Share and Beware - Sharing Genealogy in the Information Age


A version of this article first appeared in the November/December 2000 issue of Ancestry Magazine


By Mark Howells


The Modern Mimeograph

Remember the smell of freshly-mimeographed copies? Many of us will recall the days before cheap and ubiquitous photocopy machines displaced the mimeograph in our offices and schools. The old mimeograph technology simply could not compete against the introduction of the simpler-to-use Xerox®. Unlike the mimeograph, a Xerox® required no stencils prepared in advance, no arduous cranking, produced no smearing purple ink on the copies, and of course – had no odor. With a photocopier, seemingly limitless copies can be produced which look almost as good as the original. With a push of a button, dozens or hundreds of copies can be had. The duplicating process is limited only by the paper supply or toner running low – with occasional visits from the copier repairperson.

[Image of a mimeograph in use in the 1930s]

A "high speed" mimeograph used in the 1930s
Source: The New Deal Network

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.

A Phone Call From A Friend

A friend and fellow genealogist phoned me the other day. Concern in her voice, she explained that she had just found some of her own genealogical research in a commercial database on the Internet. She could clearly recognize it as her own because it concerned a particular medical condition which she had traced through one of her lines. She even had corroboration from another researcher who had provided some assistance on that particular line. There was no doubt that it was her own hard work.

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™

The Ancestral File™ (now succeeded by the Pedigree Resource File™) was a good place to submit your genealogical data for several reasons. You preserved your research in a centralized location and at the same time ensured that multiple copies of it existed all over the world. Other genealogists who were visiting Family History Centers or libraries which held the Ancestral File™ CD-ROMs had access to your research. Contact information on the Ancestral File™ allowed connections to be made between researchers.

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!

Losing Control

Unfortunately, whenever we place information about our research in a public forum, we lose control over that information. The Ancestral File™ just happened to be the forum my friend used. Our research information posted to genealogy mailing lists, placed on genealogy web pages, or submitted to commercial databases (CD-ROM or Internet based) has left our hands forever. Regardless of the legal niceties of copyright laws or information protection rules and regulations, the physical reality is that if you share in a public forum, you have lost full control over that information.

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.

When Private Means Public

I don't believe my friend was wrong to contribute her research to the Ancestral File™. At the time she publicly shared her information, it was just as easy to copy her information from the Ancestral File™ as it is now, but it was not as easy to spread that information around. In the "old days", Ancestral File™ was one of the very few large genealogical databases accepting submissions – now there are many. Also at the time, the Internet had not yet made it child's play to send a GEDCOM as an e-mail attachment or to submit a GEDCOM online to a commercial database. Times have changed.

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.

Horned In

So how do we best blunt the horns of this dilemma? On one hand, genealogists simply must share. Not only is it in our nature, but it is necessary for successful research. On the other hand, sharing – both privately and publicly – may cause our hard-won research to wind up in places which we do not intend or of which we do not approve. What to do?

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.

Think, Think, Think

What follows are some general considerations regarding the public sharing of genealogical information. This is really a check list for analyzing specific situations before you share. It's assumed that you have already answered the above questions to your own satisfaction and have decided that you are comfortable publicly sharing your research. Armed with your self-knowledge that you do wish to share, you now have found a public forum where you think you may wish to share your research. It could be a web site, a CD-ROM database, a genealogy society's periodical, a mailing list, or some other form of public sharing. Regardless of the forum, the considerations outlined below will help you live in relative peace with the sharing genealogy in the Information Age.

Number 1: Read The Fine Print

ALWAYS read the public forum's acceptable use policy and/or privacy statement. If the forum doesn't have a description of what they will or will not do with your information, beware! If a web site requires that you enter personal data or your research information BEFORE they explain how they will be using your data, LEAVE IMMEDIATELY. Your time is better spent elsewhere.

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.

