Performing Data Cleanup in Your FamilySearch Tree

Not a Researcher? You Can Still Help! (Part 1 of 3)

NOTE: This series focuses on the free website. It is intended for people that have family members that have done research and published the data in the FamilySearch family tree.

3 Easy Tasks for Beginning Family History Work

In an earlier post I stated that there are many different activities that make up part of family history work. To all the tweens, teens, and the trembling, faint-hearted souls who feel a desire to participate but feel intimidated – I invite you to start with 3 activities:

  1. Performing data cleanup
  2. Attaching sources
  3. Indexing records to “Fuel the Find”

In part 1 of this series I will address data cleanup and standardization.

“Anyone Can Cook!” – Tips for Beginners

In Disney Pixar’s animated feature, Ratatouille, Chef Gusteau says “Anyone can cook!” I also believe that “Anyone can participate in family history.” One task a beginner can do is to “proofread” your family tree. In fact, some of the data in your family tree is “half-baked” so the cooking analogy is a good one! I guarantee there is plenty of data cleanup work that can be a good starting point to contribute to this work.

One of my earliest memories of personal involvement in genealogy involved using Personal Ancestral File (PAF) 2.0. PAF was one of the earliest computer software programs for storing your genealogy. I spent hours one summer as a young teen transcribing the information from handwritten pedigree charts and family group sheets.

This activity helped me at an early age to become familiar with the names and places associated with my ancestors. As a result, I could recite 8 generations back on my paternal line before I left Junior High. This experience also brought together two of my earliest fascinations – technology and genealogy.

“Cleanup on Aisle 9!”

Data cleanup

Some view this as a chore, but it can be very similar to my early experience with data entry. By doing this, you will become familiar with the names and places in your family tree while providing a valuable service. Data that is incorrect – or that is simply in the wrong format – makes it harder to find out more about your ancestors.

There are two approaches to finding the half-baked data in your family tree. Before getting in to these I must explain that FamilySearch stores each date and each place for each event in two different locations. First, it stores it in the white box where you enter the information (the “display” value). Second, it stores a “standard” date or place in the green (or yellow) bar below that. This “standard” is what helps you and others find matching records and individuals. It is a “behind-the-scenes” value the computer uses to match to a specific date in history and a specific location on the globe.

The “display” value does not have to equal the “standard” value! You can enter anything in the white display box, and as long as the system can find a “match” it will store a “standard” value behind the scenes.

Start off on the right foot

Standardized Place instructions

Instructions for entering standardized places

When entering data in the first place make sure you have a green bar before continuing. The system will accept a wide variety of different values in the white display box. Often this “extra” information is very valuable. For example, I have an ancestor for whom I cannot find a death record. The last time she was found (so far) was in the 1900 census at age 73. I can enter “after 1900” in the white bar and the system automatically matches it to a “standard” value of “1900.” The value of “1900” is then used by default when searching. However, by leaving the phrase “after 1900” it signals to all other researchers that, although I know she was alive in 1900, I don’t have an exact death date. For a (much) longer explanation on this visit the FamilySearch Community Forum.

How to Find Red Data Problems

Now, I will describe two different methods for finding data problems and correcting them.

1. Look for icons in the tree or descendancy view

Using the descendancy view can help you locate records with data problems. Go back in your family tree several generations and click on a person’s name. From the person card that pops up, click on “Tree” in the lower left corner. By default this will then take you to the tree view placing them as the “focus” person. This view shows spouse, children, parents, grandparents, and the spouse’s parents and grandparents. You can also see Data Problem icons here as well, but I like the descendancy view better for this task.View Descendancy

Next, from the view menu in the top-left corner, click on  the “View: Descendancy” icon as shown above.

Data Problem ExampleAt this point you can expand the view to see multiple generations. Look over at the right hand side for the Data Problems icon. In this example I see that Joshua Tackett’s wife, Elizabeth Mullins, has problems. Or more accurately, her record has data problems (we all have problems, right?!).Data Problem Example

By clicking on her name I am taken to Elizabeth Mullins’ record. In the Research Help box in the upper-right hand corner I see three problems listed.

