Is "Biography" the right term for the most common heading on WT?

+12 votes
The most common body text section on Wikitree, often the only one, is "Biography". I think the word is being used in an odd way which leads to worse articles.

First of all please note that in genealogy it is common to use terms like "vital statistics" to describe the skeletal types of information we can collect for most historical people:  baptisms, births, marriages etc. There are many other terms possible ("life records", "records"?), but "biography" is NOT one of them. A biography is clearly understood by most people as an extended and even flowery narrative.

For notable people, ones where biographical material is easy to find, I think Wikitree does a TERRIBLE job, and I constantly see concerns raised about for example our royal profiles. It is easier to link to Wikipedia, and indeed to edit Wikipedia directly if it needs improvement.

Let's be honest about what this website can be good at and what it can be bad at.

For people where such an article is not possible then I think we should normally have different title such as "Life records" to complement the "Research notes" (if any).

I think any real remaining biography sections should have a policy of being short and linking to Wikipedia, unless they are for people not notable enough to have a Wikipedia article. Most people of course either have not enough information to write a biography, or are notable enough to have a Wikipedia article. So such a rule would narrow down the category and guide editors in a more clear and concise way.
in Policy and Style by Andrew Lancaster G2G6 Pilot (144k points)
"Records and sources" might be a better term for what we WANT people to write about.
"Recorded life events"?
Maybe it will help to avoid misunderstandings if I say that one reason I felt moved to post here is that I often see Wikitree articles which are basically poor Wikipedia type articles, whereas the real Wikipedia articles, while much better, are not very good on genealogical details. (Discussions about when someone was born, illegitimates, wills, etc.) Surely this is where we can really make a difference?

Again, my point is about thinking honestly about what Wikitree is (or can be) really good at. If you have famous ancestors, you can work in Wikipedia, but what if those famous ancestors are part of an interesting genealogical discussion which is too detailed for them?

As far as creative non genealogical narrative is concerned I think it should therefore be limited to the small number of people where there are lots of records, but the person is not notable outside of genealogy and therefore deserves no Wikipedia article. We all have a few of these?

But if we try to be like a B grade Wikipedia we will do that badly and also do no service to genealogy - which we COULD do.
Richard, it is indeed a link which shows what "Biography" currently means on Wikitree, which can be contrasted against the normal use of the word in English, and then you can compare both these to the poor results usually attained. That is my point.

Pasting from a sub-thread for clarification: I seek no proscription. I seek more detailed guidelines, which distinguish the different types of approach that should be taken for at least 3 categories:

1. Notables.

2. Non notables who nevertheless have lots of records, and where Wikitree might be the best or only place writing a biography.

3. People where only basic skeletal records are available, and where we AT LEAST, before anything else, want those records explained and commented on.

Also I would like a terminology and wording which emphasizes the highest priority is 3, and lowest is 1.

More concrete proposal. Looking at the link Richard refers to above:

1. I propose changing the name of what is ALREADY described as the "most basic" minimum section to suit the description it ALREADY has so that people can not easily forget the purpose: "the purpose of the text is to tell the story of your ancestor by providing more detail about the vital statistics, including explanations and information about where you got the information".

2. "Biography" as per its normal usage, should be the name of an optional extra section (like "Research Notes" etc) and our help pages etc should explain when and how to write those, distinguishing typically important categories such as notables and non-notables, and emphasizing the fact-orientation.

5 Answers

+22 votes
Best answer
If we record just vital statistics and sources then our people are just meaningless names on a tree.  Geni and FamilySearch has that covered.  By adding biographies, we are making our ancestors a part of a fleshed out history.

If all I have are the basic records, I can write a small biography that includes circumstances of birth (like they were born on a ship coming to the U.S.), a list of their known children, how many times they moved in their lives (useful for finding the birth records of their children) and how they died.

My many great grandfather does not have a Wikipedia page.  But, I know that he escaped political strife during the Jacobite Wars and came to the New World to remain free.  Here, he built a home in the dense forest then was scalped by a native tribe and his son captured.   If I wanted to, I could write a two page biography with that little bit of information.  It just depends on how much detail I want to go into.

