Genealogists Adam and Jacob Brown describe the genealogical breakthroughs achieved via the Geni.com genealogical platform.
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Over the past two years, the effort to reconstruct the history of my family has evolved from a two-decade long solitary quest at archives and graveyards into a vibrant, Internet-based social experience involving hundreds of living family members all over the globe. I credit this transformation to the creation of Geni.com, one of the newer collaborative websites that now host user-created family trees containing more than 60 million names in a password-protected environment.
Online databases of families are not new. Web-based trees of interest to Jewish genealogists have been available for many years at the Family Tree of Jewish People on JewishGen.org, on fee-based sites such as Ancestry.com and on hundreds of private websites devoted to individual families. Geni.com is also similar to PC-based genealogical software in the sense that it is comprised of a database of linked individual records, the difference in this case being that the records are hosted on a commercial server connected to the Web, not on your own machine.
What is truly new and different about Geni.com is its combination of an extensive interactive family tree with a personal home page that provides a continuously updated list of family news similar to that found on Facebook.
Since the creation of our family’s tree on Geni.com, I no longer “own” the tree. As will be described below, each of our cousins who accepted an invitation to participate in the tree has the ability to add information and search the tree at will. As a result, cousins with no computer expertise or apparent prior interest in genealogy have become avid participants. Indeed, a day does not pass when numerous marriage announcements, anniversary and birthday greetings, or old sepia-toned photographs do not appear on the site.
How Does One Begin?
When using Geni.com, you are not left to your own devices. A vibrant user forum with a help facility is hosted by the site, and assistance can be obtained by either an email to the website’s help desk or by visiting numerous “how-to” videos posted at www.youtube.com.
One starts a family tree by visiting the site at www.geni.com and obtaining a password. From there, you will be led to a family tree page with a box chart containing only one box — yours. Starting with arrows surrounding your own box for parents, siblings, children and spouses, you may begin adding boxes to your tree in a continuously branching fashion. Once a box for one of your relatives has been created, you may click on the person’s box with your mouse to access their personal page, and enter their personal details or add photographs, videos, documents, and commentary. Having created a person’s box, you are for the time being, its “manager,” meaning that you have the ability to control privacy settings for that person’s profile on the site. Additionally, you will receive any genealogical inquiries concerning the profile from others who may have located the profile using the Geni.com search engine or automated matching (more on that later).
If a family member that you have entered onto the tree has email, you may enter her email address into her box on the family tree or onto the “email” setting on her personal page. If you check the box marked “invite”, the geni.com website will automatically send to that address a personalized email from you inviting the recipient to register at Geni.com and collaborate on building your family tree. Once enrolled, the new family member will assume complete control over his own profile and additionally be able to add family members to the tree, communicate with other family members, or upload and tag photographs. Members of my family with no prior genealogical interest have reported that working on the tree is as addictive as the daily New York Times crossword puzzle, and, in some cases, entire family photograph albums have been scanned and uploaded to the site where their contents may be linked to specific relatives and family events. The site appears to accommodate all alphabets, and I have entered family member’s names in Hebrew and Cyrillic within a single profile by using virtual keyboards found online.
GeniPro Upgrade Offers Automated Matching and Other Features
In addition to the features described above, which are free, Geni.com offers a premium service containing additional genealogical research tools for $4.99 per month, including an ability to export your entire family tree (up to 100,000 members) into a single GEDCOM file, access to expedited online customer support, an expanded search function allowing searches based on locations, dates and soundex, and most importantly, the use of an automated matching function.
The matching function operates by continuously comparing the individuals on your tree to the other 60 million who have already been uploaded to the Geni.com Web site. When a matching name is located, the website will place a small notation indicating a potential match both on your family member’s record on the family tree box chart as well as on that person’s personal page. With a click on either notation, you are brought to a page listing the names of matching entries, and if known, their dates of birth and death and the names of any identified parents, children, siblings and spouses. If the proposed match appears genuine by virtue of this information, you may click a button and request a merge with the individual listed if he or she has previously registered with Geni.com, or if the person has not registered or is deceased, you may send a request to the Geni.com member who “manages” the entry (as described, typically the individual who placed the matching family member on the tree in the first place). If you do not recognize the match, you may permanently remove it from your list of potential matches.
Aside from the site’s user-friendly interface, the matching and merging features of Geni.com are its greatest asset. Since the matching feature became available, I have made remarkable discoveries of long-lost branches, in some cases solving riddles that had bedeviled me for more than two decades — and thereby restoring families torn apart by the Holocaust. Members of these newly discovered branches living in Hungary, Israel, Great Britain and elsewhere have proved to be my closest genealogical collaborators, and via the messaging function of Geni.com and personal visits, these family members are now among my dearest friends.
Genealogists with an existing family tree may reduce the time needed to create one on Geni.com by uploading a GEDCOM file. I caution, however, that there are thousands of Jewish families already represented on Geni.com, and in many cases another cousin may have already uploaded all or a portion of your tree. It can be a time-consuming process to merge duplicate entries on the site, making it prudent first to take advantage of the site’s search engine to determine the extent to which your branches are already entered. Then you can upload the only portions of your GEDCOM file that are new to Geni.com or provide important additional material.
As I mentioned earlier, individuals may limit the extent to which other members of the tree or outsiders may view their own profile or other profiles that they may manage. By default, the site permits relatives only up to fourth cousins to see one another’s details, but one may limit access even further if desired. In general, I leave out the personal details of living family members that I add to the tree, but members are free to add such information should they accept an invitation to join, and most do so enthusiastically. The regular exchange of greetings on birthdays and anniversaries is among the most delightful features of the site. Members may limit authority to change the information on their own profile or determine the frequency with which such family news is sent to their email address. Some of my cousins prefer daily updates, while others prefer to visit the site itself to catch up on family news.
I have found the sponsors of Geni.com to be eager to improve their product, and it is not unusual to log on one morning and find a major improvement added to the site overnight. The developers of Geni.com host an active user’s forum, and emails for tech support have been answered rapidly and to my complete satisfaction. Merging, automatic name-matching through a soundex algorithm, photograph tagging, GEDCOM import/export, instant messaging and Facebook interfaces, Google mapping, and numerous other features have been added during the past year at the recommendation of users, and development is ongoing. Many of the things I might wish for, such as a facility for Hebrew dates and cemetery information, are managed for the moment by attaching scans of original documents and by free form notes to individual entries. My greatest remaining concern, the long-term preservation of photographs and documents uploaded to the site, has not yet been addressed, but in time I would hope that a utility allowing for batched back-up of tagged photographs and other images will be provided.
Geni.com has allowed me to use the information lying dormant in my existing genealogical database as the foundation of a vibrant online community accessed by more than two dozen of my cousins every day (the site keeps track of their visits!) Exciting progress on our family tree has been generated through the search and merging functions, and genealogical brick walls have been overcome by the exchange of information, including family photographs, documents and personal recollections. Just as importantly, the collaborative nature of Geni.com has allowed genealogical breakthroughs to be followed closely by the building of relationships among family members in the far corners of the world, which has, after all, been an important part of Jewish life for the last two thousand years and a principal component of our survival as a people.
Adam Brown has been researching his family’s origins in Belarus, Poland and Hungary for over two decades. He is the founder/coordinator of the Jewish Heritage Project, a genealogical DNA database with over 950 participants hosted at www.FamilyTreeDNA.com. He is a past President of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, NJ, and founded of its high school. When not practicing law in New Jersey, Adam works winters as a radio communications / information technology specialist at a remote Antarctic field camp near the South Pole.