Geni Podcast: Collaborative Genealogy

Posted March 31, 2011 by Geni | No Comment

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Show Notes:

  • What does “collaborative genealogy” mean?

For many, the term collaborative genealogy means working with others in order to a) improve one’s own genealogy research results; and b) to contribute to the genealogical community. Collaboration can take many forms including:

    • Attending a meeting of your local genealogical society and talking to other members.
    • Attending a genealogy conference or workshop and meeting other genealogists and family historians.
    • Posting queries in society newsletters and publications or online at message boards or even via social media sites.
    • Commenting on genealogy blog posts and other sites where you can interact with the author writing about their own family history.
    • Participating in an online chat about a specific area of genealogy research.
    • Posting a family tree via websites like
    • Creating a blog or website to share your own research data, photos and family trees.

Just as many believe that “Not everything can be found online” in terms of research resources, the same is true about collaborative genealogy. Not all collaboration takes place online – in fact, collaborative genealogy got its start via in-person interactions as well as letters and telephone calls.

  • Why should I participate in collaborative genealogy instead of doing everything on my own?

We’ve all heard such terms as “no man is an island” or “you can’t live in a vacuum,” right? The same is true about genealogy and your own research. While some researchers feel very comfortable “flying solo,” eventually out of necessity they may need to reach out to the genealogical community.

Where would each of us be today if our ancestors decided not to interact and socialize with others? Basically, we wouldn’t be here. Our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents etc. would never have met!

If you have concerns about privacy or making sure your research is not used inappropriately or without attribution, start small. See if there is another relative who would like to share research and writing tasks with you, either online or in person. Next, attend a genealogy society meeting and talk to members, exchanging surnames – you might find a research buddy with a shared surname. Finally, explore online and see what others are sharing about their own research and contact those genealogists with whom you have a common surname or common interest.

  • How do I know I can trust any data that is shared by others?

This is where it pays to be selective in terms of those with whom you collaborate. Not only do you want to make sure that the data you receive is accurate and relevant to your own research, but you also want to ensure that any data you share with others will be used properly. Here are some suggestions which sound an awful like the things your mother used to tell you as a child:

    • Ask and ask politely.” Don’t just assume you can copy that photo or family tree you found on the Internet just because it is part of your own family history. It is not true that everything you find on the Internet is free for the taking or, worse yet, in the public domain and free from copyright. A polite email inquiry can go a long way to not only being able to use such material, but in also setting up a collaborative relationship with the person who owns the data.
    • Do you know where that came from?” You wouldn’t just pick up a lollipop off the ground as a kid and eat it would you? Well, take the same approach when using another person’s data. Find out how the information was compiled, whether the research has sources and citations etc. Doing so may very well eliminate a wild goose chase later on due to erroneous or undocumented data.
    • Be careful!” Before you share data with another research, ask how they intend to use it. Place restrictions on what someone else can do with your data. If you’ve written a family history narrative, include a copyright statement. When sharing a photo consider using a watermark program to embed copyright information.
  • How can I start collaborating with other genealogists?

The methods and venues used to “collaborate” are varied and many, including:

    • Genealogy Societies: Attend a meeting of your local society or join a far-flung society with a great online presence and one related to your research. Look for queries both in publications and online at the society website.
    • Message Boards: Many websites have genealogy-related message board where you can post a query or search for others with common surnames.
    • Genealogy Conferences: Attend a one day workshop or a week long national conference and spend time talking with other genealogists. Share ideas, discuss resources, and exchange surnames.
    • Family Tree Websites: Sites like not only allow you to post your findings, but also invite others to contribute as well. Use the search function on these websites to find other users with common ancestors and then exchange information.
    • Blogs: More and more researchers are documenting not only their own family history but also writing about specific areas of research including ethnic groups, geographic locations and even specific surnames. Read these blogs, leave comments and contact the site owner to exchange information.
    • Social Media: Queries and lookups are now being posted to Facebook, GenealogyWise, Twitter and other social media sites. These sites are also useful for gathering recommendations on resources and research strategies.

Complete Transcription:

Grant Brunner: Welcome to the Geni Podcast. I’m Grant Brunner, and with me today is Thomas MacEntee. How are you Thomas?

Thomas MacEntee: Good, how are you doing?