I also found an interesting family who were involved in a multi-family feud.  Those were fun biographies.  Then, there was the ancestor who had many wives and no divorces. . . another interesting bio.

Daniel Boone didn't work alone. . . our family members were beside him.  The Founding Fathers would have no country to found if it weren't for the sacrifices of ancestors without Wikipedia pages.  We get to honor those who made every one of us possible through the biography section.   I think it's important.  It's why I chose Wikitree.
by Saundra Stewart G2G6 Mach 6 (62.3k points)
selected by Steven Harris
Thanks Saundra, because I think my thoughts need feedback to make them clear. I have no problem with a "biographical" section like you describe, but my point is that

For MOST people we write about in Wikitree, at least before 1850 or so, this will be a section based on a handful of concrete records, to be complemented by a speculative "Research notes" section. And this is not what I call a biography. (I should remark that for people who mainly work on recent ancestors, my whole point may be irrelevant then! In this area we often have newspapers, letters, family stories etc. I am talking about the work going further back.)

Of course we all have a few ancestors who we have interesting records about, even though they were not famous. That is great and we should then have biography sections. Those are the types of people I think we are best at as genealogists. But making "BIOGRAPHY" the main title of a section which will appear in every article including all the peasants in the 1600s and 1700s seems a strange use of words.

What I think we want for those peasants is basic information about what records were found and so on. This is not a biography, and so I suggest something like "Records and sources" as a basic section, with biography sections to be added when appropriate.
I apologize up front Saundra, as I am one of those who just put in the basic facts.

I joined WikiTree due to concept of the Global Family Tree.  Unlike other sites, we can easily connect to research on WikiTree that was added by someone other than yourself.  Also, there is only one Profile per name or there should be.  And here we pay attention to accuracy of our data, unlike other sites.  Does this hold true elsewhere?

I do not look at WikiTree as a true research site in genealogy, except through the G2G Forum. I see it as an Archive of the research performed somewhere else with Research as a bonus.

So, I don't write stories for people I never knew.  Does that make me a bad WikiTreer not following the grand scheme of things? No.  If you want to write stories, by all means do so, but do not belittle those of us who don't.  This is a an Open Site, and as long as you follow the Honor Code and basic tenets on sources, there is no truly right WikiTree Profile.  Sadly though, there are more than a few bad Profiles.

And by the way Andrew, it is acceptable to put in ==Timeline== as a header for for basic information presented in order below the ==Biography== header.  See:
I never intended to belittle anyone, LJ.  You don't have to write any biography at all.  I often find myself adding research and bios for nearly empty GEDCOM entries and enjoy every minute of it.  It's one of perks of being a collaborative site.
Agreed.  I guess I am more of a connector.  I love the collaborative side of WikiTree in creating the Global Family Tree.  You just never know where it leads.
But Sandra what do you add if there is nothing but for example a baptism date? Again, I think there are certain types of profiles which deserve a biography, but not all profiles do. Am I wrong?

(And just to remind, I realize that one way to avoid thinking about this is to re-define the word "biography" so that it covers a single baptismal record. I am NOT really seeing that as valid or interesting. We should use words with their normal meanings.)
I joined WikiTree because it met my need for a site that values Sources, Collaboration and, yes, Biographies.  I had spent years finding and recording "facts" and "sources" for my ancestors.  The folks are not "notables", but they had stories and were important to their own families and communities.  I was looking for a place to write their story as completely and well sourced as I could with the goal of finding "holes" in that story where either I or another member might find a record that would help to fill out that story as more sources become available.

A list of life facts - name, birth date, etc. with sources like 1850 U. S. Census are not helpful or what I look for in a profile.  

I want to know what the census record told about the family.  Had they moved since the prior record?  Were there children born in the decade?  If someone is missing, what happened to them - a death or marriage?  It is true that it is difficult to know everything about these families but even a child who died young was important to that family.  Many times in doing this, I have found that what was accepted in previous trees was incorrect.

