I’m not a fan of the leaves on Ancestry.com. Personally I think the leaves make genealogically sound research more difficult than it already is. Your opinion may differ.
There are two problems I have with the leaves:
- they make problem-solving difficult
- some things located manually aren’t located leafwise
Difficult to effectively problem-solve
Sound genealogy methodology (to me) dictates that we document our search procedure when we query a database, not just list the title and website of what we searched. We need to track:
- how that search was conducted–if a database was queried, then include:
- search parameters
- any wildcards
- proximity operators
When people are located, the search procedure is not crucial. After all, we found what we wanted. When they are not located where they are expected to be, then that specific search procedure is needed to analyze the lack of a result and to problem-solve. We don’t track our search procedure because it is fun, but because it’s a part of our research process which should be tracked. (disclosure: I don’t track my search process when I find people–just when I don’t). It is not just sufficient to say “I searched.” Without documenting our search procedure, it is impossible to determine whether our querying of the database was the problem. We can’t know what we overlooked if we don’t know how we looked in the first place.
The “leaves” come to us without us entering in any search terms. Information is pulled from our “online tree” to conduct the search. We don’t know what information is pulled from our database to conduct the search (although we may suspect we do). We don’t know how the search is performed.
That makes problem solving the lack of results difficult.
If I query a specific database for specific search terms myself, then I know how the search was performed. If I fail to locate the person of interest and I’ve tracked my search parameters, I may see other ways that I could have searched, because I know what searches I already conducted. If I share my search parameters with another researcher, they may be able to help me. They may even tell me that the way I searched was totally inadequate and that I totally need to start over.
When I do not track my querying process and fail to locate someone, I can’t problem solve. I can’t analyze. That hinders my research. That is the problem.
It’s like trying fix a car when I have no idea how the motor operates. Knowing where to put in the oil and gas is not sufficient to solve most problems. I need to know more.
It Might Not Even Find Everything
Several readers emailed me privately that the leaves aren’t even finding everything that’s in Ancestry.com. That seems to be the case for one of my ancestors as well.
A “leaf” for my James Rampley (died before November of 1817, probably in Harford County, Maryland) in my online tree did not locate a reference to James in Ancestry.com‘s version of Peter Wilson Coldham’s bonded immigrants to the United States (published on Ancestry.com as Coldham, Peter Wilson. Bonded Passengers to America. Five Volumes in One. Baltimore, MD, USA: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1983.).
The leaf hints only found one potential reference to James in the “Immigration & Emigration” database. .
Yes that database “U.S. and Canada, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s-1900s” references Coldham’s book, but it is a separate publication by P. William Filby–so that does not count. The leaf from my tree didn’t pull up Coldham’s book specifically as my search of the “Immigration & Emigration” databases did.
My actual search of the “Immigration & Emigration” databases at Ancestry.com found five references a James Rampley–one might have been too late for the leaf search to locate, but the others should have been returned by the leaf search.
I don’t know why they weren’t. But they should have been. My search for James is anecdotal, but the point is there’s something about the process that’s not catching everything. That’s why anecdotal errors in computer database searches matter, because it indicates there is a problem with the algorithm because it’s supposed to work the same way every time.
It’s not like a surgical procedure that may only work 90% of the time. It’s computer programming, not brain surgery.
Not getting all the results that are there is another problem.
Your mileage may vary. Just remember to check your mileage, never assume your car is operating the way they tell you it is.
Readers can use the leaves or not use them as they wish. But:
Those who know the pitfalls of research tools are better equipped to use those tools and decide whether those tools are ones they want to use.