Would We All Be Better Genealogists if We Just Got Rid of Trees? Wisdom Wednesday

Oh, I’m serious.  Think of a world where you do genealogy without every creating a family tree.

No tree on Ancestry.com or in Family Tree Maker or whatever your most beloved software or online source is.  Nope.  Never.

Trees are Boring.

Have you ever tried showing a family tree to someone in your family?  What was the reaction?  Was it “this is awesome” or was it “uh, huh.”    The names are meaningless unless you know them.  People like pictures.  People like stories.  There are no visible stories in a family tree.  And the pictures are usually teeny tiny.

Trees are boring
Trees are boring

Everybody else’s trees are full of nonsense/garbage/errors

“If only everyone kept a tree like mine!”  HA! (Not mine personally.  I have tons of stuff to clean up. 🙂 ) The amount of time that gets wasted by those of us in the genealogy community worrying about everybody else’s trees and how many errors and what not are in them, well, we’d get a lot more genealogy done if we weren’t doing that.  And seriously, why do we care?  Just because someone puts a mistake in a tree doesn’t mean you have to believe it.  Or put it in your own tree.  And your ancestor’s are still your ancestors.  And the facts of their lives are still the facts of their lives.  Bad trees don’t change that.

Trees are really just a handy place to hang a record or image

We have no idea why anyone puts any given fact in a tree.  They might attach a record.  But you still have to go look at it and guess that person’s thoughts.  I’d rather not. I’m guessing 99.9999% of all trees do not have attached proof summaries and discussions of why they are entering the data they are entering.  Attached sources are just documents.  They may or may not be evidence of some question that we don’t know.

It’s all about the story.  The emotion.  The picture.

Have you every picked up an interesting lineage? Or some summary of a person or families life and been totally caught up in it?  Made that emotional connection?  Got the chills from a picture?  Because that is what we are after.  Right?  Telling the story.  Making people come back to life.  Honoring those that came before us.  Boxes with lines and a name and a birth date don’t do that.

What if, instead of building trees, we wrote lineages or stories? 

Back away from the tree.  Pick your favorite ancestral couple, and document their life and family.  Include sources and narratives.  And then start working back.  I bet you think it through a whole lot more.   I bet you avoid silly errors and have a better understanding of the people.

Then go show that to someone.  Will you get a “this is awesome” or an “uh, huh” ?

I have come to the point where I truly believe that a tree is not the end goal.  It’s  a  “paint by numbers” genealogy tool if you will.  I want something more than that for my ancestors.


10 comments on “Would We All Be Better Genealogists if We Just Got Rid of Trees? Wisdom Wednesday”
  1. jacqistevens says:

    Absolutely, Anne. You know I’m with you on that one!

    Although…if I ever show someone my family tree and get a “This is awesome!” response, at least I know I’ve just found someone who speaks my language. 🙂

    1. Jacqi, given the amount of writing you do as you sort through your genealogy, I am not surprised. And your musings and stories are a lot easier to follow!

  2. Lorraine Blount Peckham says:

    No matter what I have,if they are not into genealogy like I am,I will still get a Huh?

  3. I am right there with you. I am trying to figure out a new way to record information and catalogue all my records, photographs, etc. Haven’t worked it out yet though…

  4. You know, I never thought about this before because the family tree (my trusty paper and pencil pedigree 🙂 ) wasn’t my end goal to present to the family (cause it’s BORING! LOL), but just a reference tool when I couldn’t remember a date or location. I always intended to use the research to create stories about the lives of our ancestors; that was the part I wanted to share with the fam. But I never seemed to be able to stop researching and just WRITE. The family history writing challenge is really helping me explore different ways of writing, and though it’s been tough, it’s exactly the challenge I needed to nudge me over to writing. It’s also helping me see where I need to do more research. Thanks for posting this! Now I don’t feel bad about not using a family tree program on my computer (I’ve tried, it’s just no fun), nor do I expect I ever will.

  5. Jana Last says:

    I have to admit I like having my family tree AND my family stories as well. I’m a visual learner, so my family tree helps me see who’s connected to who. I like having the family stories to bring those names on the tree to life. Thanks Anne, for this interesting food for thought.

  6. Very innovative approach, and definitely great advice for those looking for a more in depth approach for their research.

  7. Alex says:

    I like trees as an organizational tool. There is nothing worse than a poorly written narrative where someone tries to explain who’s related to whom. You sometimes have to diagram the relationships yourself to make sense out of what people are trying to say. Lack of fact checking and citing sources is also a pervasive problem.

  8. Jeff Ford says:

    I think that all of us want the same thing for our ancestors. However, sometimes it is all that we can do for them. Other than some broad generalities, there is nothing we can do for some of them.

  9. I like this. “Back away from the tree.” Put your hands up! Now! Don’t make a move!

    It does seem to me that people can make a fetish out of the statistics on a family tree. And I like the idea that a tree is mainly a place to hang a photo. (Just like Christmas.) And I absolutely agree that it’s all about the story, and the actual living and breathing people who were our ancestors, and what went on during their lives and inside their heads.

    There’s only one point at which I’d say, “Hey, wait a minute.” Because, dates and places? These situate our ancestors in history. We know a little better what circumstances they were dealing with. We can create more informed and more vivid speculations about their thoughts and feelings. So, a tree may be only deep background, I agree with you there. But I’d hate to go without a tree entirely.

    Good, provocative post and original thought! Really enjoyed it.

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