I guess I am looking for a place to recognize these lives.  I love to find cousins who are doing the same for families that intersect with mine through siblings or spouses of my direct line.


Baily Bibby was long missing in my family story.  His wife Martha was assumed to be the daughter of Eli Bibby.  It took some digging but I was able to connect him to the daughters who lost him at Gettysburg.  I hope that at some point one of the descendants of his daughters will find their way back to him and appreciate the stories of his widow and young daughters.

I respect others right to approach the task of a world tree as they see fit, but this is my take on my part of the contribution.  My wish would be to make the Biography section a more important part of what happens here.

Cherry that is great for ancestors where you really have such information. I not only understand but work the same way. But my point is that the most basic set-up for the simplest article should start with the basic facts. When a real biography can be written without making stuff up that is fantastic. It is an added bonus.

An added bonus is not the same as the basic starter pack.
A profile that has a baptism date is a good beginning.  Because it's still in the early stages of being fleshed out something like, "John Doe was baptized at the Episcopal Church in Boston, Massachusetts on 1 Jan 1762.  Jane Smith and Adam Doe were the witnesses".

With just that little bio, one can search for more information about the person from the church records, the town and county histories, and the connections the witnesses have to the parents.  A baptism record almost always leads to siblings and, many times, marriage records.  Witnesses are often close family members.

Which brings back to Andrew's original question regarding the use of Biography as the header in the text portion of a Profile.  Is its use practical for this site considering the amount of diverse replies to his question?

From Wikipedia :

The terms "genealogy" and "family history" are often used synonymously, but some offer a slight difference in definition. The Society of Genealogists, while also using the terms interchangeably, describes genealogy as the "establishment of a Pedigree by extracting evidence, from valid sources, of how one generation is connected to the next" and family history as "a biographical study of a genealogically proven family and of the community and country in which they lived".[3] The term "family history" may be more popular in Europe, "genealogy" more popular in the United States.[4]

Writing a historical narrative for each Profile does not make it better or worse than those displaying the vital statistics.alone. And visa versa. Each is recognized as a valid genealogical device.   The point is to prove a valid interpretation of data to prove lineage.  How you display it is your decision...on an Open Site. 

On the  WikiTree Main Page: "Our community uses DNA and traditional genealogical sources to grow an accurate single family tree."   I've looked and as of yet, can't find a goal where we were to create the World's Greatest Family History Tome.  Wink, wink.

The whole point counter point over historical narrative vs. basic facts makes me think of the Dr Suess story about Star Bely Sneeches.  And at times I feel I have no star on my belly.

There is not always more Sandra. Or maybe there is more but it will not be found for 10 years.

My point, not to loose the thread, is that a new article does not need those details, but the minimum it needs is that the records be laid out. From there, we can build - over years if necessary. And in some happy cases a real biography will result.

What do we call that minimal starting text which simply lays some basic records on the table?

If we call it a biography we are basically avoiding talking about the above evolution and just treating the future article and the starting article as the same type of thing, without telling our editors how the article should normally start.
Fleshed out history.

Charles Edward Louis


For Stuart-33, biography, history, geography, and Y-DNA are nicely interwoven, to tell the man's times, his story, and his place in history. I judge Stuart-33 to be an exemplary profile.


Richard J, Amherst Co., Virginia

You mention Daniel Boone-34. For the Boone-34 profile, the biography, history, geography, are nicely interwoven, to tell the man's times, his story, and his place in history. I judge Boone-34 to be an exemplary profile for a NOTABLE person.

When the father of the United States Nuclear Navy, Admiral Hyman Rickover, writes a biography of Daniel Boone-34 and names a nuclear submarine after Daniel Boone-34, THIS IS A BIG DEAL. These actions are world navel history. 

When Lord Byron writes his Sonnet 8 with lines about Daniel Boone-34, and this Sonnet 8 is processed by Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, this is world literature and world history. 

