Predictive text often has us using odd words, conveying a message we never intended.  Technology doesn’t always know what we’re thinking!  To an extent there is a similarity with the automated ‘helpful’ suggestions we get from the websites of data-providing companies.  While they may prove accidentally relevant, or even helpful, by and large they are misleading distractions.

Those I have received fall into two categories: records I already have (but haven’t displayed on an online family tree) and records of people with the same names as my ancestors (but from an entirely different part of Ireland).  Luckily I can tell the difference between my ancestors and these strangers.  But people starting out in family history often think that the computer somehow mysteriously knows best, and ‘adopt’ the strangers into their online family trees.  The fact that the strangers may not fit geographically, socially, religiously or chronologically with their known ancestors doesn’t immediately occur to them.  This is one of the root causes of ‘genealogical virus’.

That’s not a widely used expression.  ‘Genealogical virus’ is a phrase I coined to describe what I feel is a damaging trend and I first used it in print last year in my book, Credentials for Genealogists: Proof of the Professional.

The cynic in me knows that the ‘helpful’ suggestions are designed to keep me engaging with the site, in case I get bored and wander off to a more ‘helpful’ data-provider.  But there are more useful ways that they might engage their customers.  If they would concentrate more on explaining the genealogical and historical context of databases, and less on technology, they might well provide information that is helpful to their customers, while retaining their interest.

As things stand, the explanation of sources that such sites provide is meagre to non-existent, and in some cases downright inaccurate.  It is apparent that the decision making behind these sites is in the hands of accountants and technology experts rather than genealogists.  Hard-nosed business decisions are understandable, but they can go hand in hand with real attempts at helping customers find their way around the records.  Educating the customer is not necessarily a bad business decision.

The nature of genealogical research has changed significantly since it has shifted from the record repository to the computer.  It is noticeable that a large proportion of novices are less au fait with the records and research methods.  They are more inclined to accept hints at face value and ‘adopt’ strangers into their family trees, thereby spreading genealogical virus.  This has an impact on my work.  How is that?

When I’m approached by a potential client looking to expand on their information on a particular line of ancestry I have to evaluate their information and determine whether worthwhile research is possible.  This was a fairly straightforward process a decade or more ago.  More often than not they had correct information.  Now I no longer can assume that this is the case: evaluation has become more time consuming.  I’m sure fellow professional genealogists everywhere are having the same difficulties as I am.  Now, more than ever in the past, it would be remiss of a professional simply to take a client’s information and start building on it.

Very often an enquirer will refer me to their online family tree for information.  Do any professional genealogists actually base their evaluation on such shaky foundations?  I don’t.  An online family tree, no matter how many ‘sources’ it may have attached to it, can be riddled with genealogical virus.  To evaluate its contents it needs to be picked apart very carefully.  Having any number of sources attached does not indicate the research process employed, or ensure that the alleged ancestors are who the enquirer thinks they are.

I would be quite happy to be commissioned to play devil’s advocate on the contents of an online family tree.  But it’s another thing to conduct a free evaluation in order to determine whether further worthwhile research might be possible.

Because I don’t know an enquirer’s level of experience in family history I have to treat all as beginners and ‘interrogate’ them as to their initial family information, their research approach and the sources that have led them to the ancestors they wish me to work on.  This doesn’t always go down very well with enquirers.  But, unfortunately, it has to be done because of the relationship between genealogical virus and computer-generated helpfulness!

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