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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Church Records - A Dark Side to Genealogy?
by Rhonda R. McClure

June 28, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Last month I was approached by a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. She wrote to me requesting stories and contacts for a piece she was doing on genealogy. Instead of asking for any type of genealogy story, or a story about specific aspects of researching or finding cousins online, this reporter was looking for stories from researchers who had had a negative experience.

"Genealogy Gone Haywire As Searchers Take to Web" by Elizabeth Bernstein can be read on the Wall Street Journal. While pointing out that genealogy can be fun, the bulk of this article concentrates on the negative stories of a select few.

Has genealogy gone bad?

Identity Theft

Let me start by saying that I do know that identity theft is a definite problem. It is a shame that we have to fear the terrible possibility that some unscrupulous person would think to steal our identity for the purpose of running up a lot of credit debts they have no intention to pay back. I have known a few people to whom this has happened. It was a nightmare for them.

With that said, there are easier ways for a crook to get the necessary information on you. Those of you who are screaming about information being posted online about you and your living relatives may have already given a crook an easier way to get your information. How many of you have applied for instant credit at a store? Perhaps you have given your social security number and other identifying information out over the phone for a credit card application? These are two ways that crooks can get the needed information to steal your identity, and it took less effort than searching the Internet.

I will say that I believe there is no reason for us to put information about our living relatives on the Internet. I make it a practice when posting any of my family lines to stop with the last generation where everyone is deceased. This may be two generations away from me, but I don't see that as a problem for those researchers I am trying to reach. Those two generations are my parents and possibly my grandparents. I know all of those descended from my grandparents so I do not need to look for them.

When you are posting your information online, think before you post. Don't offer reporters and others an excuse to prevent us from sharing our family history on the Internet.

Throwing Money Away

Another point brought out by the article was that researching can be expensive. Large dollar amounts were mentioned. When ten or twenty years of research is added up, the price can seem staggering. But I look at the many other hobbies that exist, and see some similar hard costs. Some hobbies have much higher costs.

One of the most important ways to cut down on the costs is to educate yourself. Many researchers don't understand that instead of spending $15.00 for a certified birth certificate, you may be able to get that same record for under $5.00. You may be able to get it from the county or you may be able to order a microfilm through the Family History Library and get more than one birth record on a family for $3.75

Another way to avoid wasting money is to educate yourself on how to research. Understanding what the records are telling you is essential to moving on in the research phase without wasting money. Of course you'll learn from your research experience, but there are many more traditional ways to educate yourself as well. Online articles and lessons can be found here on in the Learning Center as well as elsewhere. These are freely available, and written by some of the professions best-known experts.

Knowledge Can Hurt

The other point that was brought out in the article was how genealogists share information only to discover that some of the family is no longer speaking to them. There are times when all the information should not be shared.

When I began to research my family tree, I got some information from my grandmother. She did some work on her lines to join the Daughters of the American Revolution. She sent me a lot of information to get me started. Of course from her information I began to do my own research. Some of it was recreating what she shared, a great way to learn how to research, I think. Some of it was new resources and records.

In my new research I discovered that my grandmother's parents were divorced. This surprised me as she had never mentioned it. Then I realized that it was a subject that she found painful. While a part of me was excited to have found some new information, I realized that sharing my new found knowledge with her would only upset her. So, I filed away the information in my filing cabinet and stored the note away in my genealogy database in a way that would prevent it from printing out on any of my reports.

My grandmother is gone now. And while I shared many of my finds with her, because I knew she would share in my excitement, this one I kept to myself until she was gone.

In Conclusion

There are always downsides to anything, especially when we don't use common sense. The Internet offers us a great way to reach out to other genealogists, but we still need to be mindful of the privacy of our living family members. We may need to budget our genealogy research just as we do other expenses and entertainment. Finally, just because you have found some information doesn't mean you are required to share it with the world. Think about how the information may be perceived by others. Don't think about the prowess in your research abilities, but about the facts that you have found.

In the end, common sense needs to be firmly in place in every aspect of your genealogical research.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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