Genealogy 101: Ethics for the Genealogist

Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega writes about the importance of ethics in genealogy. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

Ethics in genealogy? Do ethics play a role in genealogy? I’d answer that question with a resounding yes! Genealogists face all kinds of ethical issues that we may not even realize.

Ethics are defined as “the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group.”* When we think of ethics we may think in terms of the conduct of hospitals or large organizations, but as genealogists there are numerous situations where ethics can provide much needed guidance. For example, how we approach family members with questions, when and how we use DNA testing, and the information and images we post online.

Illustration: a woman thinking

As family historians it’s important that we consider the impact that our actions have on others. Genealogy is more than just a nice “hobby” that brings together families. It’s a pursuit that potentially uncovers long-held family secrets, revealing the indiscretions of previous generations thought to have been forever hidden. It can hurt feelings, embarrass family members, and split families apart.

The topic of genealogical ethics is a lengthy discussion and cannot be fully addressed in a blog article, but some things to consider as you research include the following.

Do No Harm

Physicians take an oath to “do no harm,” and we as family historians should think in similar terms as we gather information, interview family, and ask for DNA samples.

Years ago, an older family member told me a story about an ancestor who died about 30 years ago. The story wasn’t particularly scandalous in my opinion but she was concerned what others would think of this person if they knew about this singular event. After she told me the story she ended with: “Do not tell anyone until we [the older generation] are dead.”

I can understand why she wanted me to keep that secret even though, in my opinion, the story was not shocking – and so I continue to keep that information secret out of respect for her feelings.

We family historians have the potential of holding many family secrets. As the family’s historian, our families may not trust us or be wary of telling us things that they think are better left in the past. My personal belief is that we need to earn the trust of our family – and if they tell us something they do not want revealed, we need to be respectful of that no matter what our personal feelings are. Not everything should be part of our public or published family histories.

Not Everyone Should Be in Your Tree

In today’s genealogy world we have numerous opportunities to post information online. We can post names, dates, and places on online family trees, share photos on genealogy websites and personal blogs, and we can even share stories or information online. This is great in that it helps us find cousins, but we must remember to never post information about the living without their permission.

It used to be that we always told new genealogists to not include the living on their online family tree, for privacy concerns. Today, as we use online family trees in connection with DNA, more people are adding their names and information to their online public trees to help DNA matches and make connections. It’s ok to add your information to your online tree if you want to, but don’t add other living people without their consent. It’s best to simply list them as “private” (in some cases the online tree will privatize the living for you).

The same is true for images. It’s effortless to take photos and within minutes share them to numerous websites with your cell phone. Make sure that you ask before sharing photos. Some people may not want to have photographs of themselves or their minor children posted on a website where they have no control over who views or shares it.

Everyone Deserves to Make an Informed Decision

A genealogy acquaintance who was dying of cancer remarked to me that she wanted to force a sibling to take a DNA test because she “had to know” the truth about a parental relationship. Now, I understand her desperation – she wanted to know “the truth” before she passed and she would not get those answers without a DNA test.

DNA is a remarkable tool and more and more people are using it to learn about their family history. This tool is a blessing for many who have used it to learn more about their ethnic heritage as well as ancestral or modern-day family connections. However, if you are the family historian and you are asking someone to take a DNA test, you must provide them with information and answer their questions prior to them ever spitting into that tube or swabbing their cheek.

Helping them make an informed decision means letting them know what the DNA test can and cannot reveal, what happens to their DNA sample once they hand it over, and who has access to it.

Providing that information so that your test subject can make an informed decision also means that their answer may be “no,” and you need to respect that. Your “need” to know does not outweigh their wish not to participate.

This is a much larger discussion, and you can read more using links found on the International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG) Wiki page Ethics, guidelines and standards.

Some Secrets Should Remain Secret

This is probably going to be an unpopular view – but I do believe that some secrets should remain secret. We must balance our interest in knowing and uncovering everything about our familial dead with the feelings and wishes of the living.

I was once asked to research the possible father of a woman. Her mother was still alive and refused to reveal the name of her child’s father. I realize that some may feel that everyone deserves to know who their father is. I don’t know why that mother was unwilling to reveal that information, but we must remember that there are circumstances in which a birth is the result of an assault or incest. Bullying people or forcing them to give you information doesn’t help you find the answers you want. In some cases, you may never learn the truth and in others, over time with some gentle questioning, you might eventually learn the story.

Black Sheep Are Fun but at What Price?

Let’s be honest, we love researching those black sheep in our family, but in the case of more recent relationships I think it’s good to proceed with caution. Consider the feelings of the living who may be involved in that family secret, or who are only a generation or two removed from it.

Various professional organizations have developed codes of ethics for their members. The National Genealogical Society has guidelines for everything from genealogy research and interacting with libraries, to sharing information. You can find these Guidelines on their website.

Genealogy Ethics

Family historians find themselves in all kinds of situations that call for some reflection and questioning. It’s important to remember that when we do family history, we need to keep in mind the feelings of the living and use best practices as we research, interview, post, and write our family histories.

* “Ethics,” Merriam-Webster (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ethic: accessed 15 May 2019).

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