A version of this article first appeared in the November/December 2000 issue of Ancestry Magazine
Photocopying technology has made it easy to reproduce paper or microform originals. As genealogists, we may now share our paper-based research with relative ease. As important as photocopying has become for duplicating our work, it's technology has been overshadowed by the even more replication-ready personal computer. Even larger volumes of information may be shared nearly instantly as electrons in the ether rather than ink on paper. Electronic files contain our research results. Diskettes, home-burned CD-ROMs, and electronic mail share our files with our friends and families. Internet accessible databases which accept submissions from researchers share our genealogy with the world. Truly, computers have made sharing easier than ever. Computers are photocopiers on steroids – never running out of toner and never needing paper. The personal computer is the modern mimeograph machine – more copies of more stuff with less thought and effort required. And therein lies the rub.
How did it get into a commercial database? Why did this company have the right to charge others to view her hard work? Why didn't they ask her permission? Where did they get her information from in the first place? That rapacious replicator and diabolic duplicator – computer technology – had been at work again.
Several years back – before the Internet exploded, my friend had submitted her research in the form of a GEDCOM (GEenealogical Data COMmunications) file to LDS' Ancestral File™ - see http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Search/frameset_search.asp?PAGE=af/search_AF.asp. At that time, any and all genealogists were encouraged to submit the results of their research to the Ancestral File™ – a lineage-linked computer database. The Ancestral File™ was then made freely available to other researchers on CD-ROMs at LDS Family History Centers and other libraries.
The Ancestral File™ was a good program all around. It supported our community's natural inclination to share our information with others. Genealogists know that sharing is an essential element to productive research. No one person can hope to fully follow every line of research involved in a family – there isn't enough time, the records are geographically dispersed, and our ancestors have a habit of increasing numerically with every generation further back we research – making the research problem larger with each breakthrough. We have to share to succeed. And share we do, both laterally with other current researchers and horizontally between generations as we share with future researchers.
The LDS church does not provide information from the Ancestral File™ to commercial enterprises, so the compilers of the database didn't give away my friend's information. The culprit must have been a fellow researcher!
By publicly sharing your research, you must accept the possibility that your research will subsequently appear in places which you never intended. Other researchers who have access to your publicly posted information may not respect your wishes regarding where else your information is placed. You might never ever want your research contributed to a commercial database, but if you make your research publicly available, it may end up in one.
That's what happened to my friend's research. Some other researcher took what she had placed in the Ancestral File™, incorporated the research into their own GEDCOM file, and submitted the GEDCOM to a commercial database. The culprit may not have had bad intentions. Maybe they were not aware of the etiquette of sharing research? Perhaps they were not aware that my friend would not approve? Perhaps the perpetrator obtained some research benefit as the result of sharing the GEDCOM? The contribution of the research to the commercial database may have been quite innocent.
Maybe the person who submitted the information to the commercial database wasn't even the same person who extracted it from the Ancestral File™? If one researcher found it in the Ancestral File™ and then shared it with another, who then shared it with another, etc., until some one (or more than one) researcher in the chain finally submitted the information to the Internet database. The ease with which personal computers can duplicate and share information contributes to the problem. However, the fundamental problem lies with the users of the tools and not the tools themselves.
There is nothing that can be done now to "take back" information which we have publicly shared in the past. We all must accept that today's ease-of-sharing and the flood of new and excited researchers into our increasingly popular hobby have changed how we should approach sharing our research.
One corollary to this change is that it has also effected how we privately share our information. If you send your GEDCOM to your cousin Bill, Bill may share your research publicly. Bill may not be aware of your concerns about publicly posting your research. Or Bill may be new to the hobby and has not yet become aware of the ramifications of sharing. Whatever the case, private sharing can turn into public sharing with just a few keystrokes.
The best we can all do is to first educate ourselves about the issues. You've already made a step in that direction by reading this article. The National Genealogical Society's Standards For Sharing Information With Others at http://www.ngsgenealogy.org/comstandsharing.htm are an excellent guide to sharing both on and off line.
Secondly, you can ask yourself questions about your personal comfort level regarding sharing BEFORE you share your research. By considering these questions and determining your tolerance for sharing before you begin, you can reduce or eliminate any "surprises" you may later encounter.
Public forums with statements or policies regarding your submissions to them will usually spell out what happens to your information after you submit it. Some statements will deal specifically with consumer information only. Keep digging until you find the statement about what they will do with your research information. It may become their property to do with as they please. Some may promise to never sell your information for any reason. Some will frankly tell you that they will be pressing your data onto a CD-ROM for commercial sale. The statements vary widely. Be sure to read the statements carefully to ensure yourself that you can live with what they say they will be doing with your research.
Information on the living generations of our families does not significantly add to our genealogical research. If you wish to keep track of information on living cousins, keep it in a database separate from the data which you share. GEDCOM files can be easily scrubbed clean of living individuals see Cyndi's List – Software – Privacy Issues at http://www.CyndisList.com/software.htm#Privacy. Consider how you would feel if Great Aunt Mary were cheated out of some money by a fraudster who found her personal information as a result of something from your genealogy database.
Commercial public forums which accept your GEDCOM in lieu of monetary payment for access do so on the premise that your contribution to their commercial database will increase the monetary value of their database. They are not designed to provide your research with a place of centralized "safe storage". Nor can they claim to provide broad exposure of your research to others – only those who pay or trade can view your research.
If you wouldn't gamble your hard-earned money for access to a commercial lineage-linked database on the chance that it might provide you with some finding aids, why would you stake your hard-earned research on the same wager?
This caution applies to sources of information other than fellow researchers. If you get information from a book, organization, governmental agency, or other entity, you must respect their wishes regarding how you may acceptably share that information. Most organizations and governmental agencies helpfully explain what can and cannot be shared and under what circumstances. Can't find these instructions? – ASK FOR THEM.
Ask yourself if sharing the dark family secret will enhance your shared research? If the skeleton under consideration does not directly improve the ability of others to comprehend your family history, its inclusion will not do any good but may cause considerable harm. In our Information Age, the sharing of family secrets can have a vastly magnified effect on any negative results that may occur. The job of family genealogist requires patience anyway – there will likely come a time in the future when the revelation of the family secret will no longer cause harm. Leave the skeleton in the closet until then.
Researchers who are serious about their work will recognize the limitations of your "names & dates" only file and will contact you further for your sources. You can then make an informed decision about whether or not to share your sources privately with them. If you haven't shared your sources, you're only sharing mythology, not genealogy.
We will continue to share our research with each other. The success of our own research depends on this sharing. But our Information Age produces so many ramifications about sharing that we must think long and hard about it. No longer is the difficulty of making and spreading copies of our research like that of using a mimeograph – it's even easier than using a photocopier now. The old hand crank has been replaced by an easy-to-press button. The decision of whether and how we push that button remains in our hands. We just have to think before we push it.
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