Entering information directly onto Ancestry.com is often frustrating with the occasional stab of fright. While the site does offer unprecedented access to millions of transcribed records, the way it handles that information is unpredictable and sometimes scary. For the purposes of this article, I’m not going to address the misapplication of Marriage and Marriage License dates (bugs me), Birth and Baptism dates (really bugs me), and the site’s inexplicable desire to create multiple instances of the same marriage within the same record (really, really bugs me). Today, I just want to talk about sourcing. Sources, for the uninitiated, are the blocks upon which family history projects are built. Without good, reliable, detailed, and verifiable sources, all you have is a jumble of names and dates that may or may not be true. Ancestry.com is brimming with these “junk trees”, Frankenstein-like projects cobbled together from the parts of other trees. The site makes it easy to import information from others’ trees regardless of whether they’re supported by good research. These unsourced projects are like Red Light Districts. They’re interesting to look at, but if you get too close you’re going to catch something. Which brings me back to sourcing, the cornerstone of building a vibrant, disease-free tree.
Given that the site prides itself on providing original (i.e., scanned) sources, you would think they would hold the information gleaned from those sources as inviolate. They do not. Each individual’s profile page has a “Edit this person” button. That opens a tabbed page with options for Vital Information, Facts & Events, Relationship Events, Relationships, and Notes. For the purposes of this article, I will be addressing the Name, Birth, and Death facts. There is no point in talking about Marriage facts, because you’re only allowed to have one date, place, and description for a given marriage, even if you’ve found multiple sources for that event. The problems with Name, Birth, and Death sourcing are identical. If you choose “Preferred” for one of these, not only will it overwrite your existing information, but consequently your original source will then be attributed to the updated information. Clear? No? Let me give you an example. Let’s say in an interview with your grandmother she indicated that your uncle’s name was “Joe Bob Smith”. In Ancestry, you can create a source called “Interview: Grandma Smith” and attach that source to your uncle’s name. Later, you find him listed in the Social Security Death Index, but he’s named “Joseph Robert Smith”. Thinking that you’d rather use his full name, you select “Preferred” (instead of “Alternate”) and click OK. Everything good? Not quite. If you click on “Edit this person” and then “More Options…” (to the right of the name fields) you’ll find there are no alternate names, and both the “Social Security Death Index” and “Interview: Grandma Smith” are both attributed to his full name. What did Grandma used to call him? If you don’t have it written down somewhere, it’s gone, because Ancestry assumes that “Preferred” means you don’t care about the other version. That, to me, is scary. I don’t want a research tool that erases my research. A name or date that might not seem important or correct now, might be both.
To confuse matters, if you do have a person with name variations, you can click on “More Options…” and “Make this the preferred name”. This option does not overwrite anything. For this reason, users should ALWAYS use the “Alternate” option when entering new data (e.g., Name, Birth, Death) rather than “Preferred”. It might also be helpful to create an unsourced alternate name, birth, and death fact that incorporates elements from multiple source citations. I guess that’s my take-home message. Remember to use the “Alternate” option, always. You can make it preferred later.