Public vs private trees on Ancestry.com

Pubic or private family trees?I keep track of my family tree on my Mac with Reunion software. I do that because I like having my data stored on my hard drive (backed up, of course), rather than in the cloud. When I first started focusing on my genealogy research a few years ago, I created a small family tree on Ancestry.com,  entering a few family members on my father’s side of the family. (Including my father’s paternal grandparents, at left.) But I soon realized that I preferred storing my genealogy data on my computer.

Lately I’ve been thinking that it might be wise for me to add my family tree data to Ancestry.com. That way I could benefit from the shaky leaf hints that Ancestry provides and perhaps make connections with relatives.

I’m dedicated to adding only sourced data to my family tree on Reunion and it would be the same on Ancestry. If I do create Ancestry.com trees, I would continue to keep my data in Reunion as my primary genealogy data storage, updating Ancestry periodically.

But I don’t know whether to make my Ancestry tree public or private. It seems to me that a public tree would be a way to be helpful to others. Am I missing a pitfall or danger of making my tree public, especially since my data will be sourced?

If you have a tree on Ancestry, I’d love to hear whether it’s public or private and what led to that decision. Thank you in advance!!

Comments

  1. Vickie Sheridan says:

    My husband and I also Reunion on our Mac and are members of Ancestry. I have also been thinking of adding our tree so I will be interested in others experiences.

  2. Maria Telloq says:

    Hi! As always a thought provoking post! I keep several trees on Ancestry, some that are my family and some for the people I have been helping. All are public trees. On my personal tree, I have communication with people who were so open and willing to share. I would have never met them as the common ancestor was born in the 1600’s. I am very careful with the shaky leaf, as there are many not sourced.
    I would love to know why you chose to not save your information on the cloud. I keep most of my research notes on One Note and that is on all my devices, but resides in the cloud. I guess I am curious if there is a reason I should reconsider. (I also keep it on RootsMagic)
    Thanks!
    Maria

    • Maria, thanks so much for your response. Glad to hear that having public trees has been helpful for you. (And thanks for the warning about the shaky leaf…believe me, I’m very careful about sourced vs unsourced clues.)

      To answer your other question, I have a perhaps irrational hesitation to store all my data in the cloud. On a practical level, I don’t want to have to have internet access in order to access my family tree data. (That’s problematic, for example, when I’m on a plane or at my parents condo, though in the latter case I can use my phone as a wifi hotspot). On a paranoid level, I fear depending on the cloud in case the data is compromised by a hacker or if everything goes poof. (As I said, not necessarily rational.) I also don’t want to depend on a company staying in business for me to have access to my information. So in your case, the fact that you have the research notes on RootsMagic (I’m assuming on your hard drive) means your covered against these things.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. I’ll follow any comments as I’m very interested in other’s thoughts. I started on Ancestry and have quite an extensive public tree. *Though I realize now that as a newbie I could have and probably should have done things differently. Through your suggestion, I’m now ‘rebuilding’ on Reunion.
    But back to public vs. private. I honestly feel we are all in this together and anything I can share I’m happy to do. Yet, it still kinda creeps me out when I find someone uses one of my pictures on their tree and the connection is very far removed. A couple of times, it has been sooooooo fffaaaarrrr removed, I wondered how in the heck the person put the connection together?
    On the other side of the coin, I’ve done Ancestry’s DNA. Which really hasn’t been helpful at all. I know that’s another blog post, right? But the close ‘cousins’ that come up, almost all have private trees so I can’t see if there is a connection.

    Great question Janine!

    • Thanks for commenting, Lori! I’m considering taking advantage of AncestryDNA’s 20% off offer this weekend. I’m sorry to hear it hasn’t been helpful at all to you. Just curious: Did you reach out to the “cousins” with private trees that came up in the DNA report so that you might get access to their private trees?

      • I have contacted several and gotten a handful of replies. The replies are kind when they explain the connection, but that’s it. No one has offered anything else.

  4. Jim Bertram says:

    I have always had a tree on Ancestry. A few years ago, I started backing up my tree on my laptop and my desktop with Family Tree Maker. I have always had a public tree. I have spoken with a number of people that have private trees and the reason I hear the most is that they don’t want others taking credit for their work. They spent the money and did all of the research and they don’t want someone else to come along and essentially “steal” their work. While I understand this, I choose to not block myself from others. I love doing research, wandering through cemeteries, asking hundreds of questions and thumbing through endless books and microfiche. If someone else wants to claim credit for it, that’s fine. I’m not doing this for fame or glory. I’m doing it for me and my children. Everything else is just a bonus.

    • Jim, I love your sharing attitude. Thanks so much for your comment!

      • Jim Bertram says:

        Janine,
        I found this information for those that are afraid of people stealing information on living people in their trees. If you read information under the “Public Tree” setting, it states:
        “This setting allows other users to view all content in your tree—except information about living individuals and private notes.”
        And a couple lines later it says: “Information about living people is automatically hidden and will NOT be included in searches.”

        I know this to be true because I have tried to find myself on others family trees and it simply states “living”. Maybe this will help alleviate some concerns and those might open their trees to others to make connections.

