For those unfamiliar with the Ancestry.com website, let me start by explaining that members are able to choose the privacy settings for their trees; either public or private. A public tree can be seen by all members. A private tree can only be viewed by invitation of the owner. There’re a few gray areas concerning what is and isn’t visible, but, it’s pretty much all or nothing.
While everyone needs to find their own comfort level in the public domain, generally, the more you share, the more others will share with you. Ancestry.com currently has just shy of 3 billion family trees; roughly three quarters are public, one quarter private. That’s a lot of opportunity for sharing! There are probably as many reasons for maintaining a wall of privacy as there are Ancestry members. (I was once contacted by a member who didn’t realize that her tree was private until I couldn’t find the photo she wanted me to see.) Whatever the reason, walls can sometimes do a better job of keeping out the good than the bad. Overall, there’s a phenomenal sense of collaboration in the genealogy community. A new member might only be trying to identify a grandparent or untangle a pile of family notes. But it doesn’t take long to realize that you’ve just become a contributor to the great “Human Genealogy Project”. (Accompanied, one hopes, with an enhanced appreciation of the need for accuracy!)
Bottom line, people with private trees are missing out on a lot of good stuff. Not too long ago, an unrelated Ancestry member sent me a beautiful 100 year old photo postcard of one of my ancestors. (Yes, there are people whose hobby is collecting “orphaned” photos and returning them to their families.) And I’ve done similar things. But, I’ve only sent material to people who have public trees. I choose the trees I like the best – the ones that look the most cared for, not necessarily the biggest. If I can’t see the tree, I don’t contact them. I still have two handsome World War II portraits of my mother’s boyfriends in uniform. Their family trees both happened to be private. (There’s no way to add ex-fiancés to a family tree!)
One day I received this cryptic email: “How do I let them know about me?”
After some back and forth, “them” turned out to be third cousins of mine. I’d never contacted these cousins, but was familiar with their well researched family tree. “Me” turned out to be their older half sister, given up for adoption in the 1940’s. You can probably imagine that this caused some commotion in my household. After examining her adoption papers (which included a charming hand written note from the family doctor), I had to figure out what to do. This adopted cousin understandably needed help. Her half siblings knew nothing of her existence. Let’s just say that Emily Post doesn’t have a form letter for this circumstance. I waded in as gently as I could. Of course, the news came as quite a shock anyway. Long story short, all ended well and siblings are now happily reunited. If my tree had been invisible, it isn’t likely that this newly discovered cousin would have reached out to me for help. And I would’ve been the poorer for it. I’ve made the acquaintance of quite a few third and fourth-ish cousins through the website; people I probably couldn’t have met any other way.
If you would like to discuss your family tree, the information you have and/or what you hope to find, please contact me. There is no charge for a 30 minute phone consultation and I can do some basic online research while we talk.
by phone: 415-221-6126
by email: sarah415info(at)gmail.com