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).

21 thoughts on “Genealogy 101: Ethics for the Genealogist

  1. Thank you for that excellent article. In 30 years of searching on this and that for the family, it wasn’t until my mother died 2 1/2 years ago that I was able to move forward. Along the way, a wonderful lady assisted me, as I was new to the more involved practices of genealogy. What I have found is that some historians working for the county/city/town/village prefer to go to ancestry, and refer folks to someone’s tree. This I walk away from. Yet another issue is cemetery officials, who are often seriously old, with health issues, and can’t or won’t go into great assist mode to help someone. For example, for a few years now I have been trying to get specific information about a husband and wife’s burial site, so that I could order up a nice name marker for the two of them. However, the overseer is old, has medical issues, and really wound up in charge of the cemetery because no one else wanted it apparently. After so many tries, I finally realized he will never go the extra mile to read the old burial map(s) to obtain the info I need, in order to give permission to lay a nice name marker for the family. I drew the line, for both the funeral home and the overseer of the cemetery, after so many calls that were never returned. Result: I called it quits on that family line, and moved on. Bullying, or harassing, etc., just is not my style. I give folks a few chances to assist, and then drop it if I get nothing in return. I’ve mostly met and dealt with nice folks. On the other hand, I’ve also run into some stinkers. Currently, I am winding down and calling it quits after 30 years. I too have learned that sometimes, there is something that folks just don’t want others to know.

    My current issue is with the Moore family of Chemung County, NY. I’ve found that no one wants to help me find anything on that line, unless it involves money or Civil War info. Anything other than that, folks just cut you off… and a brick wall is left standing. My relation to the Moore clan? Moore was my mother’s maiden name, and her people were poor.

    1. Hello Sandra,
      I read you’re thoughts on this subject. Sorry to hear you calling it quits. I have been working on my tree part time for some time. The family is not interested unless it involves a rich dead relative…. lol So I do it for fun. And yes I have also met with some interesting people. Early on I shared with someone my research and she was going to share with me. It didn’t happen she wanted everything but didn’t want to share. Six months later I sent her a message on new information that I found she immediately responded. Needless to say I never responded. I did have very good response from a cemetery in Cal. The first person, young, was able to help. But when I had another question and called back I spoke with the older one. She was a WEALTH of information. I have read about the ethics before. I believe that some things should be left unwritten. Divorce information need only be people divorced and move on. The details are not as important. Or how a person dies. Suicide or drugs, they died. So I hope you find someone to carry on you’re work. Best of luck, Roger

  2. Although I do not agree with everything in this article, I do understand the concerns it presents.
    Thank you for the insight.

    1. M. H., I can appreciate that. My hope was to get the discussion started and for all of us to start thinking about ethical issues or concerns genealogy brings up. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.–Gena

  3. Thank you for your comments about genealogical ethics. A cousin of mine got my grandfather’s death certificate which noted his cause of death was suicide. She privately contacted me and asked permission to list cause of death. I really appreciated her sensitivity.

  4. Hi, I just have a concern about libraries and the government censoring the information we could find out.
    I have several things that I know about in the family that I am trying to find answers to. These answers could only be found in these places. I have already noticed that several items where I had found information have disappeared from libraries and research sites. There are things we know about that were passed down, and we would like to find additional information. Whereas we don’t seem to hurt anyone with the information, we would like to know more. We have many things we have found which we have not put online.
    Because of the many fires set by Sherman and carpet baggers and thieves and convicts trying to erase information in the South during and after the Civil War, these snippets are vital to our research.
    I don’t think any information regarding the long-deceased past should be censored.

    1. Andrea, archival collections may have restrictions regarding what information is released and in some cases the person who donated it might have required those restrictions as part of the donation. Of course, contacting the archive or library and asking why the information is not available for research will answer that question. There’s also restrictions due to laws like those we face with records for ancestors committed to an asylum. Unfortunately, in some cases we may not be allowed to research a collection and have little recourse.–Gena

  5. Not to mention the ethics of taking what a fellow genealogist has shared with you personally, and putting it out on the internet w/o asking first, or even sourcing it.

