Sunday, July 7, 2013

On Sharing, Hoarding,and Ethical Genealogy

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 I will only post to a controlled and linked website. 
I'm on 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 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.


  1. So true! I spend a ton of time researching old documents off microfilm in foreign languages (and recently starting to blog about it). And then I end up seeing the documents appearing on others' trees--sometimes not even on the right person!

  2. Very well written, while I was reading I got to thinking, I use the old FamilyTreeMaker (10 years old)and it has the ability to make a book, if I put my research in their book form could I just copyright that book??
    My version is pre so it's not infringing on them.
    I can't get this blog thing down pat. As Ellen says with a heavy sigh "Oh well"

  3. All too oftenI see and hear these types of stories that are so hurtful and just prove the how people do not think about their consequences...

  4. Terrific post! I share your sentiments :)

  5. I have my info on and people often take my pictures. I don't mind in the least! I'm happy to share anything I have and hope that it might help put my genealogy puzzle together. If someone downloads a pic, I get notified and the pic gets cited in their tree.

  6. Okay, I am going to go out on the proverbial limb, here. Since all photos were either copied from another source or given copies by someone else, how do you know that they came from your Roots Web source and not from someplace else? I don't know copyright law...the first to admit it. But how can you claim copyright on a photo that you neither took or owned the original? Please do not take this that I am condoning "taking and posting" someone else's photos. I am merely stating they may have been acquired by other means than your site.

  7. The 2 photos of Huram and his father, Issac, could possibly have been taken from the same now-missing book at the library, but no researcher I have ever shared information with on them has seen those photos before, nor have they been mentioned in any previous research done long before me. We're talking in the last 80 or so years here.

    As far as the 2 family photos, I know who has the original, and I know how the copies were made and distributed within the family. To the best of my current knowledge, I am the only person within almost 2 generations (other than the holder of the originals) who has had an interest in our family's history, and am the only one who has posted the photos online. With this particular branch of my family, it is very easy to know who's doing what because they are so very few of us left, sadly.

    My point in all of this was not to address the copyright laws, accuse anyone of tortuous interference, or anything of the sort. I will let the legal experts handle all of that. I'm not suing anyone.

    What I'm trying to say is that 1) a good and ethical genealogist should be in the habit of asking others about sharing information, and 2) that a good and ethical genealogist will cite every piece of evidence they gather with an appropriate source, whether it be a will or a newspaper clipping - or a photo. The website should have at least gotten credit for those photos, and if cited properly, the submitter of the website (me) should have received credit, which would also appear in a correctly cited photograph online.

    Aside from this, fellow genealogists should COMMUNICATE with one another! You never know what you might learn. And the next time you communicate with me, I hope you decide to 'fess up and say who you are. Everyone's comments are welcome here. Happy hunting!

  8. I agree with you 100% and you write so well. I've become gun shy with the Genealogy populous, they now have the blog and their websites and you better do it their way. My family tree was written by a famous research and boy is it wrong, I'm in it but my birthdate is 10 years off and that would make me 85, instead of 72. she told me she didn't make mistakes.

  9. Excellent article Kellie. I have several blogs and I post lots of pictures because, like you, I like to share them with my long lost cousins and others who are interested. But, also like you, I do not appreciate finding them on Ancestry as I did this week added to the wrong person without a credit for the source. That person was born before photography was even invented. And as to the provenance of the photo, it was from a photo I took (with a 35mm camera with closeup lens) of a tintype at a family reunion 40 years ago so I know it was mine. In our current world etiquette has become a thing of the past in many ways, but giving credit in such situations is just common courtesy. On my blogs, I have numerous photos that I've obtained from distant cousins and others that I really appreciate so I always give them credit.

    Thanks for sharing this story Kellie.


  10. Well written post that highlights the frustrations that occur when a photo "gets out there" and takes on a life of its own, without attribution. I would imagine that many who "take" the photos this way from Ancestry trees are the same types who think everything should be free.