Grant: I’m very, very well. Thomas, of course, of and GeneaBloggers. So of course, everybody should know him from those two places. But today I want to talk about collaborative genealogy. And I’m sure you have a lot to say about the pros, the cons, everything about it. But let’s start off with the very, very basics. What does collaborative genealogy even mean?

Thomas: Well, collaborative genealogy really is not a new term. People should know that right away. It’s been around for a while, although it’s taken newer and newer forms lately. For many people, the term collaborative genealogy means working with others in order to improve their own genealogy research results, and also to contribute something to the genealogical community. That’s really important for many people that do collaboration.

Collaboration can take many different forms, and these are some ways that you’ll see it. It’s as simple as attending a meeting of your local genealogical society and talking to other members. Attending a genealogy conference or a workshop.

Meeting other genealogists and family historians, exchanging surnames, discussing research strategies. Posting queries in society newsletters and publications. This has been done traditionally in print, and now you’re seeing it more and more online. You see message boards and even social media sites.

Commenting on genealogy blog posts is the new one and other websites where you can interact with the other who has posted their own family history research.

Participating in an online chat, another new way to collaborate. The chats take place around specific themes, topics, areas of genealogy research. Posting a family tree via websites just like

That is collaborative genealogy, when you’re putting up your family tree, contacting other people or hoping they will find it and working together on research.

And finally, I think one of the other ways, ultimate ways, is actually creating your own blog or website, putting your own research out there. Your own photos, your own family trees, hoping to interact and collaborate with other people.

So I want to make it clear, though, Grant, that not, you know, not everything can be found online. We know this in terms of genealogy research. The same is true in collaboration.

Sometimes you’ve just got to get out of the house and collaborate in person. Such as meetings, genealogy society meetings, and the like. Also, keep in mind, before we had computers, the way that genealogists would collaborate were mostly letters and telephone calls.

When I started doing my research, my family had a compiled genealogy done around 1915, 1916, and the way my sixth cousin five times removed actually gathered the information, he collaborated with other people via letters.

He would write a letter to the postmaster of these small towns in upstate New York, and say, “Give me everyone, give me their addresses for everyone with the last name of Austin, Austin,” which is my mother’s maiden name.

And then he would write them letters, say that I’m your X cousin, and this is the way he would collaborate on research. Which is basically very ingenious, but it was really one of the few methods available back then.

Grant: And, you know, it’s great. Yes, we can’t do everything online. Sometimes you actually have to go out in the real world and talk to people. But, what’s great about having online collaboration is that it puts you in contact with people, that you can then go and have phone calls or letters or, you know, you can actually send physical objects to each other. Or, you could actually go meet at, say, a conference.

Thomas: Exactly. And that’s happened to me in my own research. I actually found some second cousins that were not even on my family tree, and they found me on Facebook, and they found me on, and other sites. And one of them in Long Island, New York, we’ve actually started sharing the research expenses and all the research for one of our family lines.

Grant: Why should somebody participate in collaborative genealogy instead of doing just everything, by themselves, alone in a room with, you know, books?

Thomas: Well, we’ve all heard the terms, “no man is an island,” or, “you can’t live in a vacuum.” The same is true about genealogy and your own research. You know, a lot of researchers feel very comfortable flying solo, going on their own. But eventually, there’s going to be a point where you’re going to reach that time, either to break down a brick wall, or you need some assistance. You’re going to have to reach out to the genealogical community. And fortunately, we have a great community that’s very welcoming.And people, I can’t believe some of the help that people provide. So also think about this. Where would each of us be today if our ancestors decided not to interact and socialize with each other?

Basically, I can tell you, I wouldn’t be here if my parents didn’t meet, if my grandparents didn’t meet.

I mean, by nature, we’re social creatures. So it only makes sense that genealogy and the genealogical community is going to step in [?] there.

So one of the things that I want to talk about is, if you have concerns, if a person has concerns about privacy, or making sure that your research is not used inappropriately or without attribution, I really recommend that you start small, with baby steps.

See if there’s another relative who you want to share research and writing tasks with. This is what I did in my own situation. Either you can do it online or in person. That’s one way to start.

Then if you want to take it a further step, maybe go to a genealogy society meeting or a conference, talk to the people there. Exchanging surnames, you might find a research buddy, and then you can collaborate that way.