  5. Very interesting discussion. I have a public Ancestry tree and want to keep it that way. I have come across some ‘contacts’ that I am sure have taken my info as verbatim even though my sources are not up to par (goal is to fix that or eliminate the source). They have not given me credit for it but my thinking is if they want to do that, that’s ok with me because I will get rid of flimsy sources and beef them up. When I come across a ‘cousin’ I always see what their sources are and 99% of the time I eliminate the information just because of the lack of a source. But I do want to keep my tree public, that’s the bottom line.

    I have done 3 DNA tests and I have gotten a few new cousins. If they are a good match and if they have a private tree, I contact them.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Judy. I think what I’m learning is that if I decide to have a public tree I should expect folks to use the info I share. So it would be best not to post anything I wouldn’t want others to use.

      Thanks also for mentioning your experience with DNA tests.

      • I should mention also that my tree on Ancestry is just an online tree-all my ‘real’ work is in Reunion. I upload a gedcom once in a while to stay current. I use Crash Plan, Time Machine and also Copy to keep stuff in the cloud.

  6. I have a few trees on Ancestry.com, but I keep them all private. There have been too many instances where I shared information with someone and then it ended up out there in public. The next thing I’ve seen is that someone has adopted one of my well researched male ancestors and married him off to a whole bunch of different women. After that, a bunch of other people copy that wrong information to their own trees and the whole thing becomes a mess. If you contact the person with the wrong info, explain what sources you have used and why what they have is incorrect, they don’t change it.
    I keep my “real” family in my genealogy program and use the tree on ancestry.com to see what suggested shaky leaves come up.

  7. I have a few trees on Ancestry.com and they are all public. I also have information on my Legacy software. On Legacy, I keep most of my still living relatives — that way I can add whatever notes I want and never have to worry about it going public. Back to Ancestry.com though, I think of it as “cousin bait” just like with my blog. If other people want to copy part of my public tree and add wrong information, that is their problem, not mine. I have had relatives from both sides of my family tree and even my husband’s contact me and typically give me new information. I am very grateful for that information and believe I should share my information with others too.
    One final note — I love your blog and especially the fact that you are a professional organizer. My life time goal is to become organized! I hope I am making continual progress!

    • Colleen, thanks for your comment! I’m glad to know how having public trees on ancestry has helped cousins find you. I’ve certainly been thrilled to have met cousins through my blog!

      Thanks for your nice comments about my blog. Remember, becoming organized is more of journey than a destination. Congrats on your progress!

  8. I don’t understand why people don’t have a private and public tree. How do you expect to connect with cousins or gain new information? You can add a basic public tree with the documentation that is already online like Census, Tax, city directories and B/M/D.
    You can use a private tree with your research, photos and other things you don’t want to share publicly at this time.
    My public tree has gained me photos of my great grandmother and her children because some kind person found the photo album of her sister in an antique shop and found my uncle that was identified on the back of the photo on my tree. He contacted me and I happily paid for the photos and him mailing them to me.
    Through DNA I have found a couple dozen distant cousins and verified my 2nd great grandmother’s maiden name that we could not find before and confirmed her father that had several men with the same name living in the same area.
    When I read an interesting story I check on Ancestry to see what the trees say about him. If the trees don’t know he owned a post office, wrote a diary, was a judge or founded a town, I add it to my FAN /RAOGK tree for everyone to find and follow up on if they wish.

  9. Tanya, that’s wonderful that a good Samaritan rescued a photo album of your family from an antique shop! That’s a compelling reason right there to have a public tree. I hadn’t considered the possibility of having both public and private trees. Thanks so much for contributing to this discussion!

  10. Jack Gracey says:

    Janine,
    I have had a public tree posted on Ancestry.com for some time now, containing information about a little over 1800 direct and collatoral ancestors and their families. It is an earlier version of my findings and is fairly well sourced. I maintain my primary tree on RootsMagic. Because my tree has multiple sources for each individual, I find it attracts mostly serious researchers, many of whom have taken the time to contact me for additional information. Through this process I have discovered several distant “cousins” who have provided information which was vital to the expansion of my tree.
    I keep copies of my RootsMagic tree on my hard disc, with backups on a flash drive, a separate hard dri ve and in the “cloud” operated by my backup service.
    As far as the “shaking leafs” are concerned, I carefully study those suggested trees which offer multiple sources and pretty much ignore the rest. I have gotten some very good clues for future research from some of those sourced trees.
    I am proud of my genealogy work and hope it will be helpful to others researching the same lines. I encourage you to share your own research on a public tree.
    Like other who have responded, I appreciate the quality of your blog. You write in a clear and concise manner and always have excellent suggestions for improving the organization of our research, which I sorely need. In fact, I just began following one of your recommendation and am focussing the summer months on researching just one of my four main lines.
    Thanks for your inspiration.

    • Jack, thanks so much for your comment. It’s good to learn of the benefits you receive from having a public tree!

      Thanks also for your kind words about my blog. I’m so glad you find it helpful and I hope you enjoy your focused summer research time!

