Friday, May 4, 2018

Do the "Write" Thing for Genealogy: Be Honest, Be Ethical

As family historians, how can we write about ancestors in a way that is both honest and ethical?

After all, every family has a secret or a story that the current generation knows nothing about. Maybe an ancestor hid an early marriage or had some other hidden relationship . . . or committed a crime . . . or behaved in a manner considered, then or now, to be shameful or questionable or downright wicked.

Our genealogy research can turn up things that families never expected would be known. Especially if we want people to share stories and documents with us, I believe we have an obligation to use that information in a responsible way. It's a balancing act between the honesty we genealogists owe to future generations and the ethical responsibility we owe to those living today.

My personal approach is: If disclosing something about an ancestor would be truly harmful to someone living today, I don't write about it, either on my blog or in any "public" family history.

This has been a real issue only once in my 20 years of genealogy research. In that instance, I put the information into my private genealogy files so the story won't be lost forever. This allows me to be honest with future generations and act responsibly by avoiding potential damage today.

My "genealogical will" leaves my files to relatives who will safeguard them for the sake of descendants. Years from now, when these genealogical heirs sift through the files, they can weigh the consequences of disclosure in light of how much time has passed and whether anyone would be harmed if the story is told then, not now.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts on this delicate balancing act.


  1. AnonymousMay 05, 2018

    My sentiments exactly!!

  2. Gee, Two posts in one week that I have appreciated. Within the last 100 years My family tree includes Suicides and accidental deaths due to thrill seeking or carelessness. When asked about cause of early deaths I have chosen the term "Misfortune" as a generic answer unless there is a reason for a more thorough explanation.

  3. I agree. As well as not writing about it in my blog I don’t include the facts in my on-line trees. I sort of follow the line if it isn’t nice I don’t say it. It restricts my twentieth century writing. I also have not written about a lurid nineteenth century murder out of respect for descendants. I am concerned though that if I fail to write about unpleasant things I am sanitising the family history.

  4. Marian, I agree. If you are telling a story, you should tell it 'warts and all', unless their close relatives are still living. Then you should be careful of their feelings, and only record any upsetting aspects privately. Why would you hurt someone, unnecessarily?

  5. It is a difficult topic. If something unpleasant happened 100 years ago it becomes uninteresting family tale. If ti happened 10 years ago people are probably not ready to share the details.

  6. I have the same approach do not reveal details about anything that may cause harm or upset to those alive today. If it is something known by family but details may be unclear then only share if it may help living descendants to understand what happened.
    We all need to consider the effect of our actions on others.

  7. I've got a few family stories I'm still debating as to if to blog about or not. My guess is some will get written, and while others just aren't ready to be told yet. But time will tell.

  8. I like your approach. It is something we, as the family historians, really need to consider and think about! I still struggle with DNA and all of the secrets it is unearthing. I think the fact that our genealogies are now so public means we are having to consider what we share more than genealogists of the past.