Newcomers to family history research are usually told never to rely on other people's family trees, but to research their own from primary records.
In some ways that is sound advice, because there are many very misleading trees available online and in various books and other publications. But there are also some very well-researched trees which can provide researchers new and old with a sound basis for their own trees. It is up to them to continue their research to prove or disprove what they have found.
The main problem with following online trees is that any subscribers are free to post to Ancestry and other commercial sites, and there is no check on the accuracy of their trees. Although some people who view these trees and spot mistakes will leave comments, to be helpful to both the tree owner and other researchers, this does not happen very much.
And unlike the French site Geneanet, whose trees are renowned for their reliability, Ancestry's format does not lend itself to supplying sources for tree details. The number of Ancestry trees which simply quote another tree as a source is staggering. Some other unknown person's tree is not a recognised source.
Jerrripedia was guilty in its early days of accepting users' trees without questioning them - partly because of the paucity of online sources to check the trees against at that time. Since the first online Jersey church records were made available in Jerripedia, and in our associated database, in 2012, users have been able to check their own trees before submitting them, and we have been able to check submitted trees.
Over the past eight years there have been countless examples of trees which have been refused, have had sections removed or amended because we have found errors.
Some of the earlier trees have been revisited over the years and changes and additions made, and the availability of the next batch of church records in 2016, plus the opportunity to view the original registers on Ancestry, have made the work of checking trees much more effective.
For a long time the Jerripedia editorial team concentrated on adding as much new content as possible to the site, but with the tenth anniversary of our launch approaching in February 2020, a decision was taken earlier to switch to a policy of consolidation and checking, with new content a secondary consideration.
This work started in the autumn of 2018 and continues to this day. A small team is carrying out an extensive review of the content of our database of family records. No longer do we need to rely on somebody else's transcription of register entries; we are able to view these and make our own decisions about what was actually written.
This work on the database will continue indefinitely. Records are being checked against the original registers, missing records and extra details added, and corrections made as necessary. We also continue to be advised, by users, of errors which need correcting, and act on their notifications as quickly as possible.
In 2019 a considerable amount of time was spent checking over 14,000 burial records for women identified as wives and widows. Many duplicate records were deleted, and maiden names were transferred to the correct field as necessary.
Our original intention to update our indexes of church records in Jerripedia was abandoned in favour of the complete integration of the database into family pages in the website. It is now possible to search baptism, marriage and burial records for individual families in our 1,200-plus Family pages, and every family tree now includes an A-Z search facility linking directly to the database. This ensures that any search at any time draws on the most up-to-date set of records available anywhere.
What errors remain?
Despite all the work which has gone into checking some half a million records, inevitably errors remain. We have concentrated our efforts on getting names correct, particularly family names, and then on ensuring that the year given in the records is the right one. Because of the way early records were processed, and the poor standards of legibility of some of the transcripts, some dates have been misread when adding them to our database. We think it is much more important to check that years are correct rather than to worry too much about months and days.
But, whenever we have reason to compare our records with the original registers, we try to ensure that every detail of the entry has been transcribed correctly. And our small editorial team is now comparing our records, line by line, with those in the original registers. This is a very time-consuming process and we doubt that we will ever be able to say that our records are 100% correct, because there are known to be mistakes in the registers themselves. But we are trying to spot as many errors, whatever their source, as we can, and also, most importantly, to identify missing records and add them to the database. And it is important to recognise that our database is not intended to be a faithful copy of the registers. If a register entry can be proved to be wrong, there is no point in leaving it unchanged in the database. The real facts will then never be found. But when we alter a record to reflect an error in the register, or add extra information, we will invariably add a note explaining what has happened and quoting our source.
Family tree review
In the meantime work never ceases on the very important job of checking our family trees. During 2018 and 2019 we worked systematically down the alphabet updating trees to our standard format, checking content against church registers and making corrections and additions as necessary. Nearly all of our trees were subject to a detailed review.
Wherever possible we added dates and parishes for baptisms and marriages, and whatever background information the more recent registers contained about occupations of grooms, brides and fathers. In many cases trees used to stop around 1842, which was the latest date for which church records had been transcribed. Now many parish registers for marriages and burials are available as late as 1940 (earlier for baptisms) and we have been able to extend many trees closer to the present day.
Although we initially attempted to discover as much information as possible about the marriages of male members of the descendancy, we did not always do so for females, because they do not affect the main lineage. However, a further review of all trees was initiated in 2020 and full details of all marriages are progressively being added to trees. In the process we have been able to add substantial descendant lines previously missing from some trees, and entirely new trees are added when sufficient information becomes available. We continue to accept trees submitted by individual researchers.
The revised format for our trees introduced earlier in 2018 allowed much more detailed information to be contained in notes and references attached to the end of trees, and made our best researched trees much less cluttered and easier to read.
Our policy used to be to create new trees when a substantial section of an existing tree was submitted from a different source. This has led to some families having three, four or more trees covering essentially the same descendancy, making it difficult to decide which to update when more details emerge, and confusing our users.
We are now more likely to consolidate new information in the most appropriate existing tree. This is why the increase in the number of trees has slowed significantly. We are adding more data - it is just appearing in existing trees.
We have also added more branches to trees as we research them and find church records for individuals not previously shown, but time precludes our doing this for all the trees we check. For some we can do no more at this stage than satisfy ourselves about the accuracy of what is already included, and leave enlargement of the tree for another day.
The same goes for links from one tree to another. If a tree is edited for whatever reason, we will insert links (particularly for names of spouses) in other trees, but pressure of other work has long since called a halt to a process of systemically working down the alphabetical list of trees looking for potential links. A spouse's name might appear in any one of a dozen or more trees, and locating it and inserting a link is extremely time-consuming.
We embarked on a further major review of trees in late 2022, and we have made a significant change to the site's policy. We were previously happy to have two or more trees covering essentially the same descent, submitted by different users. But as the site has grown over the years and the number of trees has exceeded 3,500, this policy has led to complications and made research difficult. Two or more identical or very similar trees may have been updated separately over ten years or more and details added to one would not be found in the other(s), and vice versa.
Although we have always felt that we had a duty to tree contributors to retain their work, even if it had been overtaken by subsequent research, and more detailed, possibly more accurate trees, there are very few among the 3,500 trees which remain as originally posted. Our trees have two distinct differences from personal trees posted to Ancestry and other subscription sites. They are more accurate and they can be edited by any Jerripedia user, whereas other online trees are the sole preserve of the original poster and owner. Jerripedia trees are not 'owned' - they shared among all its users.
We have come to the somewhat reluctant conclusion that there is little point in retaining versions of trees which are no longer being reviewed and updated, in favour of more extensive and accurate trees covering the same descendancy, and we have embarked on a process of removing trees which now sadly complicate the work of researchers. This process will probably eventually affect up to ten per cent of the total number of trees. They are not being entirely lost - the page remains with a redirection to the newer, better trees, but without the original content. That, too, could be resurrected if a tree's original poster had a strong reason to wish that to be done.
But links to these trees are being removed from family pages and tree indexes.
Many trees now include comments indicating that they are no longer being reviewed and updated. This is usually because a more accurate and detailed tree exists for the same lineage. But this comment refers only to the Jerripedia editorial team. Nothing precludes our users from contributing to any of the trees in the site, and if you prefer to add to a particular tree, rather than others relating to the same family, that is your privilege. But, as the notes accompanying trees indicate, we do not want existing content altered without initiating a discussion. Contributors and site editors have spent a considerable time creating these trees and out of courtesy should be given the opportunity to review any suggested alterations (other than the correction of simple typos).