Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What are the risks associated with genealogy?

I don't think anyone would characterize genealogy as a "high risk" pastime. Especially if you compare it to freebase jumping and skydiving. But if you were in my position, teaching genealogy classes week after week, you would begin to believe that genealogy was indeed among the "high risk" pursuits in the world based upon the fears and complaints of the participants. The real question is whether or not there are any risks, physical or otherwise, that are associated directly with practicing genealogy?

When I was a lot younger, I participated in what would be considered, some high risk activities, such as rock climbing, downhill skiing, and others. The risks of rock climbing for example, were somewhat obvious such as falling off the cliff, getting hit in the head with rocks and piton hammers and breaking various bones in my body etc. Skiing had similar obvious risks and some not-so-obvious. One of the most serious injuries I had from skiing, aside from sprains, crashes and torn ligaments, was a terrible sunburn on my face.

So, if we look carefully at genealogy, do we see any risks? Sometimes when I write, I am not being serious. But in this case, I really am writing about whether or not there are any risks, physical or otherwise, that can be associated with the practice of genealogy outside of the risks that are common with living life in today's world. For example, since genealogists tend to be older, there are all the risks associated with age, but are any of these risks increased by practicing genealogy? Granted if I leave my home and drive to a FamilySearch Center, I incur some risks, but those risks are the same regardless of my destination. I incur the same risks if I were going to a store or the doctor or where ever.

You could argue that genealogy increases your risk of carpel tunnel syndrome and other computer related injuries. But to the contrary, those risks are associated with the use of computers generally and the subject matter of the use has no bearing on results of the use. These non-associative risks also include things such as eye strain, headaches, fatigue and other natural results of using computers for long periods of time. I had the same issues working in a law office all day and sometimes into the night. I cannot point at any one of these types of risks that are unique to genealogy.

Does genealogy have any specifically related risks? In thinking about this question, I came to the conclusion that there are really no risks associated specifically with genealogy. On the other hand, there are some perceived risks that appear to be greater in certain areas of genealogical practice. Those risks fall into two categories: privacy concerns and identity theft concerns. The question to ask is whether or not there are any risks in these two areas that are  inherent in the practice of genealogy as opposed to the risks of those who do not accumulate and share information about their families?

Can we identify any genealogical practices that increase our risks in compromising our privacy or increasing the incidence of identity theft? I can say with certainty that after searching and watching, I can find absolutely no authoritative studies that demonstrate any connection between genealogy and an increased risk of privacy loss or identity theft. There is not enough of a risk in any category incurred by genealogists to even begin to do a risk/benefit analysis.

For example, does exposing your private life on Facebook really have anything to do with genealogy? Remember, dead people have no privacy. Genealogy deals with dead people. To the extent that you publicize information about living people, you are really outside the scope of genealogy. There is one small issue, that is the tendency of banks and other financial institutions to use the inappropriate security questions involving your mother's maiden name or other such nonsense. Stupidity is always a risk no matter what you are involved in.

Perhaps you can think of some specific genealogy related risks. Let me know and I will discuss this issue some more in the future.


  1. I agree completely, but (I know, here it comes) your writing suggests that all risks are negative. I risk sharing what I have with relatives with the hopes to get more information and some cooperation. Risking the info which may contain errors or at least disagreements can have a very positive result.

  2. Pounding your head against a wall is a possible risk...

  3. Being addicted the pursuit of information is a definite risk.

  4. One possible risk is finding out information that you are not sure you wanted to know. I recently found out that during the 1940 census my uncle, now deceased, spent time in Leavenworth. This was one family story I never heard about. Now I am trying to find out why he was in Leavenworth. There could be other scenarios(skeletons) that could come out of the closet.

  5. I know a woman who got lyme disease by trying to get to some tombstones in an overgrown cemetery.