How to Use Ancestry.com's Public Member Trees Wisely

Posted August 15, 2015

Among the many resources Ancestry.com offers, a little gem exists that serious genealogists may overlook. The collection, titled “Public Member Trees,” utilizes the thousands of individual efforts of its subscribers and compiles them into a searchable database. While these on-line trees can offer valuable information, a prudent family historian must exercise care in using them. This article will briefly explain this resource, as well as offer a few suggestions on the most efficient ways to use this tool to expand your own tree.

There are two types of user-submitted trees on Ancestry.com. One is “Private Member Trees,” which is closed to the public. To access these, one must email the creator of the work through the site’s anonymous messaging service. Presently, this discussion will center on the public trees, their authors having chosen to make available their work to other Ancestry.com members.

Among the leafy hints at the top of your member homepage, you will probably find a link to one or more “Ancestry Member Trees.” When you click on the link, it will open a comparison display with the other members’ trees on the left, and yours on the right. This juxtaposition allows you to examine the other trees and by clicking on a tree, you may peruse the sources they used. Now, before you go crazy clicking and adding to your tree what may seem like a jackpot of information, consider the following tips to minimize your chances of copying erroneous information.

Tip #1 - DO NOT use another’s research as a substitute for your own! This is very important.

Tip #2 - DO carefully examine only the best and most legitimate-looking trees. The results are listed according to the number of sources it contains. They are ranked chronologically, beginning with the most heavily sourced trees. Try to pick only the first two or three to study.

Tip #3 - ALWAYS go straight to any source cited in a Public Member Tree.  Whether it is an image of a death certificate, birth certificate or census page, you must evaluate it yourself. Only this way can you be sure the information is true and correct, and pertinent to your research. It is not uncommon for flawed “evidence” in one tree to infect other trees through the failure of individual researchers to personally vet data before adding it to their own.

Tip #4 - DO contact the original poster of the tree if you have questions about it through the anonymous Ancestry.com system mentioned above. It’s a great way to network with others researching your line. It’s always possible you can give each other a boost over that proverbial brick wall!

Tip #5 - DO NOT ever, ever use another member’s photographs in any publication you may be working on without their express written permission. While you may download images to your online tree, it is a copyright violation to redistribute images owned by another.

Tip #6 - At the risk of repeating myself, DO NOT use another’s research as a substitute for your own!

In reality, Ancestry.com’s Public Member Trees should only be used by serious genealogists to assist in overcoming an obstacle. In fact, if you are an Ancestry.com subscriber, this should be one of the first tools you use if, say, you can’t find out what your great-great-great-great-grandmother’s maiden name was. Chances are, somebody else’s tree will not only point you in the right direction, it may very well provide you a source (or sources) to legitimize the new information.

Happy hunting!

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