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Is There A “Right” To Do Genealogy? – Open Thread Thursday


This week’s topic for Open Thread Thursday is:

Have you ever had an ethical dilemma when it came to doing genealogy research? Perhaps for your own family, you uncovered a secret or a story that would have been scandalous at the time it happened. What would the ancestors involved think about having their story uncovered and possibly made public and shared on a genealogy website? Or what about a simple record such as a marriage certificate: could your ancestors have anticipated easy access to it by millions of researchers? Tell us if you’ve encountered such dilemmas and how you’ve handled the research and any ethical conflicts or questions.

Post your responses in the comments or at a post on your own genealogy blog and place the link here in the comments.

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This past weekend I was presenting one of my more popular lectures – Privacy and Our Ancestors – when someone in the audience posed an interesting question (and with quite a bit of passion). She said something to the effect of “What right do I have to poke around in these records? I sometimes think about how my grandparents would react if they knew I had information on many aspects of their lives such as their age, when they were married, etc. What would they say to me if they were still alive?

The question stuck with me the rest of the weekend and even to this very day. It had that kind of impact on me, and I sensed, on the rest of the attendees in the lecture. Indeed, since I just discovered last year that my great-grandparents were not married when they said they were, I’ve considered what their reaction would be.  My great-grandparents helped raise me and they were quite “buttoned-up” and old-fashioned when it came to privacy and information.

My great-grandmother never revealed her age and it was only through research that I found out that she died at age 94. There were just certain things you didn’t ask, especially of a woman. And she also believed that a woman should only have her name in the paper a total of three times in her life: birth, marriage and death.

My response to the question? Not exactly evasive, but I couched it in such a way that the audience realized that even for me it was sometimes a struggle to square way what “could” be done with information and what “should” be done. We discussed the fact that the dead don’t have privacy necessarily, but that we need to consider the impact on living family members when it comes to our rights to records access and sharing information.

Just because I have access to records, should I be doing genealogy? My great-grandparents answered questions on the 1940 Census, and they were told only the government would have access to the information. And yet 72 years later that information was made public and in a very public way. I’m sure they never anticipated such access and I know they would be uncomfortable with the entire situation.

Yet I plod on and continue with my own personal research. For me, the issue is not the records or stories themselves, but how I choose to use them in building profiles of my ancestors and bringing them to life. The truth is the truth and facts are facts. My skill as a family historian is to analyze those facts, understand them in context of the life of the person, and preserve them for future generations of my family. I can do so responsibly and in a caring way that still respects that person and their personal information.


This is a great topic for this week’s Open Thread Thursday! And please, if you have a topic you’d like to see discussed among your genealogy blogging colleagues, please contact us and we’ll take it under consideration.

Disclosure:  Please see Disclosure Statements for more information on my material connection with genealogy vendors and organizations.

©2013, copyright Thomas MacEntee