The Dangers of Internet Genealogy



Old Herts


Computers make Genealogy easier - or do they? Some time ago there has been an extensive exchange of messages on soc.genealogy.computing entitled "How the Internet will hurt future researchers." The problem is that while computers make it easier to do things there is a price. Computers make it even easier to widely disseminate errors, as the examples in the following posting by Richard A. Pence show.

How the Internet will hurt future researchers

Barney Tyrwhitt-Drake wrote:

> I must take issue with you over this point. I think you are speaking from the heart more than the head!

> A transcriber is a transcriber no matter what device they use to record their text. Using a pen or a typewriter or a keyboard, we can all get tired, bored, silly, or just have a bad day. All good transcription projects will build into them the means to check and cross-check data entries, no matter what the original method of transcription.

> However, a well-constructed computer-based data entry program has a number of advantages that can be built into it, that manual methods cannot match. For example:

> [good points snipped]

Barney, as usual, is correct. But only in the abstract, not in the real world of what is actually happening.

Fifteen years ago when my book Computer Genealogy was published, one of the "rewards" was the opportunity to travel to national and state genealogy conferences to "preach the hi-tech" gospel to the unwashed - and downright fearful - masses. At every stop along the way, I was confronted with such remarks as, "You aren't really going to use a computer to do your genealogy, are you?" This reflected an older generation's real-world experiences. When your bank statement gets fouled up, the "computer did it." If your credit card bill is snafued, "the computer did it."

I tried to point out, as Barney does, that the computer wasn't creating the genealogies, it was merely a tool. If you will, "a better ball-point," How many times, I would ask, have you heard, "The ball-point pen did it?"

Now that I managed to get older - and I suppose that's a part of it - I am beginning to believe the critics had the right idea!

It is true, as Barney says, that if you properly use all of the safeguards that the computer affords you, your database will be accurate - probably more accurate than any ever constructed without it.

The problem is that I see no evidence that these fail-safes are being used. As a matter of fact, the evidence I see is that these built-in error checks are either being deliberately disabled or deliberately ignored. There is no other way to account for the dozens, probably of hundreds or thousands of electronic databases that have children born before their fathers were born or children born after their mothers died.

And what is possible with the computer was never possible before: The error can be copied and reproduced with no effort at all. And, as a matter of fact, so far this appears to be the biggest contribution of computers to genealogy: The ability to mass-produce errors - most of it done for the instant gratification of adding "another three generations" to our databases.

This mountain of genealogical trash is growing at an alarming rate.

An example. Way back in 1935 a lady did a genealogy in which it was stated that one Michael Pence fell into the Ohio River and drowned while trying to cross it on Christmas Day in 1807. When the records to his estate were subsequently discovered in the court house, it was clear that Michael died not in 1807, but in 1799.

Fortunately, few copies of the book were printed so only a few people copied the mistake. Unfortunately, even fewer people knew about the court house records. So about three years ago someone submitted a family tree to WFT in which the date of Michael Pence's death is given as 25 Dec 1807. Almost every CD produced by WFT since then has this false information in it. Add to that the myriad websites with this same error. It would be an almost full-time job just sweeping up this one erroneous digitized vital record! (I leave aside the question as to why none of the perpetrators of this error consider it important, or even necessary, to check the court house.)

Or consider the cemetery listing I happened onto last year. My wife has a great grandfather and a great great grandfather buried in it, so I took a look. What I discovered is that not only did the database repeat the error that was in the published version of the cemetery with respect to her g-g-grandfather - it created a new error in transcribing the information on her great grandfather. One cemetery on the net. Two ancestors. Two totally wrong entries.

So in the abstract, Barney is absolutely right. The computer can not only make the job of genealogy easier, it can make our work more accurate.

Then why in the heck aren't we doing it?!


Richard A. Pence


There is a lesson here. If you want to produce a sound genealogy, checking against the original records is essential - simply linking together index entries is not enough. Care should also be taken of how information provided on the net is used. Unless you know that it has been properly researched, with sources checked and quoted, you should treat it with caution.


For a detailed case study see The Myth of Stanstead Abbey

Even I get things wrong see How errors in Family History information can happen for a real example of how I ended up with errors in my own database.

Page updated January 2006