I'm obliged to make a comment regarding these statements in general. An acceptable use or privacy policy in-force today may not be in-force tomorrow. Companies who make these statements can change ownership or their business objectives may change. Privacy statements can only be regarded as current statements of intent which are not necessarily legally binding. The Federal Trade Commission's ability to enforce the privacy promises of online retailers is currently being tested by the bankrupt Toysmart.com's attempt to sell it's consumer database. The implications for genealogy are immense and their resolutions still lie ahead of us.

Number 2: Only The Dead

Whether you are sharing publicly or privately, NEVER include information about living individuals in what you share. The invasion of personal privacy and the potential for the mis-use of this information is simply too great. The genealogical community is starting to learn this admonition fairly well but there are new researchers joining our ranks ever day so it never hurts to repeat this loudly and often.

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.

Number 3: You Get What You Pay For

NEVER give your research information in trade for access to other genealogical resources. Most of these situations ask you to trade your GEDCOM for "research time" in commercial databases. Don't confuse these commercial forums with the not-for-profit lineage-linked databases such as the Ancestral File™ and it's successor, the Pedigree Resource File™. The Ancestral File™ never required you to submit your information in order to benefit from its use. It is freely available to submitter and non-submitter alike.

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?

Number 4: Do You Have Permission?

Share information you've obtained from others ONLY WITH THEIR PERMISSION. If the research involved is not your original research, you must apply even more care in how you share that research. If Flora, your fourth cousin, once removed sent you her original research, you must respect her wishes in regards to the further sharing of that information. If she did not make her preferences known to you regarding how and with whom you may share her original research, ASK HER.

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.

Number 5: Sharing With Caring

If the sharing of certain family information may cause hurt to others, KEEP IT TO YOURSELF. Every family has "skeletons in the closet". Babies arrive "early" after the wedding ceremony, families are abandoned, tragedies occur. Our ancestors were just as skilled at making mistakes as we are. Your decision to share your research information means that you must carefully consider the impact of sharing these family skeletons either publicly or privately.

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.

Number 6: First Contact

One of the major reasons for sharing our work is our hopes that someone with similar interests will contact us. It is imperative that these fellow researchers are able to CONTACT YOU as a result of you sharing your work. If the public forum where you wish to share your information allows submitter anonymity or makes it burdensome for researchers with the same interests to identify each other, take your submission elsewhere. There are too many other useful forums available to waste time looking through anonymous submissions.

Number 7: Consider The Source

Consider removing your SOURCE CITATIONS when you share. Withholding source citations is one strategy for publicly sharing your research to encourage others to contact you without giving away all of your own hard work. Genealogical research with names, dates, places and relationships becomes a mere finding aid if it is published without source citations. Be sure to label your work as "without sources" or "sources available upon request" so that other researchers will recognize that you've intentionally withheld this vital information.

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.

Number 8: Use Your Own Fine Print

When you place your own research in a public forum, TELL OTHERS WHAT YOU EXPECT. Include a statement of your own intentions as to the further dissemination of your research. Whenever you publish a web page, send an e-mail, or mail out a paper form, include your own disclaimers such as "Not For Commercial Use" or "Do Not Share" or a copyright statement. Have your name and contact information available with your statement so that fellow researchers may obtain your permission for further sharing. The idea is not to prevent sharing but to raise the awareness of others so they will ask permission BEFORE sharing.

Sharing Our Toys

The Modern Mimeograph has made sharing genealogy easier than ever. Unfortunately, the same personal computer technology has not made our thinking about the impact of our sharing any easier. Just like when we were children, sharing remains a difficult concept to master. The parent tells the child to share their tricycle with the neighbor child but the parent does not likewise share their automobile with the same neighbor. Clearly, sharing is a matter of personal perspective and comfort.

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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Share and Beware - Sharing Genealogy in the Information Age
Created & maintained by Mark Howells.
For information about this article, please send email to markhow@oz.net
Updated March 31, 2001

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