Ethics and all the Rs

Some weeks ago, Geneablogger guru Thomas MacEntee posted on a comment he was asked at a lecture: “Do we have the right to do genealogy?” Instantly my mental knee bounced forward and I responded with “Definitely! Why is it different from any other hobby or sport which comes with risks and benefits?

With a little more pondering I could see the question had more nuances than at first appeared. My initial post was written, atypically, on the i-Pad and, mercifully for the first time, disappeared…my mistake, oops. Events of the day overtook it and I never did get back to it, concluding that it was old news.

Still the topic continues to haunt me along with related posts, and so, for better or worse, you get my reflections. For me the issues of rights to research can never be considered without the dual aspects of responsibility and respect.

Image created in Microsoft Office Word.

Image created in Microsoft Office Word.

RIGHTS

Each of us inevitably interacts with forms, paperwork and government legislation. We know our vital records disappear into the government’s maw of data. We also personally protect our biographical data carefully in this day of identity theft.

I think our ancestors were equally aware of the collection of personal information of this sort. This is why I don’t think they’d be too distressed to find that we may be able to collect this data. Their astonishment would probably be reserved for the reality that we can actually find all those personal needles in the data haystack after so many years. Little could they imagine our digital era with all its options.

Knowing who we are across time is something that tugs at mind and heart for many of us, and it’s not unreasonable to want to know who those ancestors were who contributed to our make-up. Perhaps society’s greater understanding of the impact of social and family influences, not to mention the essential significance of DNA on our biology, contributes to our expectation that we have a right to know who, and what, lies in our ancestry. We also place such emphasis on surnames as they relate to identity, and our paternity, that our name also defines our very selves. So to raise another vexed question, why are women expected to forgo their individual identities when they marry? Why can’t we all be Scottish and use both surnames?

So far, so good. For me, this collection of biographical data and identification of ancestors is our genealogy. There may be skeletons in the closet which our ancestors would prefer we didn’t know about but they were likely well known in their community at the time, or at least by a handful of people. My great-grandfather could hardly be too horrified that I could learn about his run-in with the law: after all it was splashed across the pages of the newspapers for months.

I can, however, readily imagine their astonishment that we can identify illegitimacies, “early” marriages, separations, bigamy or divorce with comparative ease but I suspect their greater astonishment would be that we care about it at all, along with a small gasp of horror that we are unearthing their long-buried information “skeletons”.

RESPONSIBILITIES & RESPECT

Along with the sometimes scandalous biographical data, those who are dedicated to their family’s more textured history pursue information about day-to-day lives and wider social context.

It might be easy to get caught up in the collection of myriad data but we are dealing with peoples’ lives and their stories. We have dual responsibilities: to treat their stories with respect rather than salaciousness, and to consider those descendants whose personal fabric may be threatened by the revelation of not-so-pleasant secrets.

Are we picking out only the scandalous, gossipy bits which reflect poorly on our ancestors? Or are we revealing them as human beings with weaknesses and strengths much like our own? Have we weighed up any potential bias in the family stories we are told in oral history?

Much depends on our approach and I’m grateful that I’ve only rarely come across a family historian who is focused on the scandals and negative gossip above all. We owe it to our ancestors to be generous with their faults and apply the “do unto others…” rule.

As to those family members still living, where do our obligations lie?

As family historians we have a key responsibility to record the family story and the details we find with accuracy and careful consideration, so others can come behind and see why we’ve reached our conclusions. Does that mean we always have the right to burst open secrets that we come across?

I believe not, and it comes to a question of ethics. Inevitably we learn things that many people do not know. My view is that if we don’t have proof we shouldn’t publicise what we find, or state clearly that it’s anecdotal. Equally we should keep a confidential record of what we’ve been told and by whom. Some of this will hinge on whether the information is in the public record but we must be conscious that we are dealing with people’s lives, both the living and the dead so I will not alter my data, but I may choose not to publicise it if it will have a detrimental effect on a living person. Changing social values may make once-was-scandalous into something that’s now acceptable.

RESEARCH & REVELATIONS

I’ll give you a couple of examples from my own research.

