Growing a Healthy Family Tree

What does your family tree look like?

Most people think of their family tree as a kind of chart that depicts relationships between family members. Using a tree diagram to represent knowledge is common to many disciplines and has been around for a long time, as the New Scientist article Why do we love to organise knowledge into trees points out.

Family tree diagrams are most useful as visual representation of a limited set of conclusions. Used as a bare bones summary, they are highly effective. If the diagram does not fit on an A3 sized (roughly 42cm x 29 cm) piece of paper, the message has probably been lost. The branching hierarchy breaks down once lines start crossing, often within just a few generations.

Genealogical research extends a long way beyond a subset of conclusions, and relationships are a lot more complicated than a branching hierarchy.

So is the all pervasive tree metaphor useful? As real trees don’t look much like the branching diagrams either, I wonder if the metaphor can be repurposed.

Your Personal Tree of Knowledge

Think of your family tree as your personal understanding of your family history, genealogy and connected micro-histories: a personal Tree of Knowledge.

Personal Family Tree of Knowledge

Personal Family Tree of Knowledge

A common definition of a tree is a plant with a woody stem or trunk. Real trees also have roots, and canopies that grow leaves, flowers and fruits.   Think of the roots as sources of information, the trunk as processes of analysis and the canopy as the conclusions you draw from your research.

Components of a Family Tree

Components of a Family Tree

The roots of your tree seek out the documents, artefacts, memories and other sources of relevant information using search and browse tools, catalogues to find and access the archives, online repositories and family members hoards.

The trunk of your tree is where the hard graft occurs. Information is evaluated for reliability and accuracy. Many pieces of information are combined to test theories. Evidence points toward tentative and firm conclusions.

The canopy of your tree is the part that others typically see. The products of you work such as family tree charts, stories and the many other ways you communicate your findings are available to others. A high quality product of your work may a seed and guide other researchers to grow their own family tree.

Family Tree Research Iterations

Family Tree Research Iterations

Family history research is iterative. Your tree is fed by both new sources and in interactions with fellow researchers, much as a real tree needs both water and mineral nutrients from the soil and sunlight. Tentative conclusions and other researchers point to new avenues of investigation. New information changes our conclusions. Interactions between ideas and information grow a broad tree trunk. A healthy family tree has a sturdy trunk.

Grow your own family tree

Growing you own tree of family history knowledge is far more rewarding than picking parts of some-one else’s canopy. It takes time and effort to nurture your understanding. That does not mean that you should not collaborate with other researchers. Good collaboration is about helping one another tend our trees.

I aspire to grow a magnificent oak. The form of your tree will be different to mine even if we are closely related. Size does not determine the health of your family tree. A healthy family tree, even a tiny seedling or young sapling is a thing of beauty. Take a closer look at yours.


© Sue Adams 2014

Photograph Identity Questions 4, 5 & 6 – Results

Thank you to the 21 people who responded to Photograph Identity Questions 4, 5 & 6. A couple of people did not answer all three questions, so each ended up with 20 answers as follows:

Face comparison 4,5 & 6 results

Face comparison 4,5 & 6 results

The no votes have it, to varying degrees, with 70% for photo pair 4, 60% for photo pair 5, and 90% for photo pair 6. From these results, pair 6 certainly seems to be different people, but it is hard to be so sure for pair 4 and pair 5.

In this series, I have now asked ‘Is this the same person?’ for 6 pairs of faces. Photo pair 1 was a control case where I knew the answer was ‘No’. Photo pairs 2 to 6 are all about comparing people in the group photo below with other photos in the same album.

group photo

Allport, Thomas B. (photographer, Uttoxeter). ca. 1860s-early 1870s. Group of 8 people. Faces extracted for comparison in photo pairs 2-6.

To recap all 6 results:

Photo pair Result Result% Strathclyde result
1 No 76% Human: Yes 69%; Picasa: Yes, threshold 65
2 Yes 94% Human: Yes 94%; Picasa: Yes, threshold 75
3 No 65%
4 No 70%
5 No 60% Human: Yes 82%; Picasa: Yes, threshold 65
6 No 90%

Three of the photo pairs were included in a project I undertook in 2010 for the Genealogical Studies postgraduate program at the University of Strathclyde. The methods were a little different as most respondents gave their answers offline and they were asked to give ‘instant’ answers rather than try to consciously analyse the photo pairs. In the Strathclyde study, 4 of the 5 control face pairs known to be the same person scored 70% or more ‘Yes’ votes, but only 1 of 4 the control face pairs known to be different people scored over 70% of ‘No’ votes. So I thought responses to face pairs of unknown identity with a substantial majority of ‘Yes’ votes, especially those over 80%, were likely the same people. I hoped for consistent results for the 3 pairs repeated in this series. Photo pair 2 delivered the same result, but photo pairs 1 and 5 did not.

Comments from respondents suggest that they spent time consciously analysing the photo pairs. If undecided did you vote ‘No’? Did you become less sure the longer you tried to analyse the photos? Are these potential reasons for the preponderance of ‘No’ votes? Could the 60-70% middle ground ‘No’ votes really indicate uncertainty? I welcome comments on these questions.

I admit that I hoped that pairs 2 – 6 would have decisive ‘Yes’ answers to support the conclusions summarised in Cartes de Visite album links to the Stanley family and Earls of Derby.

© Sue Adams 2014


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