  11. Jerry Brown says:

    I have two trees – one I keep as private on Ancestry.com – people get hits with the shaking leaves but must contact me if they want further information. So far that has not been a problem; I am happy to respond to specific questions and once I feel comfortable and they ask, I often invite them to view my tree. The only bad experience was when we shared with a relative, who shared with granddaughter who immediately posted as public tree with all living people posted.
    We also have a public tree of our English relatives, well sourced, back through Charlemagne and never had a comment.
    Moral of story? more comments on private tree then public tree

    • That’s interesting, Jerry! Was your motivation for keeping one tree private to avoid living family members’ information being public? Or was there another reason?

  12. I have several trees on Ancestry, but all of them are private. The reason is so I do not inadvertently release information of living family members without their permission and because I have found it easier to gather information from family members if they know the tree is private and by invitation only. These days folks are increasingly concerned about the possible release PII (Personally Identifiable Information) and the flood of data releases from Target and others adds to this fear. Folks who are serious about genealogy research and of making sure the data they collect are sourced will contact me via Ancestry to ask about sharing information and I am always happy to do so once the connection is understood. It tends to weed out name collectors who add to their public trees without sufficient regard to sourcing and thus contribute to the problem of inaccurate public trees.

    I also use a Mac and bought Reunion when I got my iMac several years ago. I had been using Family Tree Maker for years before and found the transition too difficult and time consuming so I went back to FTM to keep my data on my hard drive (with back-up of course!). I was thrilled when FTM developed a sync feature with Ancestry.com so I could sync the data between the two trees AND this became yet another reason for keeping my Ancestry trees private and limiting the access and rights of those I invited to my private Ancestry trees — I did not want my FTM trees to inadvertently be “corrupted” by questionable entries off the cloud-based trees.

    • John, thank you so much for adding your perspective! I appreciate knowing your rationale for keeping your Ancestry trees private and how that has worked for you. That’s very valuable information!!

  13. I have a private tree on ancestry.com. I only use it there for the shaky leaves hints. And because I can take it with me that way. In addition to my laptop I also have the mobile app on my iPad. Very comfortable when I am researching in archives. I never add any data to my tree which I haven’t researched. I take a note of it and once I have confirmed it, I add it to my tree.
    And I agree with John, I made the experience that my living family members are more open to contribute when the tree is private and by invitation only.

    • Barbara, thank you for your comment! You’re helping me understand that the reason some people keep their trees private is because it can make some family members more comfortable providing information.

      I have found this discussion so interesting!

    • I think I have to clarify my “I only use it there for the shaky leaves hints”: My tree is visible for other ancestry.com users but only plain names. If researches would like to have more information they need to contact me. as well as I contact them ;)
      I’ve made some bad experiences with people just copying my data, marrying my Schmidt line into several other lines and totally messing up everything. One of my very early research mistakes is still very much alive on ancestry these days ;)

  14. Janine ~ did you ever see Crista Cowan’s video on Private vs. Public. She goes over all the points everyone here have mentioned, plus more : Public vs Private Ancestry Member Trees

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40DulxfQl24.

    When I first started a tree at Ancestry, not much of my family was up there nor many records. My tree was done by a surname /location title and they were public. Because I did so much research offline in the fields or on microfilm, I could tell when people used my sources. I was okay with that as my trees were sourced properly.

    Now there are so many records on Ancestry, many more users, and nw so many mistakes on public trees. It’s very sad actually to see this happening. People are using public trees as “sources” and mixing families/marriages. If I see something in error, what I always do is message them and tell them that their information is mixed-up in a polite way. I add comments on their public trees too.
    So mine are now Private except for my two brick wall ones.

    • Magda, thank you so much for telling me about Crista’s video and providing the link! I had not seen it and just watched it.

      Crista’s argument that “Good information combats the bad” seems to be a pretty compelling reason to have a public tree. It’s an interesting discussion!

  15. Wow, you’ve had quite the discussion here! I watched Crista Cowan’s video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40DulxfQl24) and particularly liked the part from 14:00 to the end. I love all the points she makes about public trees, including how these ancestors are not just ours. (I’ll never forget how I felt when I first found that Nathan Thornton and Charity Cook, m. 1821 Indiana, had been “sealed” as per the Mormon faith. WHAT?!? Who said they could DO that? Nathan and Charity were Quakers!) Also that if we are careful what we put on our public trees, it will counter some of the bad genealogy out there and connect us with potential collaborators.

    I am in the infancy of transferring all my old paper research to digital and am happily accepting all the ancestry.com clues to records that are now on line, the ones I previously spent hours (days, weeks, years) digging up in research libraries, city halls and cemeteries. I also need to reinstall FTM and sync with ancestry. Then I will scan and make notes about the stuff that I have that is not available on line and may never be.

    So, although my tree is public, it is woefully lacking in detail. I have lots of detail that hasn’t yet been added. I had already (just recently) started again, and this discussion gives me the incentive to continue working on that. As it stands, I APPEAR to be someone who has no documentation for their work!

    • Thanks for your comment, Hazel. I thought Christa’s video presented a good argument for making trees public. I’m sure once you’re finished making your research public it will be a great resource for your family. Good luck with transferring your research to digital! I bet you’ll love having it easily available to you wherever you go.

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