And then finally, go out online and see what others are sharing about their own research. Contact those genealogists where you have some common surname or common ancestor, and then see where it goes from there.

Grant: So how does one know that they can trust the data that they get from other people?

Thomas: A great question. I really, I hope that everyone should ask themselves that question, and not just accept a family tree, accept it as the Gospel truth. We often see that. I have to say, when I started out many, many years ago, I would do that. I was a name collector trying to build a big tree, and I wasn’t concerned, really, with whether the data was sourced properly, or was accurate. And then what happens is you wind up on a wild goose chase later on. So you really have to selective in terms of those with whom you collaborate.

Not only do you want to make sure that the data you get and you’ve received is accurate, and relevant to your own research, you also want to make sure that any data that you’re sharing with others is going to be used properly.

So here are some ideas. I came up with a list and, you know, the thing is, they’re also going to sound like things your mother used to say or yell at you. One of them is, ask, and ask politely.

Don’t assume that you can copy a photo or family tree that you found on the Internet, just because it’s part of your own family history. It is not true that everything you find on the Internet is free for the taking. And I can’t say that enough.

The other thing is, I’ve also heard a lot of people say that because it’s on the Internet, and if you post it on the Internet, it becomes public domain, and free from copyright. Not true. At least not here in the United States.

So a polite email inquiry, you can send now to someone. Asking permission goes a long way. And not only will you be able to use that material, but you could also set up a collaborative relationship with that person, so that you can work together down the road. So ask, and ask politely, is one of those things you want to remember.

Grant: Nobody can own conclusions about genealogy. Like, the facts that, like, this person begat this person, nobody owns that. You can’t, it’s not possible to copyright or trademark. But especially when it comes to photos, it’s very important to get permission and such.

Thomas: The other thing is narrative. If I’ve written a narrative and a story based on the facts, and as you said, facts cannot be copyrighted. You know, that’s the way it is. That’s the way that U.S. copyright law is. But if I write a story, a one or two-page story based on those facts, that narrative, that is intellectual property that I created, and I have a copyright to it. So that’s an important distinction. I’m glad you mentioned that.

So one of the other things that my mother always used to say is, do you know where that came from? So, just as a kid, you wouldn’t pick up a lollipop off the ground and eat it, now would you? I mean, at least most kids probably wouldn’t, or their mother would be yelling at them.

Same thing is when you’re using other persons’ data.

Find out how the information was gathered and compiled, whether the research has sources and citations. If you do this and you do it right the first time, then you’re not going to go on those wild goose chases later on and run into erroneous data, undocumented data.

Finally, one of the other things that Mom always used to say was, be careful. In terms of collaboration, this means before you share your data, ask them how they intend to use it. Your data is valuable. It’s something you should guard.

So you might want to place restrictions on what someone else can do with your data. You know, if they say I want to use it just to have for my own records, fine. I want to post it on my blog or website? Make sure they give proper attribution back to you.

Again, with the family history narrative, if you’ve written a narrative that is copyrightable, you should include a copyright statement. You don’t have to, but you should. When you share a photo with someone, consider using a watermark program or embedding metadata in the file so that it can be tracked back to you.

Grant: How does one go about starting collaborating with other genealogists?

Thomas: Well, again, we said take small baby steps. I would not go on the online route right away, especially if you’re new to genealogy, new to family history. But these are some of the methods. One that I’m a big fan of is genealogy societies. I’m very pro-genealogy society to begin with, but also I’ve found it’s really great to get to meet people, to collaborate with people.

I also join a lot of online societies or far-flung societies like the Utah Genealogical Association, California Genealogical Society and Library, and I join them online and I participate in some of their online events or their local events when I’m in town visiting.

So when you’re part of a genealogy site, you should look for queries, both in printed publications and maybe online at the society website.

Another way is message boards. We know that various places have forums, have message boards. You can post a question. Collaboration also is asking questions, and it’s not just saying, here, this is the data I need.

Sometimes you may want to discuss a strategy, or maybe a spelling variation on a surname. And that’s what message boards and forums are very good for.

Genealogy conferences, very similar to genealogy societies. They may be as small as a one-day workshop or a week-long national conference. This is a great time and place to meet other genealogists, set up some collaboration, discuss resources, and exchange those surnames.