    1. Brenda, it matters where your family tree is posted. If it’s on a subscription website you’ll want to look for account settings that allow you to do that. If you can’t find them, call that company and ask how you can mark your tree private. If it’s a tree on a wiki site or FamilySearch, then it cannot be made private. Those trees are meant to be collaborative and are not one individual’s tree. –Gena

  6. I also would include in a discussion of genealogical ethics the fact that you must make sure that the person involved has given their permission, whether it is downloading someone’s genealogy without their permission or, at the very least, the information downloaded and posted online should be attributed to the person who did the work. I have personally had so much of my genealogical work taken with no attribution and/or permission requested.

    1. Just a short note to that. When I started I did just that. Added someone else tree to my own. As I got further down the road I found that there were a number of mistakes. As everything is connected the easiest way was to delate everything and start anew. A very early genealogical lesson. It was very sad but the school of hard knocks gives lessons for a lifetime.-Roger

  7. Sandra,

    Thank you for providing these examples from your experience. In some cases we may not be able to reach our genealogy goals and may have to just move on. It’s possible circumstances will change over time. In the meantime, there are plenty of other ancestors to research and write about. Take care–Gena

    1. Sandra,
      Perhaps your local Historical Society could us your skills to help tell the stories that were once well known.
      Don’t give up – Change direction.
      Ginny

  8. Along my Genealogy search for my roots, I’ve had to take time to ponder, wonder, and give great thought to some secrets the Elders of my Clan kept hidden. No doubt they thought these secrets were taken to their graves, and safe in their graves these secrets would keep. That’s until I came along and had at peek at the truth which I so desperately seek. My journey led me to discover whispers overheard by my young ears. Secrets my Elders would not speak of, or were quickly hushed. Their silent past of tragic echoes, resounding thru my adult years, have proven to be true. Perseverance and endless hours of research. Alas the TRUTH! Documents found and read sometimes with both eyes and mouth opened very, very wide. Sometimes my eyes will start to well with tears. Fulfilled, by my Ancestors’ fate or Elder tales. A tear of remembrance will streak down my cheek. Sometimes of glee, sometimes of sadness. Sometimes, remembrance brings cause to weep. Sometimes, I shutter at what I have uncovered. Now that I know, do I too leave these secrets untold? Do I become another guilty link in my Elders’ Chain of Secrets? Complascent with starting my own Chain of Silence? Or do I break these Chains locked by years of tarnished Family Shames? Our Ancestors and their deeds, be they deemed Hero or Villain. They are all Branches bearing Leaves of our Trees. Genealogy is a Quest. Its paths are not paved requests upon which guests take each step with pride. Along the Journey one may lose a little stride. Finding a path, bumpy, dusty, and grimy. But filled with Family Historical signs. I will not block this path by knowingly omitting an Ancestor. Or Detouring others by labeling a Deceased Relative as Private to deliberately hinder, with intent to prevent what they may find. Ancestry is not just for the here and now. It is for those yet to come. They, as we, do have a right to know and find their True Family History. By leaving important facts out about relatives, or not including them because they are unsavory, or labeling paticular Ancestors as Private because they may lead a path to these once — and still in many cases — Shunned Relatives. Censoring or Tearing out pages of our Ancestral Book. Do we have the right to Delete, Alter, or Rewrite our Family History?
    As the saying goes: We can’t choose our Family… or can we?

    My Ancestry Creed:

    Secrets Hinder Paths
    Which Lead to Family
    Ancestry and Heritage

  9. Family secrets abound! I have plenty… and the best way to connect with those long lost is to at least list the names of your deceased members and the cousins you do know. I have found that one set of cousins can link you to another set that you have never met. Sometimes you just have to list the family names to find someone else on your same path, but it is very important for the generations to come to know who their family is. As a result, for me personally, my two daughters are very leery in dating men from 3-4 Southern states because of all the branches to our tree. Afraid they will inter-marry (as some of the elders have done) and create another loop based on lack of knowledge. Reasons left untouched, names / connections revealed.

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