The above facts would not be listed on Daniel Boone's Wikipedia page and would not be discovered by ordinary casual researchers.

But, these facts are sourced and assembled on the Boone-34 profile. I judge the Boone-34 profile to be exemplary of a "fleshed-out" biography. Again, I judge Daniel Boone-34 to be an exemplary profile for a NOTABLE person.

+7 votes
Andrew we already have a sources heading that covers your "Records and sources". The heading for the section that the facts are restated so that sources can be linked to them is where you should write at least a short biographical story telling his life, when and where they were born, parents, who and when they married along with the location, and when along with where they died. and that is a basic biography.

So yes the heading Biography would be correct.
by Dale Byers G2G Astronaut (1.7m points)

I think you are misunderstanding me. I said that the term "Biography" is not an accurate term for the minimum section we want every profile to have. As a name to replace it I only give suggestions.

Let's say we have a person, like millions of them, where we have only two scribbled records in a parish register.

What I understand as a very strong consensus is that we want every article to having sourcing. The "Sources" section you are talking about names the sources, such as a baptismal register, but it rarely explains what the register says. That goes in the body. Correct so far?

So what should the title be of the section about the Sources section which says that we have two records for John Smith, two baptism of children which name the parents as John Smith. I am saying that calling such a section a "biography" leads to bad writing, at least for pre 1800.

The section should surely be more accurately called "Recorded life events" or something? A real biography is something else, and should be more unusual on wikitree.


I understand what you are saying but as others have pointed out the term applies to  what we do here. Some biographies on here are very well written but even with very limited information you should be able to do at least what I have on this profile, and that is a biography by the definition of the word.
The profile that I linked to is for someone who is not related to me and I had no special knowledge of him prior to creating his profile. I am also sure that if I keep digging I will uncover more about him that could be added to his biography.
Dale that "biography" is good but it is not really a biography. Biography is an English word and also a word well known to genealogists. It is distinct from this type of article.

I think one aspect of what I am saying that is hardest to get across to people who've learned to accept the jargon here is that I am saying some articles here DO (importantly) deserve a biography (as per normal English) and some don't.

Our instructions and mission statements should guide people about that rather than confusing it. And let's be honest, the confusion was not some specially developed policy but just comes from a more primitive phase of this wiki. Why now enshrine it into a constitution?
And there we will always disagree. ALL profiles deserve a Biography. I have found by taking free courses offered at my local library that there is a wealth of sources out there that most on WikiTree do not utilize. So other sources can be found for most profiles. And no matter how you want to try to spin it that does not change the definition, a biography is only a written account of another persons life and some will always better than others but they are all biographies so the heading applies as it should.
Dale, apparently you are not very experienced in genealogy. When you get some experience then I predict you will understand.

Most of us have a small number of ancestors where we have something to say that approaches a biography. If they are not famous, then this is probably because they lived relatively recently, for example after the invention of newspapers. That is a small but important part of genealogy, which deserves the correct word biography for the aim we should have.

Wikitree needs to handle people back to the 7th century. Wikitree policy needs to handle all periods.

Andrew, Your statement "Dale, apparently you are not very experienced in genealogy. When you get some experience then I predict you will understand." is uninformed and insulting. I have been working on genealogy since the 1970's and working on genealogy on computers since the mid 1980's. I have worked on many programs and websites over the years and even joined WikiTree before you did. It would seem that since you just want to dumb down WikiTree to fit your desires.

Dale, you described yourself as being in a learning phase. I am pointing out to you that logically it makes no sense for someone in that position to be saying "we will never agree". It is always going to be hard to keep a conversation "quality oriented" when people take a downhill approach like that. What I am talking about in the descriptions you object to so strongly is a description of reality and it does indeed seem to me that you simply are not so familiar with it.

"All profiles" do not deserve a real biography, because to do that would mean to fabricate lies. All profiles do however deserve at least a discussion of the records.

