I was reading one of the family history bloggers this last week and I read a statement that has become common. It goes something like, “Never trust anything online.” The blogger took issue with the statement and went on to say that this person had taken the statement too far. He reminded his readers that there are many source records online. These are often of better quality than the microfilm from which many of them were made.
The blogger was right, of course, there are many many good records available online. The original source records are a major resource for finding ancestors and documenting good genealogical conclusions. They are easy to use, and in some cases were created by individuals with good genealogical and handwriting analysis skills. In the hands of a newcomer to family history, these records are often better than the original source records. Sometimes the online indexes are the only way a novice can effectively use the records. There is often a language issue, and as the records are older there are handwriting issues. I fully agree with the opinion that these source records are a great resource.
The opinion that seems to be shared by many genealogists, however, is that all the online tree information is junk. I sometimes hear a rather snobbish view, in my opinion, that the online trees are put together by uneducated individuals who couldn’t tell a census return from birth certificate. The view expressed is that they have no clue how to interpret or understand the records. If this premise is accepted then it naturally follows that online tree records cannot be trusted.
I disagree with this view and the reason is that I have had such consistently good luck with online trees. I have found errors, to be sure, but on the trees where I have researched I have found relatively few errors. Most of the data is accurate. Nearly all of the relationships in the online trees I have used were right. There is a slightly higher error rate on dates and places of events such as births marriages and deaths.
It seems to me that these online trees are a wealth of information. In many cases they were compiled by individuals who actually knew the ancestors in question, in other cases they were compiled by professional genealogists. Sometimes the conclusions were compiled by beginner or hobby genealogists who came to good conclusions because the record set was straightforward, they had knowledge of that record set, or they had help from someone who was experienced.
I’ll admit to being annoyed at the persistent view that all the online trees are bad, when most of my experience and that of those with whom I have interacted has been good. Online trees should not be treated as truth and I think that is at least part of what makes experienced genealogists bristle at their use. Some believe that if it is published online it must be true.
The online trees can, however, be treated as significant clues. They can point to record sets to search. One of the dangers is that someone less experienced may search for the conclusion, find it, and then believe that they have the answer when they have not searched other record sets. It is important to search the range of sources to see if there are any other viable conclusions. If there are, then the research and analysis should take place to determine which of the possible conclusions is the one that stands up to scrutiny.
As sources begin to be added to these tree conclusions they will rapidly move from the most disparaged record set to the most valuable. I look forward to the coming years when the transition will take place. In the mean time, I will continue to use the online trees as significant clues. I will also continue to validate their conclusions. Amongst all the diamonds online there are some cubic zirconia. Research and adherence to the genealogical proof standard will help sort out which is which.