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

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Why not have a public family tree?

We had quite a flurry of activity the past few days with the controversy over adding sources to the Family Tree program. Meanwhile, there was a post a while ago from Kerry Scott on her Clue Wagon blog entitled "Why Don't People Post Public Family Trees?" This post elicited a response from Tony Proctor on his Parallax View blog entitled, "What to Share, and How." I meant to make some comments about Kerry's post earlier but got wrapped up in the Family Tree controversy and other things such as moving to Provo etc.

I have addressed this issue a number of times and Tony does a very good job of summarizing some of the issues. I would like to focus on two main issues; rewriting history and preserving our work beyond our own demise.

Kerry raises some interesting issues. She focuses, in part, on what I would call privacy issues, that is, issues that involve delicate or difficult family situations. I suppose you could include such things as incest, murder, abuse of all kinds and go on with a long litany of ills suffered by families all over the world. She maintains that the existence of these very negative activities is a fundamental argument for avoiding public trees. I fear that what she is really saying is that she would like to rewrite the history of her family by focusing on the sensibilities of the living family members at the expense of accurately recording the events. Public or private from this standpoint merely means selective publication. Kerry admits that she shares her tree with cousins who "actually contact you." So you can pick and choose who gets to see the "evidence" and make sure there are no contradictory opinions.

Genealogy is basically public in nature. You do not own your ancestors. Dead people have no privacy. If you are concerned about living people, do not include them in what you put online. If there are things that happened in the lives of dead people, keeping that information "private" is really an attempt to rewrite history to conform to your own personal view on the events. Many of the most horrible events suffered by mankind are part of all of our historical past. My own ancestors were mobbed, lost children through tragic circumstances, had children out of wedlock, owned slaves, went to prison, fought in wars and all sorts of other things. That is history. Just because we don't like what happened, we have no right to rewrite the events to suit our own opinions about what should have happened.

Now to the heart of the matter. Exactly how far back does this concern about our own feelings or those of our known family members extend? If a sister or brother is struggling with some undesirable situation, perhaps putting that whole situation online is not such a good idea. Although, I would direct your attention to Facebook and you can probably see most of what you feel is private on any given day. What about the actions of parents? Grandparents? Great-grandparents? What if you find that your Great-great-grandfather was a mass murderer or was on the German side of the issues in World War II or I, do you cover up those facts because they might offend some of his descendants? What if you feel your research should be "private" and I am you close relative and decide to publish my genealogy to the world on any number of family trees. You then look at my public family tree and see almost exactly the same people you are trying to protect on your private tree, what do you do about it? What if I publish exactly the same research you have done including all the steamy and sordid details of the family? What can you do about it? You have no legal right of action if I violate someone else's privacy, only if I violate your own. Again, dead people have no right of privacy.

I fully realize that there are any number of justifications for keeping research private, but where did you get the information? One of my Great-grandfathers was supposedly born in 1863. He had two sisters who were born in 1846 and 1847. The family tradition was that he was "adopted." Both of his "sisters" were old enough to have been his mother. So isn't it likely that the family tradition of adoption came from the fact that he was raised by his grandparents? None of the details of this situation have been preserved in any record I have yet found, so the mystery remains. Most of us probably have situations that are similar. Our ancestors decided to rewrite history and keep the matter quiet. Are we going to pass on the same sort of issues to our own posterity?

I don't really care if you make your family tree private or not. The main result of your privacy is that I do not get to share in your research efforts and have to repeat them. We will never know if we disagree about any of that research because I will never see what you have in your family tree. You will have no way to correct my online mistakes because your research and conclusions are private.

Who is going to carry on your private research for you in the future? What will happen to all of your research when you pass on? Are you going to seal up your research with directions that it is not to be opened until some date after your death?

Think about the idea of keeping ancestral information private. What are the consequences? Who benefits? Who loses?

I fully understand the issues and the desire to avoid hard feelings. I am fully aware of family members' desire to avoid unpleasant issues and their refusal to acknowledge the truth or facts of any particular case. I have dealt with contentious estate matters most of my life. But I cannot countenance re-writing history for that reason.


  1. I totally agree with you about the lives, and history, of dead people James. However, I have a number of items that relate to living people. I don't publish this, as you already suggest here, but I maintain the information since it will also, one day, be about dead people.

    My question to you is how to accurately record the history (or as much as I know about it), and ensure it will not be lost (and hence available to later researchers), but without upsetting anyone in the meantime.

    1. A very interesting comment. I will need to do yet another blog post. Thanks for the suggestion. Nice to hear from you as usual.