Dancing with the Devil: The Tradeoffs of Modern Genealogical Research

Dancing with the Devil: The Tradeoffs of Modern Genealogical Research

There’s a saying that goes back to the original dot com boom: If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. In modern Genealogical research, it’s important to know that not only are you (and your data) the product, you are usually also paying for the product!

In many ways genealogy hasn’t changed much since the explosion of family history research in the late 1800’s. When my Great Grandmother Myra (Tradewell) Morse completed her application for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1904 she leveraged many of the same resources I use today: vital records from various courthouses, cemetery research, family heirlooms (like bibles), and Federal military service records. Those sources are largely still available to me today, and I can pursue them just like she did, largely without the involvement of any other group.

However, modern genealogical research makes MANY more sources available to you, and you can do more research in a short period than Myra Morse could have done in her entire lifetime. But most of these new sources come with a catch: to use them, you are often serving someone else’s agenda, for better or worse.

Some of the tradeoffs are common and obvious. Ancestry.com needs more subscribers to have the content necessary to attract more subscribers, so your $19.99/month is not as valuable to them than your contributions to the community. Some of the links however, aren’t as obvious.

Newcomers to genealogy are often struck by the high level of involvement by the Mormon church. Many of the documents that have been microfilmed/digitized over the last century were sponsored by the Mormons, who also have both the largest family history library on the planet (FHL) and the worlds largest network of branch libraries lending many of those collected materials.

I have at least 10 Family History Centers within an hour of my house. Thanks Church of Latter Day Saints!

It seems that everywhere you turn, there’s further Mormon involvement in this journey, however, that’s not because the church supports this hobby per se, or that one of the founders was interested in genealogy so the church picked up that interest. The Mormon’s are heavily involved in tracing family roots due to their doctrine of “Proxy Baptism” which holds that souls that have passed continue to have the ability to make choices, but those souls cannot choose to be Mormon if they died before being baptized into the faith. The Latter Day Saints have built massive, detailed, and accurate family trees in an attempt to identify every person ever born, and have set out to baptize a living church member today as a proxy for identified ancestors who’ve passed away previous to hearing the Mormon gospel. That proxy baptism will grant the ancestor the choice to accept the teachings of the Mormon church, and enter heaven, posthumously.

So, while you have access to a literal treasure of information about your family history (and I mean that…who else would have ever cared about the Mississippi Enumeration of Educable Children, 1850-1892; 1908-1957 and microfilmed it for me so I could solve huge mysteries about one branch of Michael’s family tree!!!) you have to understand that the work you do with that information will eventually, if all goes to plan, result in your ancestors being baptized into the Mormon faith. For some that’s an issue (A Twist on Posthumous Baptisms Leaves Jews Miffed at Mormon Rite), while for others there’s no concern about their ancestors potentially having another choice of savior after death. Either way though, it’s probably best to understand the motivations behind the groups “helping” you in this process, to make sure that you’re comfortable with the direction they’re helping you pull.

Another tradeoff you’ll likely face is related to DNA testing. DNA testing is an amazingly powerful tool that will only continue to revolutionize genealogical research. While DNA testing comes with it’s own challenges (Dangers of DNA Testing), the testing companies add another level of concern when it comes to these home testing kits.

AncestryDNA has become the major revenue generator for Ancestry.com, and 23and Me’s entire business model is based on the money made from genealogical DNA testing. However, that revenue isn’t generated by the $99/test you pay to have the get your results since that $99 doesn’t even cover the cost of the test. These companies make money selling access to your DNA by various drug, health, and research organizations. The bigger their database, the more valuable that database is, so all efforts are geared towards growing the number of samples they have access to.

Here’s an article from Wired that highlights the true value of the DNA that you paid to have gathered:

The logic behind these partnerships is clear: Companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA have spent years getting people to swab the inside of their cheeks and spit into vials, and all of those samples are valuable.

The tradeoff for you as a researcher is that while you gain access to an amazingly powerful tool, while at the same time you agree to expose you and your family’s DNA to 3rd party entities that help generate huge profits for AncestryDNA and 23andMe. Additionally, it explains why all of these companies efforts are focused on the flashy “benefits” you get (Ethnicity Estimates and Health Screens), but much less effort is invested in helping you understand the results or how to leverage the results once you’ve given them the DNA data the need.

I have personally done as much opting out of allowing my DNA samples to participate  in these for-profit 3rd party research efforts as possible, but we need to understand that they still can sell our data in aggregate and that they can change the terms of the terms and conditions of your sample to ignore your consent in the future. I have seen reports that they have have already completed full genetic sequences (vs. the normal, limited genealogical sequencing) on our samples to specifically provide data for Parkinson’s research. Ironically while AncestryDNA has done the work on the samples we paid to have collected, and have sold that data to big pharma, you can’t even gain access to your own full genomic data! The Terms and Conditions limit what you’ll receive, and you have no rights beyond that.