  1. Missing Standardized Birthplace
  2. Married before 12
  3. Missing Standardized Marriage Place

Correct the Problems

No Standardized PlaceI can then proceed to correct these errors. I start with the marriage place. To do so, scroll down to the “Family Members”  section of the page. To the right of the couple click on the Edit Couple icon (the edit icon looks like a pencil in a box). A box expands and shows me details. I then click the marriage date and place and click “Edit.” Below “Place” I see a yellow bar with the message “No Standard Selected.” I can now correct the place so that a match is found in the Standards database.

What I notice immediately is the extra comma (“,”) in front of the county name, and that there is no country. This is actually a very common problem with the data. In many older programs (like PAF!), best practice was to include four elements to the place name: 1) city or town, 2) county or district, 3) state or province, and 4) country. If one of these was missing it was left “blank,” resulting in extra commas.

Choose a Standard PlaceBy simply deleting the comma in the front, I see a standard place appear in the drop list. I click on it and the value in the white box is replaced, and the yellow bar turns green. But remember what we learned above? The value in the white box doesn’t have to match exactly. If any matches appear in the drop down list it will “match” the top one if you simply click outside the gray area. So if you have information like “Methodist Church, Pike County, Kentucky” you could keep that there by clicking outside the gray area.

Rinse and repeat

Continue to correct data for each error you find. Don’t invent information! If the data is lacking or you aren’t sure what it means then leave it alone. You might make a note and ask someone else who knows more about this family. Also, be careful when selecting Standardized place names! Sometimes choosing the first one that appears will result in inaccuracies. For example, many county names appear in multiple states. If the data doesn’t include a state don’t guess! In addition, some large cities span multiple counties, so the suggestion that appears may put them in the wrong place. Be cautious but don’t be paranoid.

2. Use Find-A-Record

Find-A-Record analysis options

(Edit: November 13, 2018. Effective September 2018, has gone offline. However, many of the functions can now be replicated in one way or another using or the FamilySearch Family Tree app.)

Another option for finding Data Problems so you can perform data cleanup is to use the website This site is certified with FamilySearch and analyzes your data to help guide your research. It is an extremely useful tool, but today we will just focus on its ability to help with data cleanup.

After logging in with your FamilySearch ID, you will be presented with a bright and cheery list of Research Opportunities. For now, go ahead and uncheck all the options except for the orange “Cleanup” box. This will limit the suggestions to this category. By expanding the category (just click on it) you can get even more granular with the types of data cleanup suggestions it makes. Uncheck those you don’t want to worry about for now.

In the main part of the screen it then lists each opportunity. You can click on the FamilySearch ID to be taken straight to that person in FamilySearch and correct the issue. Or, if you want to see more information about the issue, click the “Details” link. You will find then get more information and suggestions of what to do.

When you are done making the change come back  to this page and click “Fixed.” This can be done from the opportunity list or from the details page. Doing so removes the suggestion from your list. For those that get satisfaction from checking things off a list, this interface is great!

Grab Your Cleaning Supplies!

So go ahead and give it a try. Helping with data cleanup will get you started with your family history. Having cleaner data will help improve the state of your family tree. It will also help find record matches and can be useful in other FamilySearch certified applications.

Tell us how your data cleanup goes!

Share this!


  1. Reply

    I hope someday that the FamilySearch Family Tree will be cleaned up, but I am afraid that one universal tree is a great dream, but not such a good reality. Thank you for sharing the steps to help the participants contribute accurate info.

  2. Reply

    Great ideas! I agree that everyone can help clean up the tree and it’s such a great task for beginners. Thanks for sharing these important ideas. It’s so good to get everyone involved in some aspect of family history. The more the merrier!

  3. Reply

    I just started a tree on FamilySearch, so I’ll try to keep your tips in mind. Thank you for sharing your post in the September Genealogy Blog Party! 🙂

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