Public or Private Family Tree?

This is a perennial question for many people researching their family history. Whether or not to have a public family tree available online. And it is a dilemma which can arise fairly early on in the research path. Sometimes though it is not even considered, and for some the consequences of a decision to go public emerge too late.

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

Before I go any further I want to make it clear there’s no right or wrong answer. It really is a purely personal decision, one with which you need to be comfortable.

However, here are some considerations which I’m sharing to provoke a deeper examination of, and debate about, the implications. It’s not intended to be an exhaustive list, more a thought trigger. I’ve split them into pros and cons.

First the advantages of a public online tree.

  1. Connecting. It goes without saying, but a public online tree allows other researchers with the same family history interests to easily find and contact you. This enables you to connect with distant cousins, compare research, potentially plug gaps and share photos.
  2. Collaborating. Following on from this, once connections have been made this can lead to collaborative working on trees, pooling research, and the possibility to discuss findings and theories with someone who has a mutual family history connection.
  3. Learning. Linked to the above two, connecting and collaborating can lead to improving your family history research skills.
  4. Expanding. By having an online presence you may be able to expand your tree, pushing back lines and breaking down brick walls. All at a far quicker pace than solo research offers. Though a word of caution. Do not accept the research of others at face value. Always do your own work to check and verify.
  5. DNA. If you have undertaken a DNA test in order to further your family history research, a linked public tree is an important corollary to that test. I realise this may not always be possible. But if it is an option, there are clear advantages. A tree is one of the first things your DNA matches will look at to identify potential links. And it does encourage contacts. Ask yourself if, amongst a plethora of DNA matches, are you more likely to initially investigate and contact the treeless or those with trees? Personally, I find one of the most frustrating things about DNA testing is to see a possible match, but for that match to have no tree.
  6. Tree Purpose. Is your tree family history, pure and simple? Or is it something along the lines of a one-name or one-place study? The latter two may have a lesser emotional/personal attachment, and also a need for a far broader range of collaboration/connection networks than your own family tree.
  7. Family History Community Spirit. Having an online tree may fosters for you a feeling of really contributing and sharing to further the research of others.
  8. Legacy. You may be the only one in your family interested in family history. There may be no-one to bequeath the family history baton to, no subsequent generations willing to take on your work. You may be wondering how to ensure your research is preserved for the long-term. Putting it online is one option.
  9. Unexpected heirlooms. Recently a story made the news about the love letters written by a soldier, killed during the First World War Battle of the Somme, to his wife. They turned up in a sewing box donated to a charity shop. An appeal was put out, and within hours searches by members of the public on an ancestry site resulted in the tracing of family descendants, which will result in the letters being reunited. More details here. This is a rare, potential unexpected bonus of having a public tree.

Turning to the disadvantages of having your tree publicly available.

  1. Information control. Obvious really, but once your tree is out there publicly available to all, you have no control who can access it and how it is used. Be prepared for it being copied wholesale by multiple people without them even contacting you, and without them even referencing the person behind the original research. Is this something which would bother you? If it is, think of other options.
  2. Reduced Contacts. Linked to this, your tree’s proliferation may even reduce the chances of you being contacted. Unless yours is stand-out, it may be lost amongst a forest of other similar trees. Of course though this does not reduce your opportunities to contact others.
  3. Photos. This is a particularly sensitive subject. You may have ancestral photos linked to your tree. You may also have document images, such as civil registration certificates or probate records. Whilst you might be happy to have the basic tree information copied, you may find the copying of photographs in particular, and them popping up on scores of trees, a bridge too far. Several bridges if the photo is misattributed – great aunt Jane labelled as someone entirely different.
  4. Copyright. This is a topic in its own right, so I’m only putting some initial thoughts out there. Your own private tree for your personal use only is one thing. But where do you stand if you link photos, copyright document images etc to a public tree for all to see, copy and share? What about your own linked notes and analysis? And is that going to create a whole new set of potential issues?
  5. Errors. What if you include something in a public tree which you later wish to correct or amend? You may find the horse has already bolted, with your early research replicated across many other online trees.
  6. Privacy Concerns. Whilst living relatives should not be on a public tree, something to bear in mind is how traceable ultimately you (or your family’s) details potentially may be even if the living are unnamed. It might not be the first thing you think of when constructing a public online tree, and it may only be a very minimal risk, but you should be aware of the possibilities for abuse. As an aside, while online trees hosted by genealogy providers do anonymise the living, I’ve come across trees on personal websites where details of the living have been included.
  7. Etiquette. Essentially by openly sharing your tree you are entrusting your work to others. Do not assume all online will have the same courtesy standards regarding information sharing, use and acknowledging.

And finally, in the interest of openness, here’s how I handle the dilemma.

