Genealogy and Wikis

What is a wiki?
How to use a wiki for genealogy
Wikis for displaying family data
Wikis for other genealogical uses

What is a wiki?

A wiki is a tool that allows users to collaborate in the creation of web pages. Generally, any user is allowed to create a new page and all users are allowed to edit any page. Typically, each user can add to, modify or delete the work of any previous author. Some wikis, however, require users to register to discourage edit wars and vandalism, which are an unfortunate side effect of the free-wheeling editing allowed on most wikis. Some wiki software allows administrators to "lock" certain pages without requiring everyone to register. Depending upon the specific software used, the wiki may have features such as a full history of all changes, permitting a user to see all previous versions (and revert to them in the event that the subsequent changes are not appropriate).

Because of the collaborative nature of a wiki, most wikis require that all contributions be "free" for copying and reuse under some terms, such as the GNU Free Documentation License.

The world's largest wiki is Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, with over half a million articles in the English-language version and another half a million in other languages.

How to use a wiki for genealogy

I have been thinking that a wiki could be a useful tool in displaying family information. One of the problems inherent in the current methods for displaying genealogical information on the web is that "bad" information can stay on the web indefinitely and get picked up by others. It is very frustrating to see wrong information not only remain on the Internet but actually proliferate as other researchers find the wrong information and incorporate it into their own posted information.

In the case of static websites, all you can do when you see misinformation is attempt to contact the owner of the website and hope that he or she corrects the information. Too often I have found that the person posting the information had a brief interest in genealogy, collected and posted information in a burst of energy, and has now lost interest. Even in my own case, when my current efforts are concentrated in one family line, it is often difficult to find time to go back to an entirely different line every time someone sends me new or slightly different information.

Some corrections of existing information are a little easier. For example, if an error is contained in a message posted in a forum or sent to a mailing list, you can post your own response. The erroneous information remains in the forum or the mailing list archive, however. You must hope that a researcher who finds the wrong information is diligent enough to also find your correction.

Another way of posting corrections can be found at RootsWeb. On that website, users can add a "Post-em" note to many types of information, including entries in the WorldConnect database. Still, the original wrong information gets displayed first and the researcher must click a small icon to see the Post-em with the corrected information. On many types of reports, there is no evidence that at a Post-em even exists.

Of course, bad information is not limited to websites. Even the best printed genealogy is going to have its shares of errors. Many "facts" that have long since been disproved continue to appear on websites and in GEDCOM files when researchers post information gleaned from these printed sources.

Clearly, a wiki can help by making it easier to correct the wrong information. My question, which I still have not answered to my own satisfaction, is how to structure the information within the wiki format so that it is "scalable." For example, genealogy databases typically assign a unique number to each individual so that two people with the same name can be readily distinguished. Keeping individuals straight can be a problem even in a small group if there are common names (such as John Smith) but as a wiki grows it will be a problem for almost any name. For example, in my Hammond family there appear to be at least four different people named Jedediah Hammond.

There have been a number of suggestions on how to deal with this issue within the wiki format, but none of these appears to be a workable solution. For example, one suggestion is to name a page:


What happens if you are missing one or both dates? Or you later find one of the dates is wrong? My guess is that you would end up with a lot of redirect pages, at the very least.

There is also an issue as to whether the format of each page should be standardized so that a GEDCOM file can be readily generated. In my mind, two of the benefits of the wiki are that it encourages free style commentary and that errors will eventually be corrected. Trying to force a date of death into a fixed format rather than explaining that you know the date your ancestor signed his will and the date it was admitted to probate runs counter to what I would want the wiki to do.

I will not repeat all the discussions I have read, but if you are interested, take a look at: Back to top

Wikis for displaying family data

In attempting to see how other genealogists are using wikis to display their family information, I Googled the terms genealogy and wiki. The search turned up several nascent wikis, all of which were very lean on content at this early stage. Nonetheless, the search did show that the users have selected a variety of wiki software and have developed a variety of structures for their information.