Family tree websites, they’ve become really hot, hot, hot lately, The thing that attracts people is they’re very easy to use; you don’t need a lot of technical knowledge. You just need the information. Some of them even prompt you with fields and questions, so you start filling out your tree.

So that’s really nice to be able to collaborate with other people. I go right away to those websites, Grant, and I just do a search on some of my surnames. And you can’t believe the way the information you find, and also the ability to collaborate with those people.

Blogs are also another way. More and more researchers are documenting not only their own family history research, but they’re also focusing on specific areas of research, like ethnic groups, geographic locations.

Even there are some blogs that are dedicated to just one surname, like Qudor or Potter. Some are uncommon, some are common. So you should read these blogs, maybe leave a comment, and contact the site owner if you feel that you share some common ancestor surname, and exchange information.

And finally, being the social media guy that I am, I love using social media for queries and lookups. I will put them out on Facebook. I will say, does anyone have information on, you know, wills from New York State in 1830, people with the name Austin, etc.

Genealogy Wise is another site. Twitter is great. Twitter, you have to be very concise with your 140 characters, but you can put your queries and lookups out there.

And also, not only do I put questions and queries out there, always make sure you use the search function to see what’s already been put out there, what people are looking for. So that’s another way to collaborate with people.

Grant: I think it’s also important to note that part of doing genealogy research is sharing with people, I mean, obviously, your direct people. But one day we’re all going to die, and we don’t want all the hard work that we did to go away. So we want our family members, people who are related to us and are interested in us to be able to access all of the hard work we’ve done and benefit from it.

Thomas: Right, and on that last point, that’s important, as you point out. I mean, I’ve already made estate planning plans for my own research, so that if someone in the family doesn’t want it, it goes to a local historical society. And it would really be a shame for my 20-plus years of work to be thrown out by maybe a relative that didn’t know what it was; it was sitting in a box, etc.

So I’ve made those plans, and that’s a whole another topic that we could talk about someday, is this whole idea of making sure for posterity…

I mean, that’s the ultimate gift of collaboration, isn’t it? If you donate it to a society or a historical or genealogical society for their library, this way you’re allowing other people to collaborate with you from beyond the grave, so to speak.

Grant: So, Thomas, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you do, and where people can find you on the Internet?

Thomas: Well, you can usually find me at Right now we’re up to I think about 140 blogs… 1,840 blogs, I’m sorry. 1,840 is the number of blogs that we’re tracking on Geneabloggers. And we have usually about 15 to 20 great new blogs every week, so I’m very busy with that community, answering questions, welcoming newcomers, dealing with different posting themes.

We’re just wrapping up something called Fearless Females, which was 31 days of posts about our email ancestors. And we’re getting ready; I think we’re going to have a really nice Mother’s Day series of posts coming up soon in time for Mother’s Day in May.

So that keeps me busy, and also I’ve got another webinar I wanted to point out. This is another great way to collaborate, is building a research toolbox.

You can build an online toolbox, like your own Cyndi’s List, if you know what is. You can build that online, and I can show you how to do that.

That’s a free webinar at Legacy Family Tree Webinars, and you can just go to Legacy Family Tree and search for them on Google and go to their training tab, and you can register. And that’s going to be on Wednesday, April 6th, next week.

So, finally, I’ve got GeneaBloggers Radio. It’s also keeping me busy every Friday night. I’m in the middle of preparing for this week’s episode.

As you might know, Grant, “Who Do You Think You Are?” is winding down its second season. This Friday, the focus is on Gwyneth Paltrow, whose father Bruce Paltrow was an actor. And Bruce’s father actually had Jewish heritage.

So I think the episode actually takes Gwyneth back to maybe Poland, maybe Eastern Europe. I know there’s quite a journey involved.

But we’re going to focus the GeneaBloggers Radio show on Jewish genealogy, on researching your Jewish heritage, what the misperceptions are in terms of records and availability. Sort of tips and tricks, especially for beginners.

So that’s what we’re going to do on Friday night. That’s a small peek into what I’ve got going on lately.

Grant: That sounds great, Thomas. And thank you again for your time. So, for the Geni podcast, I’m Grant Brunner. Thanks for listening, and have a good one…