What we have now very often are long attempts to write history or a novel, but ZERO discussion of the sourcing issues.

Andrew, the day I stop learning is the day they start planning my funeral. You should have no reason from my statement that I took courses on genealogy sometime in the past that I have limited experience in genealogy because you do not have the facts about when or why I took them. I do not create profiles that have only one source as a rule, the ones I do create with only one source I usually have other sources to add later, but if you only have a baptism record then how do you count the them as ancestors. I am saying rather than to try and change the actual definition of the word biography and to change the headings try and promote the finding and adding of better sources, that is where the real quality improvement will come from.

Dale, your comment that every profile can and should have a real biography (not just comments about isolated records) is not something I can follow and seems to me to show a lack of experience, unless I am completely misunderstanding it.

If the only surviving record of a person is as parent in a baptismal register, then no amount of effort or good work will ever give you enough information to write a biography. Am I wrong? What am I missing here?

Your idea seems to be that by using the word "Biography" the dream will come true. In any case this is clearly not what the writers of the EXISTING guidelines though, because they also recognize the need for defining what the minimum basic information should be, and that description, which already exists, does not match the word "biography". See my comments above.

Using the word "biography" does not help our editors understand that the first basic aim is not a narrative, but to get the records on the table.

When there is enough information to make a descent genealogical biography then that is great, but how can you possibly say that every article can and should be seen as being in this situation?
I am not going to waste my time arguing with you but rather spend that time finding and adding sources so that I can give most if not all of the profiles I manage a biography, or in simpler terms tell their story to the best of my ability.
We have no disagreement about the importance of adding sources, when they exist. My original point was a proposal to tweak terminology and guidelines so that this would indeed be more clear for all editors.
+17 votes

Definition from Biography: a written account of another person's life.

This sounds to me like what I put in the == Biography== section. Some are short, some are long, some are good, some lack a sentence structure, but all are a written account of another person's life.

There are many excellent biographies on Wikitree and to put them under all under a heading such as "Life records" would be an injustice.

by Anne B G2G Astronaut (1.3m points)
Always a a bad sign for a discussion when someone start calling something trivial an "injustice". Really?

"A written account of a person's life" is not for example a baptism, is it? For very many people on Wikitree we do not have much more. If we are to use dramatic language I would say that it is a crime against the word biography, indeed against the noble English language, to call a note about a baptism, a "biography". Less dramatically, it is a wrong use of a word, and a poor way of explaining the aims of a writing job. Clear explanations in clear English can help Wikitree do better.

Furthermore, for famous people where lots of information is available, I am saying that WT biographies should NOT focus on the whole of a person's life or otherwise we are just "Wikipedia B". Surely what we can do better than Wikipidia is focus on the genealogical details of historical figures. Or perhaps I should say that it is a tragic insult and attack upon Wikitree to try to make it embarrass itself so badly and fail in its noble aims. More simple, less dramatic: it is possible to do better if we aim carefully at what we can do best. Are we allowed to make such proposals?

And the area where I think we are able to add something to the Biography world is for ancestors who no one else writes about: convicts, settlers, soldiers, merchants and whoever.

We have SO FEW good articles, so please let's focus our efforts? Wikitree is VERY far from being in a condition where we can sit back and relax!
When I wrote my answer and posted it. I thought, maybe I went too far with the last line. I guess I should have listened to myself, and thought of a slightly softer word (which I still can't think of or I would edit the last word.)

OK thanks Anne, and anyway I enjoyed being a bit sarcastic. Hopefully no problem there. But honestly, my point, to try another way, it that we have 3 types of "Biography" and the MAIN one, and the most basic one which we want people to start with (looking at the basics and the sources) is not really a biography.

I am trying hard to explain something I know will not immediately "click" with people used to the current system. But I believe it is will be very obvious to any good genealogist who looks at Wikitree. Please believe me that such good genealogists do not often think Wikitree looks promising.

