What is family history? The alternative guide - the ethics of family history


27 November 2017
dd-67466.jpg The ethics of family history
In his latest blog, Paul Chiddicks explores what rights and responsibilities family historians need to consider when placing their work on the internet, and using research conducted by other genealogists.

In his latest blog, Paul Chiddicks explores what rights and responsibilities family historians need to consider when placing their work on the internet, and using research conducted by other genealogists. Read Paul's previous blog, on the benefits of joining a family history society.

When we first start off researching our family history we probably never imagine that we might need to consider the ethics and morals of our hobby, or even that we could be subject to the law. After all, it’s our family tree, why would we be subject to ethical codes or copyright law?

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I will try to break this down and explain it simply, so that we can fully understand the obligation and moral duty that we all share when presenting or publishing our work, especially online.

The first thing to consider is the fact “once it’s out there, it’s out there”. Once something is in the public domain, although you can of course remove it, the damage could already be done. So you need to think carefully about how you approach this. Your own moral compass and behaviours should make you consider with both compassion and dignity, the lives of our ancestors who went before us. After all those sadly no longer with us, have no choice about what we publish as genealogists.

Think before you publish!

Things to consider before you publish: if the information that you are about to put into the public domain was written about you, or an immediate member of your own family, would you be happy to make this public? Using that as your basis, therefore, be considerate to both ancestors that have sadly passed, and also have empathy and consider those still alive and kicking today.

 We all have a duty of care as keepers of the “family tree” to keep the privileged information that we uncover private. Remember, publishing incorrect information or just rumour can be upsetting for loved ones and can quickly tarnish a reputation unnecessarily. Some things are kept secret for a reason.

Also take a look at the the fine detail on your family history software. All programs have a facility to protect the details of those in your tree who are still alive, so make sure that option is selected when publishing details online by checking your settings.

If you want to use information that has been passed to you from another source, or you find information online and wish to add it to your tree, seek the owner’s permission before you use it and equally as important, credit the person who has produced the work. Just copying and pasting another person’s work is both lazy and unethical, especially if you are then presenting the work as your own.

Online security for family historians

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Internet security and identity theft are a real issue in today's digital and online world. So be mindful of how much information you publish in your online trees and also consider how public your social media insights are. Go and check your Twitter and Facebook privacy settings now; you might just be publicising more than you imagine. I will cover social media in more depth in another blog, but be just be aware of the potential of inadvertently publishing more information than you imagined simply by not setting your privacy options correctly.

Ask yourself: are you doing enough to protect your own personal information and those family members on your tree?

Do you conduct interviews with relatives who have a story to tell? Be mindful of the fact these stories are just that, stories. My grandfather once told me “why let the truth get in the way of a good story”. So bear that in mind when quoting information from an interview alone. Is dear old ‘Aunt Joan' even a blood relative, or is she just a close friend of the family?

It’s also a good thing to remember when conducting your interviews that you ensure that the person being interviewed is aware if you intend to publish their story anywhere. It could be an embarrassing conversation if they were not aware you were publishing their interview and that their every word would suddenly appear online.

Copyright law is a minefield and it’s a subject matter in its own right, but you do need to tread carefully with anything that you publish from a website or another source. Also be aware that visual materials, such as photographs, are equally subject to copyright, as is written material.

If you are concerned about copyrighting your own material and protecting that and you don’t want people using your material without your permission, then the simplest thing might be to not publish it online.

So to summarise, be careful what you publish and be aware of the potential consequences. Politeness, courtesy and respect are a must when contacting other people and always ask permission to use another person’s work. Use your own moral compass as a good benchmark.

So please think carefully before you hit “send “or “publish”.

Paul Chiddicks

Follow Paul on Twitter and his blog.

Researching the names: Chiddicks in Essex; Daniels in Dublin; Keyes in Prittlewell; Wootton in Herefordshire and London; Jack in Scotland.

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