The official birth records revealed that my grandfather’s sister had two illegitimate children. One died in a “baby farm” and one was put into an orphanage. I traced the children of the latter person purely based on surname (luckily an unusual one, and also luckily it had never been changed). At the time I published the family history I asked the family if they wanted to be identified in the story. Every one of them agreed, somewhat to my surprise, and they were very happy that they and their father had been acknowledged as family members. An inclusive outcome.

A related discovery came with the release of the orphanage records by Queensland State Archives, and online at that. I knew the family had desperately wanted to know their grandfather’s name and it was clearly documented in the records. This was some years later, after my book had been published, and I was ambivalent as to whether to pass the information on. My further research revealed that the father still had descendants in a small rural town in Queensland.  What impact would it have if I revealed the name? Eventually I contacted the daughter with whom I’d had the most contact and passed on the name without any further details. My rationale was that the information was actually available on the internet, with some careful searching, so it was “out there” for anyone to see. I’m still not entirely sure that was the correct decision though the daughter was relieved to finally know more of her ancestry.

RESPECT FOR RESEARCH

Apart from the elements of respect I’ve mentioned above, there’s another about which I have a habit of beating the drum and it’s another case of “do unto others”. Sharing with fellow researchers can be a wonderfully collaborative process. It can also be frustrating and disrespectful. Do you acknowledge where you get your information or photographs from? Another person or indeed an official record? Have you got permission to share someone’s photos with the wider world? Is it subject to copyright?

Apart from the bread and butter biographical data, most research information is gleaned by the researcher’s determination and expertise. If someone has shared information with you, it should be acknowledged and cited. In the wider world failure to do so is called plagiarism.

INCLUSIVE/EXCLUSIVE

This is a debate that’s also been raging over the geneablogging community in recent weeks. Should genealogy be the preserve of every “Tom, Dick or Harry” or should it be reserved only for those with qualifications, training and expertise?

I feel equally strongly about this question. We should all have the opportunity to research our families and document their stories. However this comes with the responsibilities mentioned above to do careful, well-documented research. We can’t/shouldn’t just opt for a family anecdote that’s disproved by the records but which we like better. We need to move beyond the internet as our research progresses to learn more and compare sources. We can’t happily rely on Ancestry’s “you don’t need to know what you’re looking for” motto and just pluck “leaves” willy-nilly for our family tree.

Perhaps this is the ground-zero of the debate: that there’s far too much lack of understanding that research information does not drop like ripe fruit from a genealogy orchard somewhere. This seems to be correlated with a similar lack of understanding that it requires the researcher to get down and dirty among the records, and to pursue the leads themselves. Professionalism does not, in my opinion, require some alphabet soup behind your name. It comes from one’s approach to the research, integrity of the researcher and their data, and acknowledgement of sources.

I opt for inclusive, but I’m also something of a fanatic about integrity and rigorous research.

REFLECTIONS

Many of us are beavering away at Angler’s Rest’s Book of Me, Written by You, either privately or publicly. Julie has inspired us to document our own stories so they can be passed down to our descendants. She’s come up with some great prompts (and we’re only up to week 9), that hadn’t occurred to me previously, even though I’ve been following this obsession of mine for yonks. No doubt she’ll have some more curved balls for us in the coming weeks.

BUT….we all happily assume that by pursuing our family trees, telling the family stories, and now documenting our own, that our descendants will be as thrilled as we would be if we’d inherited similar information from our ancestors.

Is that the case and does it matter?

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure my children rarely dabble in my blogs. They’re at that stage of life when career and families are all-consuming. Will they care in the future? Is my obsession actually counter-productive? Have I absorbed all the potential research oxygen? Do they assume I’ll have done it all, leaving no questions unanswered?

I think these are pertinent questions because it may affect how we approach our research. Would I stop if I thought no one would care in the years to come? Probably not, but that may be a reflection of my own obsession with the process and the findings.

I’ll leave you with Neil Diamond’s “Morningside” with its refrain “for my children”, which always calls these thoughts to mind. (If you don’t know this song you can listen to it here)

Apologies for this long-winded post, but I hope it provides some food for thought or discussion. If you agree or disagree why not leave a comment?