential fairy tale.

Please don’t get me wrong: I still love the online family trees submitted by other genealogists, and I look at them often. I have thousands of such claims saved in various note files in my computer. I always want to know what someone else thinks is a fact. I want to save those possible fairy tales until I can verify the information myself through independent, well-trusted sources. In most cases, that means looking at an original record, either in person or as an online image.

I still want to know what another person believes is true, even though I have some doubts. Knowing someone else’s guesses is still better than knowing nothing at all about an ancestor. There are times when someone else’s guess gives me a clue as to what to look for to see if I can confirm or refute it.

I never, ever enter possible fairy tale information into my primary genealogy database until I have independently verified its accuracy in the original records.

My belief is that your genealogy collection of facts can be better and more accurate today than ever before if you really care about accuracy.

Anyone who doesn’t care about accuracy probably isn’t reading this article anyway.

What’s in your (possibly bogus) family tree?