Anne, I agree with you about everything you wrote here. I think the real problem is not the heading name but rather the lack of research and writing skills for some of us, myself included. After taking a couple of local genealogy courses I have found how to find many more sources from places that I never even knew existed but sadly my writing skills are not that great. I think the real goal would be to help each other with the profiles by each of us contributing what we can do best, in my case that is research and allow others who can write biographies better to do so.
Clear guidelines and heading can help editors.
+6 votes
Andrew - I agree with you re bios of notables, but I don't think changing the section heading is the best way to address that. I think we should just have more guidance as to what should go in it.
by Chase Ashley G2G6 Pilot (315k points)
Hi Chase, actually I agree concerning notables. I see 3 types of "Biography" we have now: the notables and the "genealogically notables" (non famous people who no one but genealogists would write up) deserve real Biographies.

It is the 3rd type, the main type, who only "deserve" and CAN only get a summary of the records. Also, this is surely what we want people to make FIRST on EVERY new profile. (Biographies can be added later even for famous people.)
Andrew, Every profile deserves real Biographies. It is not the sources or lack of sources that limits what we can write about the non notables but rather the skill set of the writer and the section header will not help with that.
Dale sorry but that is not true. If all we know about someone is a parish register entry, which is all we know about many people, then to make a true biography means telling fibs.
Andrew, Just changing the header does not improve anything. Improvement comes by better sourcing skills and collaboration.
I am proposing more detailed guidelines, not only a name change. May this not be proposed and considered seriously? "Sourcing skills" are something that people like myself on wikitree are trying to spread and encourage. They don't come from nowhere. This proposal could help.

One problem on wikitree is that every time someone proposes an improvement it is the least experienced genealogists who jump in and are most aggressive about blocking even any consideration of trying to make anything better? Perhaps this is because the least experienced genealogists are most focused on the a small number of profiles of relatively recent generations, and when they see proposals for higher quality standards they worry that someone is going to come and change what they wrote about them. Wikitree is however MUCH bigger.

Please gunderstand: Wikitree is currently for the most part terrible quality genealogy. That is not a criticism, but a description of what we who work on it hope to be temporary. A good quality Wikitree is a long term dream that will require new ideas and lots of work. Wikitree's quality is not changing incredibly quickly the way it works now, because the difficulty of getting it in order is part of the problem. Therefore we know it is not just a question of time and effort. Quality will not come about at all if discussion about ideas to improve gets blocked this way.
+5 votes
It seems that you desire more proscription whereas I desire less.  In the biography section, I include a timeline (generously provided for me by Wikitree X), occupations gleaned from census and other records, research notes to explain discrepancies in what I find, and *sometimes* even a biography.  The problem is, about all you can say about many women during many periods of time in history is that this person was born to so and so, married so and so, and was a mother to so and so.  Women's lives were narrowly defined, so unless I find a newspaper article or a biography with more details somewhere, that's about the best I can do.

If, by chance, someone was notable, like a few of the profiles I've created for Nobel prize winners and famous innovators (not usually flavor of the month celebrities), I seek biographical information outside of Wikipedia.  I might cite Wikipedia, I might look at the sources listed there and, if I use content from them, cite them.  But for notables, where information outside of basic records exists, I use what I can find.  However, none of my notables profiles are in any way "finished."  It takes a long time to do an adequate job.  

I think it's fine for each of us to have our own definition of what belongs in the Biography section.  It's even fine to include what Wikitree suggests.  It's fine to have a discussion.  But I doubt that I'll change the way I'm using that section even if the name changes to something else--which surely it would be too involved to do, for very little benefit.
by J. Crook G2G6 Pilot (231k points)
No I seek no proscription. I seek more detailed guidelines, which distinguish the different types of approach that should be taken for at least 3 categories:

1. Notables.

2. Non notables who nevertheless have lots of records, and where Wikitree might be the best or only place writing a biography.

3. People where only basic skeletal records are available, and where we AT LEAST, before anything else, want those records explained and commented on.

Also I would like a terminology and wording which emphasizes the highest priority is 3, and lowest is 1.

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