Ancestry – White, Black or Shades of Grey?

Let’s talk about Ancestry a bit. For many genealogists, especially amateurs like me, Ancestry is the place to create and research your family tree. Ever since the demise of Family Tree Maker, which was taken over by Ancestry and then mothballed after the trend towards online storage and sharing of family trees became apparent, Ancestry has become the premier place to create and investigate your…well, ancestry.

Or is it?

Yes, I use Ancestry, and I pay THROUGH THE NOSE to use it. Every now and again I let my subscription lapse in hopes that eventually Ancestry will send me an “offer” of a lower rate on a subscription. Sometimes I make it that long and sometimes I don’t. Usually what happens is I have a new tree I want to create as part of my profession or I have found a clue to my own tree that leads me back to using Ancestry to investigate it.

I have a like/dislike relationship with this site.

Let’s start with what I like about it.

I like that I don’t have to travel as much to investigate a family member. More and more records are being posted online such a birth, marriage and death records. Often these along with census records (in the US at least) are all that I need to fill in the basic details of a person’s existence on this planet. My days of trips to Fort Wayne, Indiana, and other little towns across the country, are over for the most part. And I no longer have to plan a trip to Europe to continue my family history investigation. At least in theory I don’t.

I do like the hints provided. Now, to be clear, NOT EVERY HINT IS A GOOD SOURCE. (Oops, I delved into the “dislike” category. Let’s return to “likes”.) But there are a lot of good sources that do come your way through the hint algorithm, such as US and State census, birth, marriage and death records. More recently Ancestry has started to publish primary source records from Europe as well. And the occasional city directory, newspaper obituary, draft register and immigration/travel records are helpful as well. As long as you’re careful and do your due diligence the hints can be great resources to push your research forward.

Now…dislikes.

I dislike not having to travel to find a source! I miss my days of the open road, driving to small towns to spend an afternoon in a basement archive searching for that one elusive relative’s marriage record. I miss the feeling of discovery and the real feel of holding the actual record with my ancestor’s signature on the bottom. I miss the adventure and mystery of being a genealogist.

I dislike the hints! Now, to be clear, NOT EVERY HINT IS A BAD SOURCE. (See where I’m going with this?) But there are is a lot of bad information on Ancestry, thanks in part to the LDS Libraries’ habit of taking someone’s word for it that so-in-so was his ancestor back in the day before the internet. (Don’t get me started on my “Steele” family connection to the English Royal family…) Ancestry perpetuates this misinformation by allowing you to accept hints from family trees, LDS records, DAR/SAR records, etc. Now, you may argue with me that some of these sources are perfectly fine to accept. I will argue right back that if you cannot find a primary source to back up the information from any of these bad hints, the hint is not worth the proverbial digital paper it’s printed on. Unless I can see the actual record it’s not real.

Let’s take a moment to talk about what a primary source is in genealogical terms, from my point of view anyway. According to the Library of Congress (www.loc.gov/teachers/usingprimarysources), “Primary sources are the raw materials of history — original documents and objects which were created at the time under study. They are different from secondary sources, accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience.” So, a birth certificate is a primary source, since it was created at the time the event happened (in most cases) and by people who were witness to the birth, such as the parents, doctor or clergy. A secondary source for a birth would be a death certificate. While the date, time, cause of death are primary sources, any birth information included on the death certificate is NOT primary because the people recording the event information are removed by time and place from the actual event.

Does that make sense? Of course you can use the birth information to help you locate the actual primary source. But until you locate the actual primary birth record it cannot be considered solid primary information.

And, as with every other primary source, there are exceptions to these rules. A primary source can be falsified. I think especially when a mother was not married and the family would either make up a father, or the child would be assigned at birth to another family member as the official parent.

But, I’m getting a little off topic. The trouble with Ancestry is that it presents too much information that seems to be official or trustworthy, but simply is not either. And people who use Ancestry to trace their family trees end up going down the rabbit hole unintentionally. Sure, I could blame the user here for not doing their due diligence. But since I’ve unfortunately gone down that rabbit hole a few times myself, and I should flat out know better, I go back to the way Ancestry presents it’s information to the public. It’s presented as trustworthy, as OK to copy, as OK to perpetuate. And that is simply NOT good for good family research.

I’ve been doing genealogy long enough to remember the days before the internet, when I visited relatives who were as obsessed as I was with family history. They had rooms full of filing cabinets stuffed with copies of information they had gathered about the family through years of hard research and hard travel. It used to mean something to do this work.

And today it still means something to do the work! DO THE WORK! Don’t assume anything. Hunt down that original source! That diary in that dusty archive, that monument in that tiny town in the middle of nowhere, that grave marker on the prairie. Ancestry can start you down a good path of discovery if you understand what is being presented, and understand how to sort the good from the bad. But you must take it a step further. And then when you share your well-researched tree on Ancestry you can feel good about your work and know that anyone who copies your tree will have an accurate source of information only you can provide.