Why Don’t People Post Public Family Trees?

by Kerry Scott on 25 March 2014

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I recently wrote a post on finding Ancestry trees for DNA cousins. In it, I mentioned that I don’t have a public family tree, and I don’t plan to have one in the foreseeable future. Reader Dan asked why I felt that way, and what the consequence would be if everyone refused to have a public family tree.

Here’s what I think the consequence would be:

  1. Some of us would have a tougher time doing research.
  2. Most of us would be WAY better off.

Here’s the thing: Some people have family circumstances that prevent them from having a public tree. Years ago, I wrote a post on why genealogy is so hard for people from screwed up families (and I mean REALLY screwed up, not Aunt-Mabel-gets-drunk-at-Thanksgiving-and-makes-racist-remarks screwed up). That post is nearly four years old, and it’s still the genealogy post that generates the most reader email. Some people can’t have a public tree, because that public tree would show that their still-living grandparent cheated on his spouse, and the still-living kids are actually half-siblings, and also these other people here have no idea that their own parent was a cheater with another child. Or, it might show someone that they’ve found their long-lost cousin…only that long-lost cousin got lost on purpose, because her still-living uncle raped her when she was four and she doesn’t want to be in touch with him or his family. Maybe you feel these sorts of secrets should be outed, but the fact is, the people living with them have to get through the day, and they might just not be ready for that. Nobody owes you a family tree, just because you don’t know the reason they’re not sharing doesn’t mean that no good reason exists. 

Roberta Estes writes the DNA eXplained blog, and her post on this topic is, in my view, the definitive work on why we need to lighten up on people who can’t or won’t share. It’s geared toward people who are upset over DNA matches who won’t collaborate, but it applies equally to sharing trees and other genealogy-related information. If I am ever crowned Queen of the World, every genealogist will be required to read that post twice. 

For people with these kinds of issues, genealogy can be especially challenging. If you have the luxury of having no major impediments to sharing with everyone who’s related to you, be grateful. Lots of folks wish they could share their research, collaborate, see photos of branches they never knew…but they can’t. If you’re providing a public family tree, you’re helping those people. Good for you. Without your generosity, genealogy would be tough for the folks who do this because they have screwed up families, and can only quietly sneak around looking for the stuff they need.

On the flip side, lots of people have relatively normal families and no dark, ugly reason why they can’t connect with cousins. In those cases, why not have a public tree? I’ve never tried this, but I’ve always wondered what the motivation for creating a public tree would be. If everything’s out in the open, why would cousins ever contact you? Don’t they just take what they need and move on? Is the point to avoid interaction with the cousins?

I feel like this is a lot like passing out candy on Halloween. I have a neighbor who just puts a huge vat of candy out, and people are supposed to take the candy themselves. They grab a handful, they walk away, and there’s no interaction whatsoever. For me, that would be a huge bummer, because interacting with the kids is the fun part. I love seeing their costumes, telling them they look awesome, and letting them pick out their favorite candy. I like talking to the parents and saying hi to the folks I know. The human contact is the whole reason I buy the candy.

That’s why I like private trees; they mean that the cousin has to actually contact you. Perhaps I’ve just been extraordinarily lucky, but nearly all of my genealogy cousin contacts have been positive. I like talking to them. If I left all my goodies out in a bowl, I would have missed out on meeting some great people. I think the quality of many of the trees out there would be improved if we had to actually talk to one another.

What do you think? Do you have a public or a private tree? Has your view on this issue changed over time?

 Photo by wwarby


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Confession: I Hate Free Genealogy Stuff

by Kerry Scott on 14 March 2014

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