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Always Looking – Genealogy Wars

By John I. Blair

Always Looking – Genealogy Wars

Genealogy is a genteel pastime for little old ladies and gentlemen who wouldn’t hurt a fly – right?

Guess again.

Little – maybe. Old – no doubt most genealogy buffs are past 50, young enough to still have their mental faculties, but old enough to realize they don’t have forever for the research.

Genteel – you wouldn’t think so if you were to read some of the exchanges that take place on genealogy blogs or in some special-interest meetings. Rules of engagement are requisite; referees advisable. Facts are challenged; names called; mamas insulted.

And why would something as dusty as family history be so liable to verbal dueling? Think about it. Many people (especially those with little else to boast about) take great pride in their family heritage. Even if that heritage has to be buffed up a bit, turned just the right way to look its best, selectively pruned to leave only the finest fruit – pick a metaphor; you get the point.

I started off this series of columns with one titled “Always Looking for the Horse Thief.” I titled that partly with a view to humor, but partly looking over my shoulder for angry kinfolk. You never know who will take offense, especially if there really was a horse thief. That horse thief had grandchildren. (And great grandchildren.) And they know where I live.

But oddly enough, shady dealings in the past aren’t usually the worst causes of venom in the present. Some people actually appear to find satisfaction in thinking one of their ancestors was involved in dubious dealings – the shadier the better. One of my genealogy buddies told me at length about a great-great uncle of his who was the most notorious train robber in New Mexico and eventually was hanged for his sins. I almost thought my friend was boasting just a bit.

No, the worst wellsprings of wrath in genealogy are territorial and procedural. In other words, somebody poaching your great-granddaddy on FindAGrave. Somebody puffing out their private genealogy website with research you did, and not giving credit. Somebody posting photos downloaded from someone else’s album, without permission. And (most common) somebody presenting elaborate family trees constructed partly from fact, partly from supposition and wishful thinking. And not distinguishing the two.

We’ve all been tempted. All too many of us have succumbed to temptation in the enthusiasm of a project. Mea culpa, just a teensy bit. I’ve lifted family photos from a cousin’s brochure project. (He’s no longer around to complain.) Cherry picked names and dates from a friend’s research. (I tell myself he’s welcome to do that with mine.) Quoted obituaries without giving the source. (I try to go back and correct that when I can – nowadays.) And included a couple of names in my line because they just seemed very plausible, without footnoting that factor.

So far I’ve gotten off easy. Either nobody’s caught me, or at least nobody who cared. Not so for others. Internet genealogy sites are full of verbal flame wars that started over less than this. Entire sites devoted to family history have had their reputation sullied in public. Consequently the whole field has gotten a bit of a black eye. Which is a shame, because learning about family history should be a constructive, positive, restorative influence on families.

I think that much of this could be avoided by just following a few guidelines.

    1. Always check your sources for credibility. I talked about this in a previous column. Most of us, if we really think about it, can develop a pretty good idea whether a source is really A1 (census records, birth records, baptism records, death certificates, wedding certificates, military service records), A2 (news articles, obituaries, scholarly books), or perhaps 4F (Uncle Fred talking about great-grandpa’s incredible fishing prowess).
    2. Always check for copyrights on sources you plan on quoting in print. If they exist, then get permission to quote. Or at least document the sources.
    3. Always make sure photos or artwork are either taken/drawn by you in person, in the public domain, or taken/drawn by people who have given you permission to reproduce them.
    4. Walk on eggs when it comes to “competitive” websites such as FindAGrave, where several different people may all want to post a memorial for a common relative (and only one is allowed).

Above all else, be civil, be circumspect, be nice. Thank all the people who help you with research, most of them for free. Give credit where credit is due. Use common sense. The world of genealogy is full of touchy egos, but also full of some of the nicest, most generous people you would ever want to meet (even if only by mail/e-mail). Cherish them. Follow the Golden Rule.

©2010 John I. Blair

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