Genealogical Collaboration


 Some tips on how to get the best/most out of a “collaborative” genealogical system and how to do so while building
and maintaining positive relationships with others in the same system.



Collaborative Genealogical Application/System

A (usually web/Internet  based ) genealogical application where potentially millions of users can access and update  a single massive database (usually some sort of family tree database).  The concept of "my database" versus "your database"  does not exist in such a collaborative system.  It is one centrally accessible data store that all users have access to and can normally make updates, additions, corrections to any records in the system.   Any updates by one person to the records in the database  can be seen and  modified by others.  Any one person can directly impact the work of another. There can be various methodologies to ensure (or not) coordination of updates between the many users - depending on the design of each particular system.  

A more detailed discussion of the evolution of siloed vs collaborative efforts  can be found here 


 SOME EXAMPLES of “collaborative genealogical systems” could include sites like

Familysearch Family Tree




Some example of NON collaborative systems

This would include how people did computerized genealogy work before the days of the Internet

Programs like:  PAF, Brothers Keeper and many other similar PC/MAC based programs 

Both collaborative and non-collaborative systems can have their advantages and disadvantages. We will face much less frustration if we pick our use of such systems  for the right reasons and in alignment with our goals and intents.

Also note various programs more recently are more of a hybrid approach- with a local user based database - that then interfaces with a collaborative system like FamilySearch or







When using such databases as FamilySearch Family tree, Findagrave, Wikitree and other similar sites -  be keenly aware of the fact that the system you are using is a collaborative system – and any updates you make can affect other people (for good or bad) who are using the system.  Those "other people" can also impact work you are doing.  A positive synergistic relationship is key. If you consider it to be "your family tree"  (that you want to retain control of ) and if you would be annoyed by other people updating information (that at times may not always agree with your information) - then chances are you should seriously consider a non-collaborative system for your own family tree.  

As you do update information in a collaborative system - please be aware of how such information may impact others  interested in the same persons/records in the database. If, for example, you submit information that you don't have primary sources for (or at least references to primary sources) - you should seriously consider the possibility that the information you are entering could be blatantly erroneous information - and you should consider whether you should submit or not all together.  If you simply "harvested" such info from  databases like Ancestry.,com (which is rife with erroneous info on family trees) - with no thought as to the validity or supporting  evidence for such information -  then you well could be passing on bad information.   Many serious researchers have faced the common scenario of another person "wreaking havoc" on their years of very detailed and carefully proven submissions.   As one simple example:  you may take a book that was published 50 years ago - and see that it has a Spouse for person XYZ - and such a spouse is not recorded in Familysearch.  So with nothing but good intentions you quickly add to the spouse record in FamilySearch. - you feel joyed to have done your part in making the database more complete and you start adding more updates.  The next day you get some irate email from another user saying you are "wreaking havoc" on the years of research and pointing out that they had previously removed the spouse from the database - because their careful research had proven such a person was never even married. in the first place.  This may seem a little extreme - but it actually happens all the time.    

 In your own local non-collaborative database - feel free to enter whatever you want -  but with a collaborative system please consider only updating data that you have at least references to of primary sources.  or at least if you don't have sources - at least point it out that the information is yet to be substantiated.   Do your best to help people see the difference between information (that you have submitted)  that is supported by evidence and that which is not.


(square peg in round hole?)


A collaborative system is often mis-used for purposes it was never intended or designed for in the first place.  Make sure the collaborative system really 
matches your needs/intent.  If what you are intending to do is build some “family tree database” where you consider yourself the “owner” and you want either total or primary control of such family tree data  - a collaborative system may not be the right fit for you.  As one example - people often point out the "seeming"  flaws in the lack of complete family relationship links on Findagrave memorials  (not all children being shown as one example).    But one has to realize Findagrave was never designed in the first place to be a family tree application.  If you are just going in to Findagrave and  just entering family tree data - with a total disregard for grave information - then you are not using the system for what it was designed.   A lack of complete family tree links in findagrave is usually 1) the grave for such a person has not yet been located/entered into the system.  2) If it has been entered the (optional) links to parents/spouses etc has not yet been made.   You can help in establishing these links by submitting edits to the memorial administrators.


 DON'T UNDER-ESTIMATE the power of a "crowd-sourcing system"

Though a collaborative system surely has its weak points and some drawbacks - none the less - be careful of "throwing the baby out with the wash".  Collaborative systems that use "crowd sourcing" have some incredible potential and power.

Take as one simple example:  If I tasked you with the assignment to visit all the grave sites across the country  - for members of the Yancey Family and take photos of their graves, and label such photos with information on the deceased  and then upload such thousands of photos to a web site for all to see - - -You would think I was crazy - even if you spent your entire life doing so  - you would probably never complete the task.   And yet, due to "crowd-sourcing"    Findagrave volunteers across the country - we have just that - a database of over ten thousand graves - most with grave site photos and many with personal/family photos of the deceased.  And its all only a few click away.   This is really nothing less than a miracle.

Collaborative systems allow for massive data gathering way beyond the capacity of one person or even small group of people.

Findagrave now has nearly 20,000 photos posted in relation to the Yancey/Yancy family - no one person or small group  could ever have compiled such a large volume of photographic data.   

Understand more about crowds sourcing - click here.





In my genealogical research I some times find people that seem to be "working in a vacuum"  (even when using collaborative systems) - I've never quite understood this. 

When you are submitting new information to a collaborative system - consider reaching out to others - especially if it is evident there are others in the system who have been working with the same family or genealogical material . 

Take the time to reach to others, get other's opinions and feedback.  Share research results and experiences.

There are plenty of researchers out there - there is no reason for you to re-invent the wheel. 

