Save the Trees: Genealogy and Privacy Online (Part Two)

Posted by Aaron on

In May’s genealogy blog, we explored some of the guidelines set forth by the National Genealogical Society in regards to online privacy and sharing. We examined the importance of obtaining the Online Privacyconsent of living persons before sharing their names, likenesses, or personal information. We also talked about having a reasonable certainty about the accuracy of the information you are sharing before you share it.

This month, in part two of our exploration of genealogy and online privacy, we will address two more important pieces of that issue:

  1. Sensitivity to the effect that revelations may have on family members
  2. Acknowledging sources

Sensitivity to the Effect that Revelations May Have on Family Members

Remember that even though our names, addresses, phone numbers, and certain other data may be matters of public record, there is plenty of personal information that does not fall into this category. Private, sensitive information may include financial data, health issues, and family circumstances such as children born out of wedlock. Elizabeth Powell Crowe, in her book Genealogy Online, quotes a researcher’s suggestion asking yourself this question: Is there anyone who will mind if I publish this information?

As we mentioned when talking about obtaining the consent of living persons, “sharing” does not just mean via a published family tree. It includes the disseminating of information via list-serve, e-mail, blog or any other method. Recognizing all of the places you are sharing information and asking yourself if, in sharing certain personal details, you may be inadvertently harming someone else, will help you maintain the standards suggested by the National Genealogical Society.

It is always a good idea to read the privacy policies and sharing settings on any site where you are posting personal information. In this sharing age, many genealogical and social media sites default to a “public” setting and leave it to you to change it.

Acknowledging Sources

We can hardly address the topics of sharing and privacy without taking a moment to look at the issue of source acknowledgment. Within the deep and broad subject of genealogical privacy online, we find the crediting of sources nestled in among accuracy and responsibility, both yours and that of your source.

According to The Online Genealogy Handbook by Brad & Debra Schepp, U.S. Copyright law does indeed apply to some research and publication of genealogy. Facts and data cannot be copyrighted, but there are copyright laws that may apply to published research. It is incumbent upon the researcher (you) to educate yourself about these laws so that you are not subject to accusations of plagiarism. (I cannot provide this education, as I do not want to be subject to accusations of trying to be a lawyer!) This knowledge can also help you protect your own research.

If you use material from a particular source, it’s usually good practice to acknowledge the source you’ve consulted. On the plus side, many or most genealogists will happily share information with you if you ask. Genealogists are typically a very open bunch, or we wouldn’t need to talk about privacy! Finally, if information is shared with you, it is also prudent to ask if you can share it further or if you are intended to be the sole recipient.

Further Resources

In addition to last month’s resourcesyou may want to read about general online privacy, as many of the tips about protecting your online security may be applicable. For this purpose, you might try I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did by Lori Andrews or The Internet for Dummies by John R. Levine & Margaret Levine Young. You may even be interested in Dragnet Nation by Julia Angwin, which offers an in-depth exploration of modern issues surrounding internet privacy and security.

Fear Not 

Don’t let the intricacies of this issue deter you from exploring and sharing your family tree online. Take advantage of this technological age in which we live that makes it so much easier to collaborate with others on projects such as genealogical research. A little bit of courtesy and common sense will get you a long way, and will make your online genealogical journey smooth for you and your loved ones.

~ Amanda, reference librarian, Warrenton central library

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