Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The wiki-ness of Family Search

  The collection of genealogical names and data found in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints electronic vaults is staggering. According to the church website, over a billion people can be found through the FamilySearch.org website.
  I must be related to several million of them, if my recent work on the New.FamilySearch.org website (often abbreviated “nFS”) is any indication. Because anyone can add names to the church’s genealogical records, the nFS website reveals a Wikipedia of humanity collected for over 100 years with tremendous accuracy problems.
  For those who are not familiar with Wikipedias, they are collections of information supplied by anyone with an internet connection (called wikis for short), and they are often wrong, misleading, or biased toward one perspective.
  The worst example in my family, for example, is a living relative listed as dead on nFS – somebody entered his marriage date as his death date, and submitted it to the church. I know marriage can be the end of a lifestyle, but it’s not the same as dying.
  The bigger problem, however, appears to be the massive amount of duplication in the records. Many of my relatives have had their names submitted to the church records and had temple ordinances completed for them several times over.
  It’s not uncommon, for example, to find someone who has been baptized 15 or more times by different people in different temples around the world. Frequently these temple ordinances are performed with identical names, dates, and places.
  This is not news to the church – one of the key features of the nFS programming is that individuals can combine records of duplicate individuals. Yet in this wiki world, anyone can combine any nFS records without paying attention to important details.
  For example, I found a parent combined into a single identity with a junior, a child with the same name as his father. I find genealogical trees that are twisted into vines so confusing it will take a thousand years just to unwind them – if it can even be done.
  Someone on nFS has combined one of my family lines with a similar family that we’ve proven not to be related – yet for the eternities, it seems, we are now linked into the other family. This wiki-esque chain may result in our true ancestral line never being researched further.
  nFS does contain means of disputing results, but given the sloppiness of other work submitted there, it’s unlikely many people will go through the effort of correcting this kind of error – besides, beyond the last 200 years, it’s unlikely that clarifying data will be found.
  Part of the wiki-ness inaccuracy in nFS is the wide variety of naming methods used. Some users submit names with abbreviations, middle names, middle initials, and, of course, the many variant spellings of names. Each of these variants appears to be a different individual.
  To complicate the matter, notes appear in name fields including information like “twin” or “Captain”. Because they are in the name fields, these appear as additional variants of the name.
  At first I thought the many variants resulted from different people who were not collaborating on their research, but that’s not always true. Apparently some church members believe that a separate temple ordinance must be performed for each variant, as often they are from the same source.
  The result is 16 separate baptisms would be performed for Mary Potter, Marie Potter, Maryann Potter, and Mary Ann Potter, with birthdates differing by only a single digit – even though they are all one person. When you complicate the records with larger inaccuracies, the possibilities become exponentially more confusing.
  Because the church genealogical records are a wiki of humanity, there is no way to control the massive duplication and inaccurate combining of records. It begs the question – if there are a billion names in the nFS system, and say nine out of every 10 names is a variant or duplication, are there really only 100 million people?
  New Family Search began operating in countries and stakes far from the center of the church several months ago – but is now (or soon will be) released to stakes in Utah and surrounding areas. As the millions of members at the heart of the church begin wiki-ing their way onto nFS, the records may get less accurate.
  Despite its flaws, nFS has allowed me to expand my genealogical family by leaps and bounds. Hundreds of names have been added to my family in just days of work. I only wish I could know if they are truly related, what the correct spelling of their names is, and which of their important dates is accurate.
(KWH8-T4Z is my New Family Search person identification number.)