And working in joint with others you can at least be better equipped to know what information you may be considering submitting is questionable or doubtful or conversely - sound and evidence supported. 




Any collaborative system is going to have some information that you may see as "in error. 

Please consider taking (often very nominal) time in correcting such errors - or  tactfully bringing such errors to the attention of others so they can fix.   The wonderful thing about live collaborative systems is they CAN BE CORRECTED - they are a "living evolving " entity that can be corrected with time and effort.  (this versus a physical genealogy book printing - that is out of date even before it gets through the printing process - and then set in stone - in a format no one can update. )   

Become familiar with how to make updates/corrections to collaborative systems - and be willing to spend some time making things better - other than just putting up your hands and saying the system is not worth using/trusting.

 Nothing in the world of genealogy is without flaws - working together to correct such flaws is a way we can "give back" to the genealogical community.

Click here for more info on "giving back"

Don't judge some collaborative system as if it was some "final product" waiting for you to judge it as to its accuracy and usage.  And least consider the alternate approach - of viewing it all as a "work in progress" - and seeing the potential of it all when many people all work together to make it better. 

A collaborative evolving system - is only as good as the people who use it and improve it - to make it better. 

Any massive central collaborative system will always be a "work in progress"  because it will never be finished and complete - it is only as good as the people using it and making it better day by day.  




As you gather family information from various sources to submit to an online database.  Make sure you aren't just mindlessly gathering  information - without analyzing, comparing, weighing and cross checking it.  Does it jive with already collected information?  Does the information seem reasonable and valid.  If supporting evidence does not immediately come with it - can such supporting evidence be found. 

There are nowadays millions of  primary source materials in the online genealogical world - just a click away - if we make the effort. 

Simply submitting info to an on line system with not even an attempt to verify it  or locate supporting evidence - is a quick path to wreaking havoc on the work of others who have taken the time and effort of quality research.


Simply recording "It came from" or "It came from a GEDCOM"  file  as the source - Just doesn't "cut it".  People will be more frustrated with your "supposed help" than they will be thankful.  

Be an "Analyzer" of information - - not just a "collector/submitter" of information - it will make the world of difference in your long term success.



FIRST IMPRESSIONS.  Maybe surprisingly, maybe not,  this one item – ( how we represent ourselves in both our “first impressions” as well as later interactions  with others in our collaborative work  ) in my humble opinion – is probably one of the biggest factors in whether we face frustration and deadlock or  synergy and progress as we work with others.  Way too many people’s first interactions in collaborative genealogical systems – is their feedback to others – usually pointing out flaws, mistakes and unproven assumptions in something posted.    Sometimes I wish people would just step back and think about what it is like to be on the receiving end of such negative comments being the very first words coming out of a new interaction between two people sharing a system/database.  Just think a little about the psychology of it all – whenever anyone receives an initial negative comment from someone new to them – it is almost always a  turn off and then a shift to defensive mode – and then hard to rectify – even when the relationship had the potential to be a very synergistic positive one.  

I have to admit – I,   just like most of us,  do have the tendency to first focus on something that catches my eye as a total flaw or error and miss all the great work someone has done in their genealogical research.   But I have really tried to step back and  especially with my most critical projects or collaborations – tried to think about how the perception of my initial interactions would be perceived and customize them in a way that would really most benefit the project as a whole.   One, case in point, is my work with Findagrave memorials.   I now administer over 6,000 Findagrave memorials – but truth is I only created about  1/ 3 of that number – the others were memorials I had to ask to be transferred to me –  this coupled with the fact that I am not a direct descendant of nearly all of the memorials I administer  - could have been a very frustrating and unfruitful project to attempt have them transferred to me)  But because I spent the time to really think about my wording and the impression that my request would make – I have been incredibly successful in having Findagrave Memorials transferred to me – when others have often found it a major ordeal and often just “given up”.  

 In my opinion if we want to have success in our interactions and goals with  – especially those for which we are expecting or hoping some action from . – our first words and introduction – should be in a a mode of   gratitude – thanking them for their interest in deceased person “John Doe” –and thanking them for what they have posted or shared  and maybe just sharing something positive about one's connection to the deceased person in question – following up with a question about their connection to the deceased . And all of this without making the person think that what we want to do is point out some error or to “step on their toes” as to who is the best person to administer or make updates to a given record etc.   Once you start with a positive initial interaction – it is soooooo  much easier in a subsequent interaction – even if shortly thereafter – to point out possible errors or other items that may need correcting.  The first words out of your mouth on “out of our keyboard” really can  determine what sort of progress we make.

 First - Thank a person for their interest in the deceased,  ask about the reason for their interest in the deceased, and maybe share something unique or interesting about the deceased.  With this initial positive interaction - you will find it is much more easier to then move on to the discussion of things like discrepancies and flaws in the  family data.

Dont 'Throw the Baby out with the Wash Water"  

I can totally emphasize with the people that come to realize that using Family Search Family Tree as their tool to maintain what they thought was 
"their" (private) family tree database - really was a poor choice  (since it was never designed for that purpose).  However I often feel that way too many people throw the "the baby out with the wash"  when they in stop using Family Search all together. The collaborative database that many systems provide is usually just one slice of a pie that has many slices - each slice having different flavors and ***.   The collaborative database of most on line systems - is often just one cmponent of many diverse tools and resources.

For example Family Search - besides it's collaborative Family Tree database - also has these incredibly useful tools

Access to a Billion name index to primary sources - click here

Access to the Family History Library Catalog - click here

Access to digital versions of books - click here

Access to other Libraries - click here

Access to a massive Image Library - click here

Access to the Research Wiki - click here

Access to Training Videos  - click here

Information about Local Family History Centers - click here

Opportunities for indexing and volunteering and donations - click here

You will find that systems like and others also have similar tools