Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Guiding Principles for Cleaning Up Messes in Family Tree – #BYUFHGC

Ben Baker gave guiding principles about cleaning messes in FamilySearch Family TreeThis is the second of two articles about Ben Baker’s presentation at the 2015 BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy. Ben’s topic was “Help! My Family is all Messed Up on FamilySearch Family Tree.” His slides and syllabus are available at and, respectively.

Ben presented a list of guiding principles to use when cleaning up messes in Family Tree.

Play Nice With Others

Remember this is a shared tree. Don’t be too bullheaded. Apologize when you’ve messed up. Be nice how you approach people. When people mess up, it’s generally because they don’t realize what they are doing. Some users delete people thinking they are operating in a private tree.

Watch out for mytreeitus. Ron Tanner came up with the term; Ben Baker gave a dictionary-like definition:

mytreeitus \mī-trē-ˈī-təs\ (noun)
An inflammation common to many genealogists,
particularly heavy users of PAF. Symptoms include
extreme anxiety over others modifying their extensive
genealogical research, possessiveness of ancestors,
unwillingness to work in collaborative family trees and
disregard for others when removing erroneous
persons from their family. Usually occurring in more
mature adults and rarely seen in those under 40.
[Ouch! Ben didn’t score any points with his largely older-than-40 audience.]
Learning to use FamilySearch Family Tree has been
shown to be an effective treatment for this affliction.

Make Your email address public. To do so, click on your name in the upper-right corner of the screen. Click settings. Click Contact. Enter your email address and check the Public box next to it. There is a messaging system coming soon that will allow you to send messages to others, even if their email address is not public. [Since the conference, that feature has been released.]

Draw Pictures and Take Notes

Most of the problems that Ben runs into are messed up families. To help sort things out, draw a picture showing the relationships as they should be. Here’s a diagram with a father who fathered his first child with his first wife and his second child with his second wife:

One of Ben's diagrams showing relationships

Pay attention to the PIDs. Each record has a PID. If a person has two different PIDs, then there are two different records that need to be merged. If two different persons have the same PID, then they aren’t really two at all. They are merely showing up twice in the same diagram. I’ve created an example, below. While Imaginary Child (LKPR-R95) and Imaginary Child (LKPR-R9N) are the same person, there are two PIDs. That means there are two records that need to be merged. Also notice that there are two of Imaginary Child (LKPR-R9N). By paying attention to the PIDs, we see that there are not really two; it is the same record showing up twice.

An imaginary family showing 1 person with two PIDs and one person shown in two places

To keep track of things, open up multiple browser tabs. To open a new tab or window when clicking a link, use a middle click or a right click of your mouse [or hold down the control-key while clicking].

If you are really worried about how to do things, try things out on Beta has almost the same information as the real Family Tree, changing stuff on beta doesn’t change the real tree. If you are uncertain how to go about making a change, go over there and try things out. FamilySearch also tests new features there. To see features that might be coming, you can go over there every once in a while and see what looks different.

Family Tree has two relationship types: parent-child and couple. FamilySearch developers call a parent-child relationship a tertiary relationship because there are three people involved: a father, a mother, and a child. Family Tree uses the same innards for a single parent situation, but leaves one parent empty.

Two relationship types in Family Tree

A married couple with one child is represented in Family Tree with two relationships: a couple relationship (because of the marriage) and a parent-child relationship. Ben showed the screen snippet, below, with little icons overlaid showing the couple relationship and the parent-child relationship. To edit or delete the couple relationship, click the pencil icon to their right. To edit or delete the parent-child relationship, click the pencil icon to the child’s right.

Parents and child with relationship icons overlaid

Let me make an aside here. A nuance sometimes lost on people is that there can be a parent-child relationship with parents who don’t have a couple relationship with each other. The biological father might be nothing more than a sperm-donor, for example. In the Imaginary family, above, there is no couple relationship between Imaginary Father and Imaginary Mother. Instead of showing a marriage date between them, Family Tree shows a link to “Add Couple Relationship.”

We return now to Ben’s presentation, already in progress...

“Let me reiterate! Above all! DO NOT CLICK THERE!” [Oops. Makes me wish I had been listening. Oh well.]

Ben showed a family not unlike the imaginary family I showed previously. Imaginary Child (LKPR-R9N) is shown once with both parents and once with just his father. This is a common scenario. Ben asked attendees how to fix it. One suggestion was to add the missing mother. That was not the correct answer. The child is part of two parent-child relationships. The first parent-child relationship has both parents. The second parent-child relationship has just the father. It is incomplete and unnecessary; delete the extra relationship.

Deleting a person, on the other hand, is rarely the right thing to do. When there is an extraneous person in a family, don’t delete him, delete the relationship. (This makes sense when you think about it. Family Tree is intended to be the family tree of all mankind. Everyone who ever lived needs to be in there. Keep the person, just get him out of the family.)

There are probably only two times when you should delete a person: If you find a fictitious person such as the god Odin or Mickey Mouse, you should delete him. Or if you have just barely added a person and realize that was a  dumb thing to do, delete him. In fact, FamilySearch will soon make changes so the latter condition is the only one in which you can delete a person. For a fictitious person, you’ll have to call support and ask them to delete him.

“I think delete person is evil, personally,” Ben said only half-jokingly. “It’s doing really bad stuff in the tree.” Deleting a real person can be a double-whammy (my description, not Ben’s). When you search for a person in the tree, including spouse and parent names is very powerful. When you delete a person’s spouse or parent, that person becomes harder to find. If the person is left with absolutely no relationships, they may never be found again. FamilySearch employees call such persons “dark matter.”

I had to leave early, so I didn’t get to hear the remainder of Ben’s presentation. I’m guessing he didn’t have time to finish all the material he prepared, but it is covered in his slides and syllabus. Let me call out a few more  guiding principles:

  • Base your actions on verifiable sources.
  • Provide good reason statements.
  • Act on icons to achieve regular, small successes with the possibility of adding new persons to the tree.
  • Contact support when you need to and ask to escalate if necessary.
  • Report abuse if you believe someone is purposefully destroying data.
  • Use the Watch List more effectively.
  • Learn to understand and use the Change Log better.
  • Read, maybe even subscribe to, the blog.
  • Embrace change.
  • Realize that some things are not fixable yet.

Well, that’s it for this year’s BYU Conference on Family History and Technology! It only took me a month to cover the small part of it that I attended. I leave you with this photo of conference bloggers, Jana Last, the Ancestry Insider, and Lynn Broderick.

2015 BYU conference bloggers, Jana Last, Ancestry Insider, and Lynn Broderick
Photo credit: random passerby.


  1. Another example of when it is valid to delete someone is when they are named "UNKNOWN." This is usually when there is a valid mother or father and the spouse is UNKNOWN. Once the family data is cleaned up, I delete the UNKNOWN spouse.

  2. I would also add that when merging duplicate entries for the same person it is best to add in all the unmatched children, spouses & parents moving them from the left side of the page to the right so as not to loose any of them. Then merge any new duplicate entries. Otherwise you might be loosing important information such as vital information and temple ordinances.

  3. FS-Support is way backlogged. Just yesterday I received notification of a case-file I had submitted regarding abuse nearly a year ago. So fictional persons submitted for removal to Support may remain there a verrrrrry long time.


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