Thursday, September 5, 2013

Merging People in FamilySearch’s Family Tree

Merge signConflicts prevented me from attending two sessions at the 2013 BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy that looked like they would be very good. After the fact, I heard that they were. I have been able to obtain slides for these two presentations, so I would like to report to you what I can glean. Be careful, I run the risk of misinterpretation. Also, because the presentations were about the quickly changing website, things may have changed since the conference.

Ben Baker presented a session titled, “Merging People in FamilySearch’s Family Tree.” Baker has been a senior software engineer at FamilySearch for the past three and a half years. He currently leads the team of engineers responsible for the merge-related features in Family Tree. He also has worked with digital image processing of historical documents at FamilySearch.

Many duplicates of real persons exist in FamilySearch Family Tree. There are several reasons why. Because Family Tree was copied from new FamilySearch (NFS) it suffers from the same duplicates as NFS. NFS—and in turn Family Tree—contains persons added from Ancestral File, Pedigree Resource File, extracted records (from the International Genealogical Index), GEDCOM uploads, user additions, and other sources.

To resolve duplicates, Family Tree allows merging of duplicate persons. Merging is different from Combine in NFS. NFS Combine preserves all information from both original persons. Users can choose at any time which alternate values to view. Merging person A into person B deletes person A, while at the same time allowing the user to choose which of alternate information to save. Alternative information that is not chosen is deleted.

Merge is different from Delete. Deleting a person deletes all the person’s relationships and orphans any LDS temple ordinance information. Merge preserves a link from the deleted person to the surviving merged person; delete does not. Deleting is recommended only when you’re sure that the person is fictitious. Often, deleting just a relationship or merging is a better alternative to deleting.

The Process

To merge two persons, click on Possible Duplicates in the Tools box of a Person Page. Review the possible duplicates. If you’re pretty sure that a person listed is not a duplicate, click on Not a Match and enter a reason why you believe the two do not match.

Sometimes a person is flagged, “Can’t Be Merged at This Time.” According to Baker’s syllabus, this can be caused by

  • “The resulting record in would have more than 250 combined records. This is sometimes called an Individual of Unusual Size (IOUS). There isn’t anything that can be done to merge these persons until synchronization with new.familysearch is turned off.
  • The genders of the persons do not match, including Unknown with Male or Female. Gender can be changed if no LDS temple ordinances have been done.
  • Both of the persons have LDS church membership records.
  • One of the persons is living and the other is not.”

Baker’s slides contain several more:

  • “Forwarded person (Usually just merged)
  • Locked relationship
  • Other order only – Must preserve membership
  • Merging would cause loop
  • Locked person
  • Non-Unique IDs
  • Parent and child”

Baker gave an insider, techie way to determine why two persons can’t be merged. Take the two person IDs. Type the following URL into your browser, substituting the two person IDs.{personId1}/merge/{personId2}/constraint

If a person might be a match, click on Review Merge.

Information from the two persons will be displayed in two columns. Before the person on the right is deleted, you may merge information from them into the person on the left. Carefully review each fact (birthdate, birth place, and so on). To use the value on the right instead of that on the left, click Add or Replace. Click Reject (or don’t click at all) to use the value on the left.

Review the complete set of values, enter a reason for the merge, and click Finish Merge.

To see the list of the persons marked Not a Match, click on Possible Duplicates and then on the Not A Match tab.

There are two flavors for undoing an incorrect merge.

The first flavor completely restores both persons as they were before the merge. Click Show All in the Latest Changes box on the right hand side of the person page of the merged person. click the Unmerge button. this option is available only if no changes have been made to the merged person.

The second flavor restores only the deleted person. Click Show All in the Latest Changes box. Click the deleted person’s name. Click Restore Person.

Baker gives some best practices and recommendations, which I’ll let you read yourselves in his syllabus and slides. (See the links below.)

Sometimes inconsistent information in Family Tree is the result of an improper combine operation in NFS. I found an example recently. It was one of those times where the given name of a dead son was given to the next son. Someone combined the two, producing a person who died as a child, but still got married and had children. Separating records is no longer supported in NFS. NFS instructs users to use Family Tree to fix problems. In his syllabus, Baker recommended against that approach:

Instead of simply removing these [inconsistent] values, a more correct way to resolve the issues is to call support and request that the person be separated into its real identities. Doing this will reduce future work as additional data including LDS temple ordinances are migrated from nFS.

Unfortunately, since submitting his syllabus, support has stopped accepting requests to separate combined persons. If I understand correctly, this produces extreme problems for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. With ordinances assigned to the wrong people, unnecessary ordinances will be performed for some members’ ancestors, and necessary ordinances will not be performed for others. In his slides Baker states, “Some features are coming to help address these problems…soon-ish”:

  • “Ability to view all of the LDS temple ordinances attached to a person
  • Request that LDS temple ordinances that don’t belong be moved elsewhere”

Baker’s “Coming Soon-ish” slide includes these features:

  • Photos/stories will be handled properly on merge
  • Removal of synchronization with new.familysearch—will allow more merges, including IOUS

It is possible to merge duplicates even if one isn’t listed as a possible duplicate of the other. Baker wrote, “After clicking the Possible Duplicates link from the person page, click on the Merge by ID tab. Copy the ID you would like to merge into the text box and proceed with the merge as usual.”

Because of the synchronization between NFS and Family Tree, once a merge is initiated, it must be completed in less than five minutes, otherwise you will get a pink message that the persons can’t be merged.

If you go through all the steps to perform a merge in less than five minutes and after clicking Finish Merge you get a pink message that the persons can’t be merged, you’ve probably encountered a bug. Call support and report it. The same is true when restoring or undeleting a person.



Baker posted his syllabus and slides online:


  1. The link to "determine why two persons can't be merged" doesn't work. I get a 401 or 400 error depending on if I'm logged into Family Tree or not.

    1. Interesting. Can you reply with the URL that isn't working. I'll see what I can find out.

    2. This is caused if you don't remember that the {} - brackets are NOT to be included in the final script. For instance, the following URLs do perform the required diagnostic function if you are logged into Family Tree:

  2. I'm not worried about merges. I NEED UN-MERGE to fix the mess in FamilyTee.

    And now you are telling me the prescribed fix -- telling FamilySearch and having them do the un-merge in newFamilySearch is unavailable? THIS IS NOT GOOD. WHO DECIDED THIS?

    Did anyone present on what to do about UN-MERGING IOUS?????

    I have many IOUS and it takes days to sort thru all the different person identifiers seen in NFS and color code them in order to sort who is who and then write it up so someone else can understand what needs to be done. I'm not just dealing with my person and an unreal person erroneously combined. I could do that change myself in FT.

    I'm dealing with three, four AND MORE persons erroneously merged together as one person back in NFS before FT. Some have the same first name or variants along with some having different first names (how did that happen?) being part of the erroneous merge. Sometimes the same wife and kids are added multiple times instead of having been merged as one. (Can't fix this in FT.) AND There are multiple parents. I can't just delete these people in FT because they are real separate people -- some of them cousins, some not. Also I was hoping not to mess up ordinances. Separation in NFS would have done all this.



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