It’s possible to remove your physical sample from AncestryDNA’s labs, and scrub the information from their database, but then the tradeoff is you’ll have to re-test if new technologies/strategies become available. You will also lose the benefit of your DNA linking you to future tests since you will no longer be in the database. Combine that with the fact that over time you are going to have samples of relatives that have passed away, so samples can’t be re-gathered, and these companies know you’re probably not going to remove your data once it’s in the system.

Just because you’re serving someone else’s agenda, it doesn’t mean that there is malicious intent or that you should avoid those compromises. However, just like it’s important to understand the source of a fact before you accept it and apply it to your ancestors, it’s important to understand the motivations behind those providing some of our modern genealogical records as those records become more and more integral to your family tree.

How to: Getting started researching your family tree

How to: Getting started researching your family tree

By the time I realized I was ready to get started in this process, I had already started. I had collected a family reunion book for the Leonard family from the early ’80’s, I had gone through the documentation my Uncle Ken had done for my Grandmother’s Mayflower Society application…and most importantly I’d signed up on Ancestry.com, clicked on some Shaky Leaf hints and accepted every “Ancestry Member Tree” suggestion I could. I had gone to my local library and made copies of as many obituaries as I could find, and I planned my first trip to a County Courthouse. It wasn’t until I completed that first trip (and spent $120 on six Death Certificates because I thought that was how we gathered Vital Records!) that I read the book that changed everything for me, and sent me on this journey.

Buy “Black Roots: A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing The African American Family Tree” by Tony Burroughs

Black Roots: A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree – Amazon

If I could have gotten just one piece of information before I started, it would have been this book. I’m not stereotyping, but chances are the majority of people that will read this post aren’t African American, but let me tell you right away that Black Roots is the best book on researching your family history I’ve ever read, regardless of your family heritage. The “American Genealogy” I refer to in this blog is my son Michael’s, and since his mother is African American it meant understanding the challenges in doing research on her line. Tony Burroughs captured both the strategies to successfully capture anyone’s family history, as well as specific differences for research African American linage. I’ve found that those strategies also have worked as I’ve tried to piece together the less documented parts of my heritage, like my Irish immigrant Leonard line who arrived in the 1830’s.


Black Roots will walk you through all the basics of how to get started, and honestly my advice is very close to his, and I fully cite this book’s influence. When I bought this book and read it cover-to-cover the first time, I put my research on-hold for about three months as I regrouped and properly prepared.

Build an online tree to your Great Grandparents

You aren’t likely to have your 2x Great Grandparents still living when you start your research, so a good tree with as many Shaky Leaf hints and basic research as possible going back three generations should be enough to get you started. I personally used Ancestry.com, but of course there a many options out there.


When you create your tree, make sure to flag it as “Working” or “Uncertified” to let everyone know that it can’t fully be trusted. I add a note in the description further indicating that I’m putting guesses, Ancestry Member Tree info, and uncited facts in this tree. Also, and I’ll go into more info about this in a later post, but PLEASE make your tree public. There’s very little reason not to, especially because living people in your tree will be kept Private even if the tree is Public, and since so much of what we do is built on the work of others, it’s important to give back.

Building to this level will also help satisfy your desire to just jump into building out your family tree using the amazing information that’s available online, but it will also keep it small enough to make it easy to correct when you have a little more experience in building a tree and recognize all them mistakes you made when you started! I already had about 2000 people in my tree when I realized what a mess I’d made…and I’ll likely never get it all cleaned up.

Buy some mechanical pencils, a good, archival notebook (preferably hardcovered), and a digital voice recorder

Zebra Mechanical Pencils, 7mm – Amazon

Hardcover Notebook – Amazon

Sony ICD-BX112 – Amazon

One thing I didn’t realize when I started was that ink pens are not allowed in Courthouse research areas, or in rare book/document libraries. It turns out that family history researchers have a horrible habit of “correcting” records, especially the ledgers that comprise most early Birth, Marriage, and Death records. Some counties I’ve seen have laminated those pages so they can’t be marked, others make them available only digitally, and lots of courthouses will give you direct access to the original volumes/documents, but none that I’ve visited will let you bring ink pens into research areas. Additionally, I like to gather my records with the thought that some family researcher 100 years from now will find everything I’ve gathered, and have a very accurate history from 2-3 generations previous. Ink is not archival, and it will either not last that long or it will cause damage to the paper it’s written on over the next century. Pencil lead is archival, and will look largely the same 200 years from now.

The hardcover notebook I’ve used for three years so far came from an employer that handed them out as a part of a re-branding we went through. As I was writing this blog post and searched Amazon for hardcover notebooks I found the exact one I use, and I couldn’t be happier! The smaller size makes it easy to carry while still having a page size that lets you collect plenty of information, and the hardcover is protective.

