Much has been written lately about sharing, plagiarism and ethics in the genealogical community wherein we all reside and interact. It's a great community, and a generous, healthy spot in our world where we feel safe to address the trials and tribulations of our genealogical obsession. However, the fact that we are having the discussion, and that the issue has affected major icons as well as the everyday genealogist, has caused some to consider locking their doors at night and cast wary glances at their neighbors as they walk along the sidewalk.
I'm no expert on plagiarism (I will leave it to others more expert than I to continue to address this specific topic), nor do I pretend that my ethics are perfect, but my own experience tells me that our community has become increasingly lax on these issues. I find it ironic that as we strive to provide more guidance, more instruction, and more access not only to genealogical information but to genealogical standards, we find more and more reluctance on the part of some to be cognizant of any ethical mindset.
We all know, or should know, a few things about sharing and ethics and genealogy in general.
Our genealogy is never "done".
Therefore, it only makes sense to cite our sources of information so that those who come after us know where we've been and why. They may want to take a trip there in person to see for themselves.
We don't "own" facts.
My 5th-great-grandfather, Huram Reeve, was born on May 10, 1806, in Wilkes Co., North Carolina. The only reason I give you that fact is that Huram said so - not to me personally, but to various others who interviewed him. Huram was quite a fellow, as it turns out, and loved to talk about the old days in frontier Illinois. I don't "own" his birth date, however. It is a fact, and anyone interested in Huram is free to use that date as his birth date from any publication of mine.
I use Huram as an example because things began to get more interesting over the years with his information and his likeness.
Photographs can become a sticky wicket and libraries lose books.
There is one known photograph of Huram. As far as I can tell, I'm the only person in the last 80-some years to have found it. I found it by accident in a very old book in a little-accessed corner at the Jacksonville (IL) Public Library about 20 years ago. That book contained photographs of some of the earliest settlers in Morgan County, and on a whim, I looked to see if it might contain one of my ancestors. There, I found a photo of Huram AND his father, Isaac. The special collections librarian assisted me in making a photocopy of these 2 images, as I did not want to harm this old scrapbook by trying to do this myself. I was beyond delighted to have these photocopies and showed them to practically anyone who would stop long enough to look at them. I was so proud of them that I contributed an upload of the 2 photos to an area RootsWeb site. I graciously received photo credit for the uploads on the website, without requesting it, and thought nothing more about it until I went back to the library in Jacksonville to look for more pioneer ancestor photographs (and to obtain a proper source citation for the book), only to discover that the book has disappeared and no one at the library knows what happened to it.
Credit where credit is due. Always. That goes for what I've done and where I've done it.
Huram's grandson, John, became a prominent member of Jacksonville also. My cousin and his mother (my great-aunt) had some photos of John and his family, and 2 family photos were taken and copies were made for anyone in the family who wished to have them. This was around the time of the Bicentennial when everyone was doing family history research. I don't know how much it cost to obtain copies of these photos, but I would venture to say it was quite a bit more than it would be today. Being proud of my ancestry, I uploaded these 2 photos to the same website where I had uploaded Huram and his father's photos. Again, I received photo credit without even asking. I then merrily skipped along the sidewalk of the genealogical community, happy that I could have such wonderful photos to share. I also knew the provenance of the original photographs, who made the copies, and how I came into possession of them, all things necessary when using photographs to support your genealogical house.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago.
I will never post my family tree on Ancestry.com. I will only post to a controlled and linked website.
I'm on Ancestry.com checking some census data for a client. I use Ancestry often, and it's well worth the price of admission. Remembering my ties to the state my client's family is from, I paused my attention span and looked for my family in that area. And to what did my wandering eyes should appear (sincerest apologies to Clement Moore) but my 4 photographs on about a dozen family trees. Family trees done by persons I do not know. Family trees with incorrect information (about Huram and Isaac and others). Family trees with no sources. No sources, no photo credit, nothing.
Not only were these photos, 2 of which I pretty much "found" and 2 of which were literally and physically "mine", posted without my name being attached to them at some point, but credit was not even given to the RootsWeb site where the photos were obtained. They have never been published to Ancestry.com by me.
I'm not a hoarder.
To say that I was livid is probably an understatement. My husband has requested permission to share his views on my level of lividity here, but he will have to start his own blog.
I have shared tons of information over the last 25 years with other researchers from different lines of my family. Most of it was good, solid information, and I admit, a smidgen of conjecture that I have since corrected as my skills have improved. A lot of it arrived via the postal service and may still not be found online. A lot of it came straight from courthouses and libraries because no one had a computer back then. I have met new cousins, online and in person as a result. I consider my own life to have been enriched by knowing where I came from. I cherish the good and the bad (shout out to my Black Sheep). I have volunteered photos, transcribed and read cemeteries, and have gotten lost several times within 25 miles of my own home in the process. I love my ancestral heritage.
This last revelation about my photographs, plus the latest ethical upheaval in the genealogical community, has really given me pause. Frankly, it's almost enough to make a person consider hoarding their information, if only momentarily. Of course, I won't, and I'm actively cleaning up my genealogy as I write this (boy, do I have a blog post about that subject). As I clean it up for proper publication, it will be "out there" for future researchers, and my daughter, hopefully forever. Remodeling my genealogical house is taking a lot of effort and time, but hey, I don't want to be the ugly house on my genealogical street. It will also be correct to the best of my ability, sourced properly, and with added historical context to fully develop who my ancestors were. Chances are, every photograph will be watermarked, too.
Be polite and ask first. When in doubt, give a shout-out.
I have found that it does not take a lot of my time to ask another researcher if I might use a document or a photograph. Really cool things happen when you do that. You meet a distant cousin, most likely, or someone who shares the same interests. More likely than not, more sharing ensues, too. You've met another neighbor here in the community that lives a little further down the street.
What about those people who don't respond to your inquiry? What about those distant cousins who provided you their family group sheets back in 1981 and have passed away? What do you do about that information, you ask? You acknowledge it. Giving cousin Betty credit, either as a source or even just as a mention in your side notes is the proper thing to do. Most of us didn't get this far without help from others, and they should be given their due - each and every one of them, automatically without their having to ask for it, and whether they are living or dead.
Common courtesy and common sense
For most of us, all of this boils down to common courtesy and common sense. Sometimes I feel like the crabby old lady, shaking her cane at the kids and telling them to stay off my lawn, but that's not really who I am. I welcome anyone to visit my genealogical house. All I ask is that you come equipped with some common courtesy and common sense. We'll have a great time relaxing on the front porch, telling old ancestor stories, sharing conclusions, and sipping some sweet tea.