Friday, July 09, 2010

What is Privacy in Genealogy?

Tomorrow I am speaking to the San Diego Genealogy Society on the topics of Copyright, Plagiarism and Privacy and their affects on genealogy.  These are important topics that affect us all as genealogists.  Plagiarism is one that has affected me quite a few times with those who have taken content off my blog, handouts and articles without citing me.

Privacy is an interesting topic.  We all want it.  We all want to have our "private lives" left alone.  The irony is that we are pursuing an interest that is all about uncovering family secrets, stories and legends.  By the very nature of the research we pursue we are delving into the private lives of others.

So how should we look at privacy as genealogists?  One unspoken rule of genealogy is that you don't publish family trees or information about the living on the Internet.  That seems obvious.  Most people don't want their birth date and place on the Internet.  But what if you were born in California prior to 1997 and your birth date, place of birth and mother's maiden name is on the California Death Index?  We like to have that Index available to us to research but should it include people who are still living?  What about other ways of finding people like through various public record searches.  Through one public record search I was able to find my birth date and year as well as every address that I have lived at.  This particular search is a genealogical search and is helpful for finding living cousins so we can compare family history research but in some aspects it does infringe on privacy.

People have all sorts of reasons for wanting privacy.  It may just be that they feel their lives are no one else's business.  In the work I use to do, working with domestic violence victims, privacy can mean the difference between life and death.

What about family secrets?  Maybe a divorce or out or wedlock birth? What about a mental disability?  In some cases medical information can mean the difference in treating the lives of those who are living. But with HIPAA laws access to that information is almost impossible. While we may not think that is scandalous, other family members may feel it causes shame. 

A person whose presumed  father really isn't her birth father may not want other people to know that.  I once had a client whose parent's in the 1920s were divorced.  The father shortly thereafter died in a car accident.  In between those two incidents the woman was conceived; Her parent's were not married at the time.  However, she had no idea of that fact, she didn't even know they were divorced.  As a genealogist hired by her I was in a difficult position.  Do I tell her that her parents were divorced at the time of conception or do I leave it be?

Well my personal genealogical code is that I think we should do no harm.  I decided in the above case that it would serve no purpose to explain a timeline of her parent's lives. It would most likely be more harmful to her to know that fact.  There was no greater good to be  served.  What once was shameful may still feel shameful to someone if told.  Privacy in genealogy means not causing harm to the living.

Because of the work I use to do, confidentiality is important.  I think as genealogists we need to consider the living, and the recently dead when we compile our family histories and share those histories with others. We need to not share what would not be appropriate, respect the living's wishes and in some cases not print things about the recently dead that would be harmful to those who are still living.

Part of privacy is also checking out sources.  A participant in a recent presentation I did told me that there is a tree on Ancestry that has her listed as being deceased.  She has tried to get a hold of the tree contributor but the person has not answered.  This tree provides her birth date and place and a death date and place that is actually another relative.  This is a good example of conducting thorough research and citing our sources. When you don't, you may be infringing on other people's privacy.

No comments: