Earning a Good Genealogical Citizenship Award

By April Leigh Helm, Matthew L. Helm

To be a good genealogical citizen as you work online, you should keep a few things in mind, such as maintaining privacy, respecting copyrights, and including adequate citations.

Mandatory lecture on privacy

Sometimes, genealogists get so caught up in dealing with the records of deceased persons that they forget one basic fact: Much of the information they’ve collected and put in their databases pertains to living individuals and, thus, is considered private. In their haste to share information with others online, they often create GEDCOM files and reports, and then ship them off to recipients without thinking twice about whether they may offend someone or invade his or her privacy by including personal information. The same thing goes for posting information directly to websites and in blogs — genealogists sometimes write the data into the family tree or include anecdotal information in their blog narratives without thinking about the consequences to living individuals. They (and you) need to be more careful.

Why worry about privacy?

  • You may invade someone’s right to privacy. Social Security numbers of living individuals could end up in GEDCOM files that are available on the Internet. People who didn’t know that their biological parents weren’t married (to each other, anyway) could find out through an online database. Your relatives may not want you to share personal information about them with others, and they may not have given you permission to do so. The same is true for photos and video clips. Just because you’re gung-ho to show the world the group photo from your family reunion does not mean that every one of your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins feels the same way. So don’t share the information or the image without the permission of everyone involved.
  • Genealogists aren’t the only people who visit genealogical Internet sites. Private detectives and other people who search for information on living persons frequently use genealogical databases to track people. They are known to lurk about, watching for information that may help their cases. Estranged spouses may visit sites looking for a way to track down their former partners. Also, people with less-than-honorable intentions may visit a genealogical website looking for potential scam or abuse victims. And some information, such as your mother’s maiden name, may help the unscrupulous carry out fraud. For these reasons, it is illegal in some states and countries to share information about living persons on the Internet without first getting each person’s written permission.

When sharing genealogical information, your safest bet is to clean out (exclude) any information on living individuals from your GEDCOM file or report when sharing it with others and include only the data that pertains to people who have long been deceased — unless you’ve obtained written consent from living persons to share information about them. By long been deceased, that means deceased for more than ten years — although the time frame could be longer depending on the sensitivity of the information. You may also want to keep in mind that the U.S. Government standard dictates that no record covered under the Privacy Act is released until it’s at least 72 years old.

Respecting copyrights

Copyright is the controlling right that a person or corporation owns over the duplication and distribution of a work that the person or corporation created. Although facts themselves can’t be copyrighted, works in which facts are contained can be. Although the fact that your grandma was born on January 1, 1900, can’t be copyrighted by anyone, a report that contains this information and was created by Aunt Velma may be. If you intend to include a significant portion of Aunt Velma’s report in your own document, you need to secure permission from her to use the information.

With regard to copyright and the Internet, remember that just because you found some information on a website (or other Internet resource) does not mean that it’s not copyrighted. If the website contains original material along with facts, it is copyrighted to the person who created it — regardless of whether the site has a copyright notice on it!

To protect yourself from infringing on someone’s copyright and possibly ending up in a legal battle, you should do the following:

  • Never copy another person’s web page, email, blog, or other Internet creation (such as graphics) without his or her written consent.
  • Never print an article, a story, a report, or other material to share with your family, friends, genealogical or historical society, class, or anyone else without the creator’s written consent.
  • Always assume that a resource is copyrighted.
  • Always cite sources of the information in your genealogy and on your web pages. (See the next section in this chapter for more information.)
  • Always link to other web pages rather than copying their content on your own website.

If you don’t understand what copyright is or if you have questions about it, be sure to check out the U.S. Copyright Office’s home page. Two U.S. Copyright Office pages of particular interest at the site are Copyright Basics and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).

Citing your sources

It is very important to cite your sources when sharing information — online or through traditional means. Be sure to include references that reflect where you obtained your information; that’s just as important when you share your information as it is when you research it. Not only does referencing provide the other person with leads to possible additional information, but it also gives you a place to double-check your facts if someone challenges them. Sometimes, after exchanging information with another researcher, you both notice that you have conflicting data about an ancestor. Knowing where to turn to double-check the facts (and, with any luck, find out who has the correct information) can save you time and embarrassment.

Here are some examples of ways to cite online sources of information:

  • Email messages: Matthew Helm, [<ezgenealogy@aol.com> or 111 Main Street, Anyplace, Anystate 11111]. “Looking for George Helm,” Message to April Helm, 12 October 2009. [Message cites vital records in Helm’s possession.]
  • Newsgroups: Matthew Helm, [<ezgenealogy@aol.com> or 111 Main Street, Anyplace, Anystate 11111]. “Computing in Genealogy” in soc.genealogy.computing, 05 June 2006.
  • Websites: Matthew Helm, [<ezgenealogy@aol.com> or 111 Main Street, Anyplace, Anystate 11111]. “Helm’s Genealogy Toolbox.” <genealogy.tbox.com> January 2004. [This site contains numerous links to other genealogical resources on the Internet. On July 12, 2010, located and checked links on Abell family; found two that were promising.]

With a note like the preceding one in brackets, you expect that your next two citations are the two websites that looked promising. For each site, you should provide notes stating exactly what you did or did not find.

Although most genealogical software programs now enable you to store source information and citations along with your data, many still don’t export the source information automatically. For that reason, double-check any reports or GEDCOM files you generate to see whether your source information is included before sharing them with other researchers. If the information isn’t included, create a new GEDCOM file that includes sources.