Everybody is entitled to pursue a hobby like genealogy the way he or she wants to.

A lot of genealogist also know: “Genealogy without proof is Mythology.” (attributed to Mary L. Henke)

With this being said: I am a member of a genealogy message board. After I spent a significant amount of time there, I can say with some confidence: There is a noticeable shift away from quality genealogical research towards something else. No sources, uncritical transfer from online trees as the main component of someone’s “research”, an uncritical approach to own research results – just to name a few problems.

This phenomenon has partly always been there, but by now it is so widespread, that examples of low quality research create the impression that this is the way genealogy is done.

What can I do as a frequent user to encourage higher standards in such a setting (without ending up like this)?

  • 1
    This is more of a discussion point than a question with a direct answer. I recently showed that a person was unrelated to a particular historical character, and that her online tree (and of her family members -- all copied) was wrong. There were zero sources on those trees, but the person seemed blissfully unaware of the importance of sources (let alone citing them) and that you have to show something to be correct rather than just saying it, or suggesting someone else said it. As I've written recently, a large part of the blame for this belongs with "commercial genealogy".
    – ACProctor
    Dec 3, 2016 at 13:50

4 Answers 4


I appreciate your question. Recently I’ve begun looking into the types of questions being asked in genealogy message board type situations and the quality of answers.

In today’s world many people expect quick answers/solutions, especially when seeking information online. Commercial and non-profit genealogy cater to this.

Too many of the responses I see on Facebook genealogy groups are more about showing support than teaching a person to be a better family historian/genealogist or answering the question. This group is unique, and the best example I’ve found to illustrate what should be done. This system has functionality that others like RootsWeb and Facebook don’t provide. Additional functionality might help but there are some specific ideas I am investigating elsewhere that can be done with existing, low quality tools.

  1. Always ask for clarification of what the real goal is. (A person may be looking for an English immigrant to the United States in the 1850s but if what they want to learn is the immigrant’s birthplace there may be better alternatives.)
  2. Find out if they have an online family tree, if not suggest they create one. This is to help the helpers see what is known and do a better analysis of the problem. It also provides an opportunity and place to encourage documentation of information.
  3. Help them learn basics like, “Kill off your ancestor” or “start from the most recent event and work back in time” or “the best source for new information is your old information”.
  4. Teach don’t just point. (Apprenticeship records may be the number one option for a specific query but it probably needs a little more clarification than a link to Ancestry or Findmypast.)
  5. Model the behavior. (If we share tips and help more people have success following higher standards those practices should become more common.)

I think the single best thing that you can do to help the situation is to divert your own efforts towards helping those who research with rigour, and away from those who just accept anything that they find in someone else's tree.

That message board will have a similar (but highly exacerbated) problem to the tension we have here between accepting low enough quality questions to keep questions flowing while striving to maintain the highest quality questions possible.

If you find users there who want to improve their rigour then I am hoping you can liberally sprinkle links to useful Q&As from here that may assist them to find a home for their questions on a more rigorous site.


I agree, modeling the behavior you want to see is a good place to start. I also like to share sources that the other researcher does not yet have, especially if it expands what they currently know about their ancestor/relative. I have also noticed that for a few individuals, there is a tendency to information hoarding which seems counter to the idea of quality research.

Again, modeling generosity is the way to respond. If I can find a source, they can too. I'm just saving the person research time and potentially opening more doors for further information.


It's an interesting observation. I too started out thinking "all this genealogy stuff is easy, so many online trees to just link to my own."

It's only when I found out how unreliable even living witnesses can be when it comes to names and dates that I decided to base all my research on facts. So I started requesting birth/death/marriage certificates for everyone in my family tree. That alone has cleared up a number of false information and brought to light new and interesting facts that no-one in my family knew (like my great-great grandmother being adopted!).

I think people sometimes don't realize that doing all the hard work of documenting all facts with sources will ultimately benefit them in being sure that what they pass on to others is verifiably true.

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