Genealogical Ponderings

the Professional Family History Blog

Professional Family History Blog
  1. Public or Private Family Tree?


    I’ve found the opportunity recently to spend some time actually working on my own research and it’s led me to revisit the old debate: to have or not to have a public family tree?

    Many of the websites offer the opportunity to upload or create a family tree. There are many reasons you may want to do this. Some use this service simply as a repository for their research.

    Some use the “hints” or “matches” with record sets on the websites to expand their family tree. The most well known of these are the “shaking green leaves” on Ancestry. These come with their own inaccuracies and do not take away the need for thorough and proper research (a blog post in its own right).

    Another reason you might want your family tree online is to share your research or provide the ability for others researching the same families as you to get in touch.

    Most websites offer “private” or “public” versions for your family tree. A typical public tree entry in search results is shown below (tree owner information removed):

    Details on an individual in a public tree

    Some “private” trees let names appear in searches but require contact with you to get access to your full family tree:

    Limited information appears in search results for a private tree

    What’s your preference?

    When I first started out, long before thoughts of “going professional”, I happily uploaded everything I’d found to Ancestry in the hope of making contact with distant cousins (many other websites now offer this facility).

    However, I look back and wonder at my naivety. I made contact with people, who confirmed a connection. In most cases we would share information and hopefully add to each other’s research. However, some people, who’d done very little for themselves, just helped themselves to everything I’d done! I still see examples of this now in others’ public family trees, the wording from our family Bible gives it away. I was most put out; it was ME who’d spent hours on that research and ME who’d spent lots of money on certificates proving things and it was just being taken. Was I wrong to feel hard done by? Was I not entering the spirit of sharing? What threw me the most was that my whole tree was being copied, not just the part related by blood to the individual of interest. Surely, that’s not quite right? Was I being too precious? Is family history not a collaborative affair? Should we not be thinking in terms of free and fair exchange of information?

    For years since then I’ve only had the “partially private” option. I like to have something out there, so the names of my ancestors appear in searches, but I await contact before sharing any more detail.

    I can’t talk about about online family trees without mentioning accuracy. Let’s be frank: there are a LOT of mistakes! I recently found the same couple, who were born in Cambridgeshire, originating from both Cornwall and Yorkshire, popping to Cambridgeshire to have one child and then returning to their place of origin to have the rest of their family. I’ve Birmingham family in the back to backs who apparently popped to the US to get married WHILST having children in Brum. I’m sure you have similar tales. So then it occurred to me, wouldn’t it be better if all the “right” trees were public too, to increase the likelihood of it being the correct information that was copied from tree to tree to tree? Is that not what we should be doing?

    The key to my recent dilemma however, is DNA testing. This is potentially fantastic tool for genealogist, but can only perform to its true potential with collaboration and sharing of data. So now I’m finding myself looking at DNA matches who, for whatever reason, have chosen to keep their tree private. The shoe is most definitely on the other foot now.

    Do I go public?

    What do you think?

    7 thoughts on “Public or Private Family Tree?

    1. Helen Wright

      I’ve done the research. I’m not going to publish anything I’m not happy with.

      I’d rather my research was out there for people to see and (perhaps)compare with their own data (or data they’ve siphoned up with elsewhere).

      I publish a public tree, and am happy to do so. Less happy about people who do DNA testing and don’t make a tree available, but that’s their choice and equally valid.

    2. Tony Proctor

      I don’t see much use for Private trees. If the provider offers enough options for privacy of selected individuals and of material, and built-in attribution of images (yes it’s possible), and a “tentative” flag where you have something visible that you’re not certain about, then I don’t see the need. At least with desktop programs (as opposed to online trees), you have the security of knowing that the provider won’t “fold up” and lose everything.

      Public trees are good for making connections, whether by DNA or hints, but are they what we want? My relatives want something they can read — not just trees — and not something they need to subscribe for. Even other researchers that are in my contacts want more than a tree with just electronic bookmarks to online census and parish records held by the same provider; they want to see ALL my sources cited (even ones in real archives), and some explanation when the case is not obvious.

      I’m actually working on a different option: hosting the trees myself. It solves a lot of my gripes, but I would still need a skeleton online tree with one of those providers for any DNA matching. Sigh ….!

    3. Linda Newey

      I always take what I find with a pinch of salt on public trees, they should all carry the caveat ‘check your sources’. I must admit to treating my public trees a bit like fishing….the shaking Ancestry leaf acting like a fish caught in the canal! However, such ‘fish’ I then scrutinise in order to identify and verify. I have unpublished trees for research which is incomplete, and not robust enough for sharing. I’m always humbled by the generosity of strangers when it comes to genealogy…..from those tireless transcribers or 9th cousins thrice removed sharing their life’s work. However, regarding those who glean genealogical information regardless, they obviously miss the point….size does not matter….quality does, so however grand a family tree seems, it’s of little merit if it is simply copied and contains errors. And just like fishing, it’s the thrill of your own chase and discoveries that can’t be beaten….I’d rather have the satisfaction of completing or verifying my own research, than blindly using or copying someone else’s.
      So I would say on the balance, go Public….although I would welcome a discussion on how this impacts on the use of DNA.

    4. Marguerite Williams

      Absolutely,I have certain information on my tree which I know to be 100% accurate,yet other trees that have some of the same relatives continue to copy the same wrong information from one another,I have tried to contact people to put them on the right track and they don’t alter their trees so I don’t bother any more,I know for a fact they my great grandfather deserted his family and ran away abroad,he was never heard of in this country again yet there are loads of public trees that have his death on them, because it’s the only record with that name that they can find so people just assume it’s him,totally wrong.

    5. Christina

      For years I kept my tree private because I got tired of people being rude when pointing out errors. My tree is a work in progress, I fully admit there are things there that I have not verified. If there isn’t any documentation to back something up, assume I haven’t had a chance to verify some detail I was given. I don’t mind suggestions if they’re helpful, but to tell me I’m an idiot in the first contact is just rude.

      But, then I did my DNA and now I want my tree to be public so I can make connections. I’ve added notes in my profile that explicitly explain that any errors are just things I haven’t had time to verify yet. So far, so good.

    6. Christine Wibberley

      I always kept my own tree private till I had an Ancestry DNA test and I now have a public tree and a private tree having been very annoyed by people who have no public tree or just a couple of generations

    7. Carole McIntyre

      I appreciate the views already given. My trees are public and I like collaborating with distant cousins. True, there are many trees with errors, but the opportunity to help correct them can open up some good connections. Being polite and including sources in our efforts to correct mistakes should be a standard. I am sure there must be blogs out there about good manners among researchers. Thankfully, my contacts with others have all been positive so far, of those who have responded. Corrections are not always made, however.
      DNA has changed the perception of many about public versus private trees. It has been very helpful to me to find public trees with DNA connections. Our joint efforts to cement relationships have clarified my findings.
      My question is, why private? The trees are about people long deceased, their information is available to the public to find in archives or other sources; so why withhold our findings?
      I once ran into a couple who had done many years of dedicated work on their ancestors. They told me that as soon as they had finished (I don’t know what they meant by that), they would destroy all their work. They wanted others to do the work for themselves. Hopefully they have thought better of that since.


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