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New FamilySearch: Depending Upon The Kindness of Strangers

FamilySearch is a free online genealogy database that has been around for a number of years. It is undergoing a major overhaul. The free database is not yet available to everyone but Judy Rosella Edwards shares her experience as one of the early users and offers advice on how to prepare for using the new system.


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New FamilySearch (NSF) mis great – and not so great. The greatest part is the vastly improved search engine. Plus, there are great tools for perfecting the data collection.

The not so great part is that NFS means work. It also means a chance to stop complaining and fix the errors. That's where the kindness of strangers comes into play.

The New FamilySearch is a compilation of five databases that have been around for a while. Ancestral File is still there, along with all the errors and duplicates. The Ancestral File consists of donated data and FamilySearch does not have the time or the staff to perfect all the human errors that came along with it.

NFS combined that data with the Church Membership Records database, the International Genealogical Index, the Pedigree Resource File, and the International Genealogical Index. Again, all the human-generated errors came along with them.

Naturally, this created duplicate records for anyone who was in two or more of those original databases. Add to that the duplicates that existed in each of those five databases.

So What Good Is It?

The goal is to connect everyone in the world who has ever lived. A ton of good data and accurate family lineages do exist in NFS. It is not necessary for every person who discovers the world of genealogy to start from scratch. Wouldn't it be great if your grandchildren discovered a database that was accurate, complete, and extensively documented?

So What Kind of Work Do We Need to Do?

The first step is to resolve the duplicates. As genealogists, we have the insight necessary to do that.

No doubt the duplicates and errors came about largely because of family researchers who accepted someone else's misinterpretation or because they lacked the skill required to realize practical genealogy. It takes most of us a try or two before we start doing the math and establish that great-grandma probably did not have a child when she was 72 years old and we are really looking at a grandchild or even a nephew!

Other duplicates arise when users add a relative without realizing they are already in the database. This possibility still exists in New FamilySearch, but so does a clever tool for eliminating duplicates without losing related data. In their brilliance, NFS added the ability to unmerge individuals and send their respective original data back to their own records.

Where Do I Start?

The first step is to eliminate duplicates. It sounds a little easier than it is. If you have used the original FamilySearch, or any of the five databases in NFS, then you may have seen some of the convoluted lineages that cannot possibly be correct.

Primary sources are at the heart of genealogy. They take precedence over Aunt Polly's stories and Uncle Jimmy's beautifully bound family history that lacks a stick of evidential citation.

The most practical way to begin is to do what you should already be doing: cite the sources. Before you even consider combining individuals and even before you compare them in anticipation of combining them, cite the data.

As soon as you commit to doing that, you will immediately discover numerous records with missing or incomplete dates. We all live and die. We all live and die in a specific place. Then we are buried. We may marry. We may join a church.

Your goal should be to find all of those dates and cite your sources. That alone will make the process of combining individuals much simpler.

Why Bother?

Because NFS provides you with the ability to cite your sources, proving your case. No longer do you need to be frustrated that someone else claims his or her information is correct but can't prove it. No longer do we need to rely on claims without knowing if the dates were copied wrong, or the names spelled incorrectly. With sources, we have some assurance that the information is valid. Better yet, we can go to those sources and see for ourselves that, even though the transcribers thought the census said Selman Severe, it is true that Gilman Severe was in that 1860 U.S. Federal Census for Illinois.

Not only can we reduce the duplicates, we can also share the proof. Along the way, we can save each other a lot of time. It takes hours, perhaps even months, to find Gilman Severe when his name has been transcribed wrong. We can't fix the census. We may not be able to convince someone to correct their transcription of it. However, we can cite our evidence in NFS, and even include a note explaining why we believe our interpretation is correct.

What Do I Do First?

The unfortunate news is that New FamilySearch is not available to the general public. It is being rolled out systematically.

When public access is available, you will have the option of uploading GEDCOM formatted data for individuals not in the five original databases, and who have not yet been added to NFS. Before you upload, make sure you have cited your sources. That will provide you with criteria for fine-tuning existing data rather than risk creating a duplicate. Without cited sources like birth and death certificates, you are guessing, just like the person who created the existing duplicates.

As soon as you do have access, create a birth and death date for each of your relatives already in the system. Cite where each person's birth certificate and death certificates are on file.

You can add a large number of other items, in addition to creating your own fields for additional information. For each birth, list the date and place and cite where the information is on file. I recommend including the volume and page of ledgers, or the birth certificate number. Typically these are on file in circuit clerk's offices in the United States.

Many people are christened. Document when each person was christened and in what church. The christening is a religious ceremony that occurs sometime after the birth. In some cases, not until a year or more afterward. This is useful information because it is evidence that the family probably lived in the neighborhood of that church at the time of the christening, or they returned to a church where their family was traditionally christened.

We know people die but a death certificate is the only real proof. My husband's grandfather had his own obituary published along with all the usual funeral service details, as a joke, years before he died. Knowing that, I don't put a lot of stock in obituaries.

I do look for death certificates. They are usually on file at the circuit clerk's office in the United States. A death certificate will also list cause of death. There is not currently a field in NFS for cause of death, but the database is designed so you can create that field for any individual and provide the information.

There is a field for burials. Include the cemetery, town or township, county, state, and country, in addition to the date of the burial. If the burial date doesn't fall within a few days after the date on the death certificate, then you are looking at two different individuals.

The burial date can come from the headstone, keeping in mind sometimes the date is wrong. It can also come from the funeral home records. Plus, cemetery plots are real estate. There will be property deed for the cemetery plot. If the plot was not purchased until 20 years after the death date, then either the person's remains were moved or they were pulling a prank like my husband's ancestor.

While we are on the subject, include notes if a person's remains were moved. I grew up near the transformation of the Kaskaskia River into Lake Shelbyville. That project involved moving several small cemeteries. And, then there are times when people move someone's remains for any number of reasons.

The NFS database does include a field for cremations. A created person does not always have a burial place. If you know they were cremated, it is highly possible there was never a headstone and never a cemetery plot purchased. Their name will not appear in a cemetery transcription. So, save everyone some time and include cemetery notations, along with a note clarifying if there was no burial location.

After death, there may also be a will. There is a field for including the date and place where the will was read.

In between birth and death, there may be at least one marriage. There will be a marriage certificate proving the date of the marriage, along with at least the county, state, and country. Cite that. Document the marriage certificate number or other proof such as which ledger it was filed in and where.

That certificate traditionally lists the bridge and groom and who gave them permission to marry. Usually that permission was given by at least one of their parents. In my great-grandmother's case, it was her uncle. I know that because his name is written on the certificate, along with his relationship to her, providing yet another piece of evidence that he is a relative. Some marriage certificates document ethnicity.

Why Do We Have To Do All The Work?

We have always done this work, or at least most of it. The vast majority of information you find in genealogy databases has been done by volunteers, often family members.

We have also been quick to criticize when it is less than perfect. "It" is us.

This is our time to shine as perceptive genealogists. We devote ourselves to reliable genealogy. Here is our chance to practice our skills.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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