This fact was brought home by a simple question posed to me last night and some time I spent looking at books. A patron came into the Brigham Young University Family History Library and asked me how to represent that some German children had been adopted by their grandparents using the FamilySearch.org Family Tree. I immediately showed him how the program would allow the user to designate the relationship of a child as biological, adopted, guardianship, step or foster. In this case, during the wars in Europe, these children had been born out of wedlock and there was no record of their fathers' identities. Accordingly, the children were "adopted" into the family by the parents of the daughters with out-of-wedlock babies, i.e. their grandparents. This whole relationship was completely obscured by the program. No one looking at the program, unless they looked very carefully at the type of relationship, would know of the circumstances. When the child was listed as an adopted child of the grandparents, the Family Tree had a warning message that said that the child was born after the mother (now the adopted grandmother) could have children.
Today, we have very three dimensional families. We have couples with children from several different marriage relationships and many where marriage was not an option. There are a few programs that try to represent these "non-traditional" family relationships in innovative ways, but then the innovation is lost as soon as the data is loaded into one of the online family trees or shared with someone who does not use the same program.
If I move to Ancestry.com, I have even more options to categorize the relationship of the children: biological, adopted, step, foster, related, guardian, private and unknown. What is a "private" relationship? How do I represent that parent-child relationship if I move my data to the FamilySearch.org Family Tree? Why am I faced with a loss of data if I move the information from one program to another?
This example deals with some Western European relationships. If I move to another culture in a non-European setting, I will see even more anomalies in the representation of the data. If I come from one of these countries and use the online and desktop programs, I am forced into the European relationship mold.
Now, my second experience. Last night at the Library, I was doing some research into one of my New England ancestors with a fairly common name. I ran out of online sources and found a reference to a book that might have helped me with my genealogy. I went to the Social Sciences section of the Library downstairs from the Family History Library section and began searching for the book. That book did not turn out to be helpful, but as I mechanically searched through the books on the shelves, I found several books of interest. In fact, I found a book containing the probate record for my ancestor. The book had the following notice:
No part of the publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means whatsoever, whether electronic, mechanical, magnetic recording or photocopying, without prior written approval of the Copyright holders, excepting brief quotes for inclusion in book reviews. Privately printed in the United States of America.
Hmm. According to this notice, I could not copy down the information about my ancestor's probate with a piece of paper and a pencil without violating the authors' copyright claims. What good is all these authors' work to me or anyone else. Why does the Library keep a copy of this book if it cannot be used for any purpose except a book review? Why write a genealogically valuable book and then tell everyone not to use the information? Exactly.
Perhaps you can see that these are both the same problem. We make an effort to extract and store information and then make it impossible to share what we find. Whether this occurs as a result of lack of communication between computer programs, a design flaw that obscures valuable genealogical information or an overly broad claim of copyright, all of these issues put us back in the medieval days when books were chained to their shelves and only the rich and powerful could read them.
You don't own your ancestors and yet you cannot use the information found by your own relatives or stored about your own family because of archaically inappropriate restrictions.