I found three fairly new wikis appear to be available to anyone to post their family information. Each of the wikis is organized a little differently than the others. To date, none of them has seen much activity.

  • FamilyTreeWiki, created by Jason Dunsmore in 2004, appears to be the oldest of the three sites. The wiki is highly structured. Each of the covered families is listed on the wiki's front page. Clicking on a family leads to a descendancy chart for that family. Clicking on an individual on the chart leads then to a page for that individual. The information on the individual is in entered into tables with specific fields, presumably so that selected data can be exported to a GEDCOM file. I think the organization scheme works well, but only up to a point. Here are some comments I have:
    • Although I like the descendancy chart for organizing a small family group, in a very large descendancy chart the task of locating the place to make an addition would be very difficult. I find it difficult to follow descendancy charts when I have to scroll off the page where the progenitor was located because I lose the visual link in the indentation scheme. With collaboration, descendancy charts could become huge. The Mayflower Families volume on my ancestor Francis Cooke lists 4,221 descendants through just five generations. Perhaps an answer would be to break the families into smaller groups, but that poses its own ease-of-use problems. It may also affect Jason's automation scheme.
    • There is no apparent easy way to deal with conflicting names. In a very short descendancy charts, I had three men named Benjamin Hammond and three named Jedediah Hammond, so I named them BenjaminHammond, BenjaminHammond2, BenjaminHammond3, etc... so that each would get his own page. In a more extended version of my descendancy chart, there would be dozens and dozens of multiple names. I thought about creating one disambiguation page for Benjamin Hammond but was concerned that doing so would disrupt the wiki's linking scheme, since the only place where a parent and child are linked is on the descendancy charts.
    • Entering the information on individuals into tables was very slow for me, even using the template and cutting and pasting from a report I had open. Jason lists a GEDCOM-to-Moin wiki-text conversion tool on his list of things to do. That would certainly make life easier.
    • Since the information on individuals is highly structured with limited fields, it will be difficult to show conflicting information, such as alternative birth dates. However, one of the listed fields is Narrative Biography, so there appears to flexibility to add a discussion of conflicting information in that field.

  • Genealogy Wikicity was created on December 31, 2004. The initial request was specifically for genealogies from the Muslim world, but the main page states that the wiki aspires to be truly global, with active contributors from multiple cultures and regions. (Another Wikicity, Slekt og familier, is a Norwegian language genealogy wiki with a similar goal.) The wiki has developed a fairly comprehensive template for people. A user has posted a very good page for Percy Stanley Marks using the people template.
    • The people template appears to be comprehensive yet flexible, though I question the value of including a subject's siblings, since they could easily be seen by clicking on a link to the parents (unless neither parent is known, of course).
    • Like the other wikis I looked at, the organizing scheme does not specifically address the problem of duplicate names. The convention for naming individual pages is "Person's full name (BirthYear-DeathYear)," which should minimize the problem, but will not entirely eliminate it. Out of curiosity, I searched the Social Security Death Index for a John Smith born in 1925 and died in 1995. Ignoring the different middle initials, there were 10 men who could be listed as John Smith (1925-1995) just in the United States. Two pairs shared the same middle initials.

  • WikiTree, the newest of the three wikis discussed here, was initiated by TomᚠJ. Fülöpp on 26 April 2005. The stated aim of WikiTree is to bring together personal profiles of all people who ever lived and automatically construct bloodline trees of families that will gradually start forming a global family forest of humanity. All children of a couple are listed on the couple's page with wiki links to the children's own pages. Parents are not listed on an individual's page, but by using the "what links here" function of the wiki software, a user can click through to a special page that lists the subject's parents. This site is brand new so some of the concepts may still be in flux.
    • The names of the subject's parents do not appear on the subject's page. This not only means an extra click or two when you are online, but when you print out a person's page, his parents will not be listed.
    • While the main page states that you can also add information in addition to the dates and places of the subject's birth and death and the names of the subject's children, there is no template for adding such crucial information as names of spouses, dates of marriage, etc...
    • The ability to link related material is an important feature of wiki software. I may misunderstand how the automatic linking works, but it seems to me that by using the "what links here" feature to define a single relationship (parent-child), other links will create problems. For example, if you linked to a subject's sibling or grandfather in the narrative portion of the page, it seems that the assumption that the "what links here" test points to parents would be invalid.
Another wiki with a somewhat different goal is BioJack Global Human Registry Project. That site was begun on October 21, 2004 by Jason Banico. His vision is to have a centralized repository of biographical data of individuals all over the world, containing information on famous figures in history, current newsmakers, celebrities, local figures and individuals. However, there is no structure to create links between individuals, so I do not consider it to be a genealogy wiki.

