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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Ethics in Genealogy
by Rhonda R. McClure

March 27, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

I can already see you rolling your eyes and shaking your head at me. Hasn't there been enough talk of ethics in genealogy out there on the Internet? Based on some of the comments I've seen lately, I'm going to have to say no. Recently I received an e-mail from a woman who was distraught to find just about everything there was to know about her, including her college alma mater on the Internet. The information was posted by her brother-in-law and although she had requested that it be removed several times, the brother-in-law was ignoring the plea.

Other recent postings on the GenForum bulletin boards allude to the vast amount of misinformation that has been contributed to GEDCOM databases. Some contributors uploading ridiculously large database of 50,000 or more individuals! I marvel that anyone could truly amass such a database especially if a researcher has only been researching a few years.

Think of others and be ethical in your genealogy.

Protecting Living Individuals

While there are generally easier ways for a person to steal an identity than finding information in a genealogy database, this does not mean that we should not be aware of the issues at hand. Genealogist who post information should respect the concerns of living relatives who feel that posting information about them online is an invasion of privacy. Just because you can doesn't mean you should.

Have you ever done something you just flat out didn't want anyone to know about? I'm not talking about breaking the law, I'm just talking about doing something embarrassing. Now how would you feel if the world knew about it? If it was splashed on the Internet and you came across it, how would you feel? I suspect that you would not be pleased and would demand that the individual who posted that remove it immediately.

While posting publicly available facts about a person and sharing an embarrassing story may seem to be like comparing apples to oranges, they both result in a knee-jerk reaction. Folks get nervous when they find all of their information online. They are confused as to how it got there and in the case of the woman mentioned above, they wonder why it is there in the first place. In her case, after all, she was only related by marriage to the person who posted who information online. Given the amount of information that was posted about her, I could understand how she would feel like her privacy was invaded.

Genealogy is a hobby in which we ultimately seek out the information on our ancestors, those who have gone before us. I really don't see any reason to post information about living individuals online or in GEDCOM files. If I am sharing a genealogy report, I make it a point to end it with the last generation of deceased individuals. Generally speaking if the person has a connection to me through one of the living individuals then chances are we already know each other quite well.

Ethics in Compiling and Sharing

There has been quite a bit of discussion on some genealogy bulletin boards about sharing information and who should be sharing what. One researcher was upset when she discovered that a lineage she put in Ancestral File through the Family History Library had ended up in someone else's GEDCOM that was now displayed online in a compiled database. In this case, neither the researcher nor Ancestral File were acknowledged as the source of the information and I can see why that would bother her.

Usually the biggest problem with researchers sharing large databases online is that they have swallowed up the research of others and not acknowledged where they got the information from. Personally, once I have shared a lineage with someone (online or otherwise) then as far as I am concerned I have lost all claims to that information. I made the information available to the world and the world used it. Why should I be so shocked?

Of course I can't say often enough that as good genealogists we should not simply be downloading GEDCOMs, dumping them into a master file and then turning around and uploading that to other places. Such an act simply extends the life of possible misinformation. If you do not take the time to evaluate and verify information, then you are not really doing any genealogical research. When you don't verify, you are just passing along someone else's information, regardless of whether or not it is accurate. Worse yet, because you have put your name on it, a researcher who discovers a mistake can't notify the original researcher.

Share the information that you know to be accurate. Help other genealogists instead of hindering them by not passing along a unproved stream of names, dates, and places. Genealogy isn't just about how many names you can have in your database, it is about how accurately you can trace your lineage. Accurately tracing your family history should be your focus, not being able to stand up and say "I've been doing my genealogy for three months and I have 100,000 people in my database."

To Share or Not to Share

As I continued to follow the discussions on the bulletin boards about what we should share and who is entitled to the information, one bulletin board poster was discussing her criteria for individuals she shares with. A response pointed out that it was a good thing that the libraries and courthouses weren't so tight with the information or we genealogists would be out of luck.

If you have shared with one person, you have pretty much shared with the world. Once you share a GEDCOM file, whether by uploading it to a database or sending it to a single cousin, you no longer have a say over what happens to the information. You have shared that information with someone and they now have the right to share with whom and how they wish.

Many people are sharing their entire database, including living individuals, because they have not figured out how to exclude individuals when creating the GEDCOM file. Some GEDCOM database sites are now imposing mandatory limits as to who can be posted by stripping out those who were born after a certain year. These sites are applying the 72-year privacy act which means that anyone born after 1930 gets removed as the file is uploaded. Others leave the names but hide all the rest of the information, replacing it with the term "private" or "living." Instead of relying on such stop gap measures though, we should take responsibility for our files and share responsibly.

I am an advocate of sharing information and, as such, I don't insist that you prove to me that you are a scholar or will treat the information with respect. Of course I also believe in doing unto others as I would like them to do unto me, so that probably explains a lot.

Share what is appropriate to share. I will post a particular lineage to my Web site if I am currently working on it. When I turn my attention to another lineage, I remove those pages and put up the new one so that (hopefully) cousins of the new line will communicate with me. I've never given my entire database to anyone since the only person who could use it would be my brother. Since he isn't currently interested in it, I haven't sent it to him either.

In Conclusion

The Internet offers many wonderful features to genealogists and so many great resources are available anytime. We can reach millions of people. Most researchers are responsible but you'll come across some who will not share your sense of ethics. We must always keep this in mind as we put information on the Internet, both in what we share ourselves and what we demand of others once we have shared information with them.

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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