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Armchair Genealogy

By Melinda Cohenour

What are the Ethics of Genealogical Research?

      Genealogical research, as is my oft-repeated refrain, is a rewarding avocation if not a full-time vocation. Through the decades as your author has meandered through online records, personal family documents, Family Bibles, books dedicated to preserving the memory of one or another of our ancestors, photographs both owned and loaned and discovered, it has come to my attention that not everyone follows the same set of “rules” as pertain to the ethical usage of materials in one’s own tree. So just what are the ethics surrounding use of materials generated by others? Obviously, one cannot have existed through all the lifetimes of all the characters that inhabit our family tree. It would be impossible to create a tree from the limited viewpoint of one individual person’s contact with their inner circle of relatives – no matter how large the family might have been! Thus, we all build upon that vast pool of knowledge that has been made available to us through the endeavors of those who went before us and from those whose paths of research trod those same footsteps as our own ancestors’.

      For purposes of properly crediting the work of those who have laboriously gathered the names, dates, and stories and then taken the time to put that information into a permanent record, we should always make sure we reference the historian’s name and refer to whatever title they used to preserve those memories and document those facts. This step is not only a common courtesy (often, actually, one necessitated by law), but also a valuable step to make sure we always know where that tidbit of information arose. Who gave me that photograph? What did they have to say about how they gained possession of it? What was written on the back or the margin of the photo itself? Was it enclosed in a letter and, if so, the perennial W’s of any good reporter’s arsenal come into play: Who, What, When, Where and Why?

      My family tree is maintained on, a wonderful site that furnishes access to millions and millions of original documents. It links to other family trees where the name and dates of birth, etc. appear to match. You can review page after page of handwritten Census records from 1790 to the most recent one made publicly available (always a lag of 70 years to ensure no living person’s personal information is made public without consent). You can read stories posted by others about common relatives and link that story to your own tree. But, here is where ethical questions frequently arise. It is always upsetting to find your own researched story or compilation of facts – facts you spent hours digging through libraries, or online sites, or books, or reviewing interviews with relatives to dig up and put together in a cohesive and meaningful fashion – offered up as a NEW story – WITH SOMEONE ELSE’S NAME ON IT!! Wow! What an affront! How dare they? But, this happens to me frequently as the duration of my research and numbers of stories shared publicly on my tree proliferate. There is a little quirk on Ancestry that posts your own name to stories that you find and Save to your own tree. It behooves us to take the extra time to make sure the person who originally shared that story is given full credit.

      And, this brings up another question of ethics. A number of years ago, I was merrily saving photographs made available publicly through Ancestry to my tree. I was absolutely delighted to be able to put a face to the name! And, then…I got a message from a cousin. This cousin was one who had not been introduced to me and whose name was unknown to me. Our relationship would have been quite a mystery had not it been clear she “owned” some of “my” relatives! Now, this gal really was angry with me for saving three or four of the photos she had saved to her Public Tree. She demanded to know HOW I was related to HER ancestor. And, when I offered my lineage, she questioned it. (I had to smile recently after my DNA was posted at the site and she showed up as a close cousin.) Every one of these photographs, of course, post to my tree with a notation by Ancestry that it was originally shared by … And shows any number of other folks who had also seen the pic and decided to save it to their own tree. She thought I should have messaged her privately and asked permission to use the pics. Here, I differ. Had she provided them to me via email or snail mail or by hand, I certainly would have asked permission to then post them to Ancestry. But, with those pictures attached to a tree not made Private by the site’s own rules, those pictures were fair game. At other times, I have received messages from other researchers who either saved some of my shared pics or who noticed I had saved theirs. We made one another’s acquaintance, shared a bit of our own background, exchanged information and helped one another research. No issues – nice contact – pleasant all around.

      If, of course, the tree has been made Private at Ancestry, you will see that a photo has been saved to a particular person’s profile but will be given a notice to contact the owner of that tree to request access, or to see the picture, and permission to use. Protocol established by the site being the rule here.

      These common courtesies are, perhaps, rather obvious. But, another question of ethics arises in the neat application that permits users to Message one another. This is a nifty little tool. I have mine set up where I get an email message notifying me someone has sent me a Message on Ancestry. The ethical question arises in how one responds to these messages. My personal attitude is that I “do unto others as I would have them do unto me.” In other words, I take the time to really read their message and then refer to my own research to try to respond with a truthful and accurate bit of information. This leads to a lot of distractions, of course. But, it also may provide that one clue to your own brick wall that has been eluding you for so long. I am always drawn into the mystery that others share with me. I may not be timely in my responses; however, and that is the ethical question I must address to myself. Am I overly rude in not immediately sending SOME kind of response – even if it is only to say the answer must await another day?

      Novice researchers will blunder through, as I did and as I’m sure others did, without even considering documenting their source in their eagerness to build their tree and discover their ancestors. Your author had to go back after initial efforts and take the time to locate the source document and make sure a citation was attached to the facts arising therefrom. The observance of ethical interaction brings at least two benefits: it preserves for the historian the source material for each fact AND it may well pave the way for a mutually beneficial ongoing, long-time interaction with others who have common ancestors and, therefore, common research goals.

Family HistoryLibrary, Salt Lake City, Utah

      A photograph of the Family History Library facility in Salt Lake City, Utah. Inside are volunteers from the Mormon Church who dedicate their time to assisting visitors. There are computers, books containing materials related to family histories which have been donated to the Library, and file folders containing genealogical research housed within the library as well. Many computers are made available to researchers, in addition to photocopiers and microfiche machines. This facility hosts thousands of visitors annually and provides access, online, to the troves of family history research materials.

      With these issues in mind, please do undertake your research as you would any friendly interaction – with common courtesy, mutual respect, and a willingness to share. That one connection may be the one to put the chisel to your own personal brick wall.

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