As I’m about to discuss, recording you living family members is the most important first-step you can take. A good digital voice recorder will make your job much easier because it will record for longer than you’ll care to talk. I use the Sony ICD-BX112, and I love it. There are others out there with more features, and so do some shopping and see if the extra cost is worth it to you. I can see having a flash drive or USB connection being useful, but I bought an Aux Cord (Aux Cord) instead and use Audacity on my PC to convert my interviews to .mp3.

Interview (and record!) every living family member you can get your hands on

Starting with the oldest relative you can find, take time to sit down and ask them questions about their life and their family memories. Black Roots has tips for questions to ask, but a lot of what goes into a good interview is just relaxing, listening to what your subject is saying, and asking them questions that can’t be answered with “yes” or “no”. You’ll find as time goes on the, the dates and facts of your family history aren’t nearly as interesting as the stories you can uncover. Depending on who is still with us when you start this, you can get great stories going back 2-3 generations. Burroughs talks about how to sort through the stories to separate myth from fact, but for now, just get their stories on tape.

You should have a tree that captures their family if you built your tree to your Great Grandparents, and it will help you be able to ask questions about relatives by name as they talk. As they give you new information, having that tree info handy will help you note where their information differs from yours.

Make sure to take notes as they speak, and to type those notes up as soon as you can when you get home. The longer you wait to type up your notes, the less information you’ll gather, and even if you wait 2 days you’re going to have a less complete record of your memories than if you do it right away. Also, take photos and/or videos of yourself with the people you’re interviewing after the session. The pictures I have from these sessions are some of my favorite, and you never know when it’s your last chance to get a picture.

The family, after my most recent interview with Felice’s Grandmother Cassie.

I have lost two of the first five subjects I interviewed since I interviewed them, and for one of them I have the only known copy of her voice available to the family. Had I not recorded these interviews, I would have lost all of that information to history.

The Vital Records, obituaries, etc. that make up the bulk of our research will be around 20 years from now, but the people who hold the keys to the best parts of your research won’t be. Focus on them first, there will be plenty of time to find the paperwork later.

Buy “Evidence Explained” by Elizabeth Shown Mills

Evidence Explained – Amazon

Ok, this isn’t really a beginner step, but this book will help you with your research and the quality of your records more than just about anything other resource. I wish I’d bought it early on in my work.

I’m going to write a longer post on Evidence Explained later, but at a high level I purchased this book to better understand how to properly cite what I found. Mills doesn’t disappoint in that department, and you’ll see her citations consistently referred to as the “gold standard” of genealogical citations. In fact, some genealogical software includes unauthorized templates that purport to build EE-style citations automatically (which they don’t, to the confusion of a lot of starting family history researchers). This book would be worth it based on the citations alone, but it’s much more than that.

When I started, I decided my citations were important for three main reasons:

  1. To properly document my evidence to support my facts.
  2. To give future researchers the path to re-find/confirm the evidence I had gathered to support my facts.
  3. To provide a provenance or “chain of evidence” on how the evidence came into my possession.

Evidence Explained helped me fulfill those goals, but I now know they are the least important reasons to buy this book. Any standard can meet those needs, and I’d drafted one of my own before I bought the book.

Mills has taken Evidence Explained beyond simple citation. I’ve found the book to be KEY in helping me determine the quality and “original-ness” of the evidence I’m examining. I had pretty much treated every fact equally, with some simple ranking of 1-5 stars in my Software serving as my ratings, before I really got into EE. Now, it’s so much easier to look at either my own citations, or the citations supporting online sources, and see right away how close to the source something is. I can’t count how many original documents I’ve discovered merely because I could see in the citation what I was reviewing was a derivative source, which clued me in to keep looking.

Additionally, there are unlimited documents and document types that I never would have known existed if not for Evidence Explained. Mills documents what feels like EVERY single document that could be imagined, and if you pay attention to her description of the various citations, you’ll find a list of additional sources to research that you likely never considered.

Be warned, however, that the reason this isn’t really a book that can be considered for beginners, is that these citations are difficult to get your head around. I’ve been doing this for three years or so and I still don’t have the skill to write a citation from scratch. I still am not sure when/why I’m listing some records Last Name, First Name v. First Name last name, etc. But the book never fails, and it’s such a valuable research tool I couldn’t work without it.

Plus, it’s pretty cool to have a dog-eared, noted, and tabbed 900-page book on your desk!

So there you go, everything you need to get started, and to better understand what the next steps will be after you get started. Please check back as I post how I approached those next steps!

How to: What are the “How to” posts?

This will probably be the most obvious, and easily answered, questions on this blog but I thought it was still useful to write a little about my motivations.

When I first started doing my family tree, and eventually as I got further into genealogy, I kept finding myself searching on the best way to do certain tasks. It was harder to find good information than I would have liked, and I didn’t find a great “one stop shop” where someone covered most of what I needed to know.

That’s what I’ll be trying to do through these series of posts. I want to share what I learned, but please understand this is ONE way of approaching these projects, and it’s MY way. It’s not necessarily the right way, it’s just how I figured out how to do it. This should at least give you a head start to begin with, as you start to figure out how best to approach things in your style!