In addition, I found a number of sites that have wikis devoted to a particular family:
  • EskelinWiki - about Eskelins and Eskelinens around the world.

  • Koehl - a website set up by Dan Koehl. At present (9 May 2005) there appears to be some content on this site, but I find the navigation to be very difficult.

  • Leech Genealogy and Family History Wiki - the main page states that the wiki is being developed to provide a narrative history of the families and individuals listed on the Leech Genealogy and Family History Website. There are several descendancy charts which have individuals with active links, but clicking on several links always led to blank pages.

  • Manes Family Genealogy - the main page contains several descendancy charts which show some individuals with active links. Clicking on a link led to a new page containing a brief narrative of the named individual.

  • Pfuntner Genealogy wiki - a wiki created by Walter Alan Pfuntner, Jr.

  • Weirich On the Web Wiki - a wiki created by Jim Weirich to replace his previous Weirich On the Web website. Only three individual were listed in the "Families" section of the wiki as of 9 May 2005, but there are articles in other sections of the wiki covering the origin of the family name and other individuals (copied from the previous web site).
I decided to try my own hand, as well. I haven't done much with it, but I have the start of a Hammond Genealogy wiki on, a free service. Feel free to stop by and try it out. Back to top

Wikis for other genealogical uses

Although at present there are very few wikis that display family data, there are a number of wikis that have genealogical purposes or uses. A few of the ones I found are:
  • Wikipedia includes articles on dozens of subjects relating to genealogy, including topics such as genealogy, pedigree charts, and census. It also contains many family trees, particularly of royal families.

  • The Encyclopedia of Genealogy is a reference tool which was set up and is sponsored by Dick Eastman, author of Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter. In announcing the Encyclopedia of Genealogy in December, 2004, Dick stated: "The Encyclopedia of Genealogy serves as a free compendium of genealogical tools and techniques. It provides reference information about everything in genealogy except people. Look to the Encyclopedia of Genealogy to provide explanations of how to look up your family tree. It will also provide explanations of terms found in genealogy research, including obsolete medical and legal terms. In addition, it will describe locations where records may be found. Within a few months, this online encyclopedia will describe how to research Italian, German, Polish, French-Canadian, Jewish, Black, Indian, and other ancestors. In short, the Encyclopedia of Genealogy will serve as your standard genealogy reference manual." Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter, 9 December 2004. After a quick start, additions have slowed considerably (only three new entries and three other edits were made in the most recent 30 day period as of 9 May 2005), but the concept is still promising and the Encyclopedia of Genealogy still offers a useful starting point.

  • GenWiki is designed to become the main source for genealogy in German speaking areas of the world. It is maintained by the Society for Computergenealogy e. V. The German-language version of GenWiki appears to be a very comprehensive site, but unfortunately I do not read German.

  • WikiBooks - a "how-to" guide to conducting genealogy research. As of 9 May 2005, the genealogy wikibook is not much more than a skeleton with a few external links to commercial sites.

  • A number of genealogical societies have set up wikis. To date, the wikis appear to be used primarily for disseminating information on a society's meetings and programs.

  • The wiki at is currently home to the official website of the Posen-L mailing list (hosted by RootsWeb). However, from the description of the website, it is open for any genealogical purpose.

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This page was last updated: Monday, 11-Feb-2008 19:21:101 EDT
Copyright 2002-2008. David K. Staub, Chicago business attorney