Well over a decade ago I did have a bad experience regarding someone copying my once online tree, including notes and other elements, and it didn’t sit right with me. However, I can see the benefits of information sharing to mutually further research. I now have a threefold tree strategy. This is:

  • A full tree which is on Family Historian and it is entirely private;
  • A private tree on a commercial website shared with a couple of trusted people – a very much pared down version of the Family Historian tree, minus any images or photographs. Only very basic information, with no source links or citations. I’ve not updated it for quite a while, but it is useful to consult when I’m out and about (family history events, archives visits etc.); and
  • An online publicly available skeleton tree, with basic direct line information only, linked to my DNA research. No photos. No documents. No comments. No analysis. It is there primarily for DNA purposes. That way I have a way of connecting with other DNA researchers. And I can then share selected relevant information, rather than my full tree.

I realise it does limit my opportunities for connection and collaboration because of its reduced public visibility. However, that hybrid approach is a decision I am most comfortable with. But it may not necessarily be the right one for you.

The bottom line is make sure you define your reasons for putting your tree online in advance of doing so. Ensure you know the full range of privacy settings on whatever online medium you decide to use for a family tree (if indeed you decide to go down that route). Think about what would work best for you and what you would be comfortable with. And go into it with your eyes wide open.

16 responses to “Public or Private Family Tree?

  1. Pros and cons neatly summarised. I’ve blogged about this too, generally I am all for sharing.

    • Thanks. Something I’ve been pondering for a while. There’s no right or wrong. It’s whatever works for you. But I am all for making an informed decision, which is why I’ve set out some of the considerations.

  2. Thanks for the analysis. I have always had my tree public for the advantages expressed in your blog but am increasingly concerned about the privacy issues as well as trying to correct an initial mistake in my research that others have copied and which has now become the accepted “truth” even though I now know it to be wrong.

    • You’re welcome. It is a perennial issue, the decision about public or private trees. It boils down to making sure you’ve thought about the aims of your tree, and considered the advantages or pitfalls of public v private, plus thought of any potential work rounds. It’s all about making a decision with which you’re comfortable.

  3. I share your privacy and other concerns, so I have compromised with a private tree (which also resides on my hard drive), and several smaller trees, covering my main lines (with deceased relatives as the root) which are public. I’ve had few people contact me – I’m usually contacting others instead!

    I’m always happy to share information if someone contacts me and provides enough detail so I know that we are working on the same line. I also contribute to the FamilySearch Family Tree and am often the only one who has worked on several branches.

    • I think many go down the hybrid tree route – a mix of public and private – for those reasons. It’s all about making a fully informed decision with which you are comfortable. I’m hoping my post will help with some of the pros/cons, and generate possible work rounds too such as WikiTree & captioning photos with source (some of the suggestions so far).

      • I think your post is very helpful. So often on FB groups and other online forums, bitter arguments break about between those in favour of public trees and those against, with each hurling insults at the other. It’s quite distressing. I hope people find what you’ve written and take the time to make an informed decision, while also understanding why some choose to make a different choice.

  4. Some great points. For me the pros for a public tree are outweighed by the cons but I understand not everyone will feel the same.

  5. Thanks for this. I started out with an online family tree on My Heritage. I quickly realised that this wasn’t for me and deleted it, Before I did this I found someone had linked a very distant relative to their tree, the names were the same but there relative had died before mine was 20 and I know mine lived to her 60s. I tried to contact them but never received an answer.
    , I have used Family Historian ever since. I like the three tree approach. I am at the moment one of those who has a DNA test online but as yet no online family tree. I’m going to rectify this.

    I have been wondering about changing from Family HIstorian to a genealogy software that easily enables me to consult it on the move, on an Android tablet or phone. I could use a Gedcom viewer but so far haven’t found one that is particularly satisfactory. Do you have any view on this.
    Thank you.Mandy

    • That’s a good question. I tend to use the online private pared down version of my tree on an App when I’m out and about. If I’m going somewhere planned I also have an Ancestral notebook, and have notes on Evernote. Not quite the same, but so far that’s been fine for me.

  6. Jane, I always enjoy reading your your posts. and wondered if you had manages to find any information about your mother in law’s great uncles on the Haynes side who went to the USA in the 1800’s for a while and were involved in building the railway. Unfortunately my aunt who died many years ago showed me a letter they had written to the Stone paper of the time telling of their adventures including being attacked by Indians. I’ve tried to find it but without sucess but I haven’t got your expertise  Hope you and your family are all safe and well at this strange time  David Haynes 

    • Thanks David. Sadly I rarely ever get chance to do my own family history nowadays. I keep saying I’ll set aside time – and it never happens. After doing research all day (and my one-place study in between) I find I can’t concentrate on more detailed research on an evening. Do you have his name so I can make a note for when I do get some time? Jane

  7. Pingback: Building a one-place study website and blog – Part 1 - Society for One-Place Studies

  8. Mine is private for exactly the reasons you have stated. The only people who get access to it are those who can prove that they are bona fide relations (close or distant!) – and it has to be more than just a DNA connection. One lady claimed to be a relative. I denied her access to my tree but she has since systematically found most of my relatives. However, the tree on her Ancestry site is ‘orphaned’ and is not connected to her main tree. Why do people do this?

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