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

Thursday, April 29, 2021

What is genealogical research?


A quote attributed to Confucius says: "To know what you know and what you do not know, that is true knowledge." A common genealogical saying similarly states that you should always begin your research by proceeding from what you know to what you do not know. I find that commonly, budding genealogists spend a lot more time worrying about the blank spots on their pedigrees than they do about making sure what they already have is accurate and correct. 

The word "research" when used by genealogists has a different meaning than when used in other disciplines. Often the process of investigating and drawing conclusions from historical records is inappropriately compared to scientific or even legal research. As long as we all recognize that genealogical research depends entirely on historical sources and that the conclusions we draw from those sources are opinions based, in part, on the accuracy of those records, we are safe in making assumptions. 

Let me illustrate this principle with a series of hypothetical situations. Let's suppose that you have been told your own birthdate and that your family celebrated your "birthday" every year on the same date. When you registered for school and filled in other forms over your lifetime, you always used your "known" birthdate. Now let's suppose that, following the popular trend, you take a DNA test and the results show that you are not related to your parents. Subsequently, you also discover that your "birth certificate" was in fact created during an adoption process and your real birthdate is unknown. Further investigation reveals that you were a foundling abandoned on the doorstep of a fire station and that your biological parents were never found at the time of the abandonment. Despite your lifelong tradition of celebrating your birthday on a specific day, your birthdate is actually unknown. You have been celebrating your adoption date all along. 

This first example illustrates some important aspects of historical research such as the idea that historical documents are inherently unreliable and even though we might have multiple documents showing the same information, all of these documents may still be unreliable and simply copies of the same inaccurate document. In the hypothetical above, you may have used your supposed "birthdate" to create a number of other documents throughout your life, but because all those documents were based on the first inaccurate document, they were all wrong. 

So who cares about whether or not a single date recorded on one or more documents is correct? Is there any point to historical or genealogical research when we can't completely rely on any single particular document? This lack of absolutes in historical/genealogical research is overwhelmingly frustrating to some and completely unknown to others who are involved in genealogy or family history. Given this uncertainty, genealogical research is technically never done as long as there is any possibility that additional historical documents or DNA information might be discovered.  

In the situation concerning the invalid birthdate, realistically, the birthdate used during the individual's lifetime is the "valid" date because the only real use of a birthdate is to help a researcher distinguish between people with the same or similar name who match the same location, and to establish birth order. Birth records also help establish parentage when the record identifies a parent or the parents of an individual. However, parentage may take the cultural form of adoption, guardianship, step-parents, and other types of relationships. 

Here is another hypothetical, although commonly occurring, situation. In this situation, let's suppose that despite extensive review of the available documents, no record containing birth information can be found. This is an example of Rule #2 of the Rules of Genealogy, "Rule Two: Absence of an obituary or death record does not mean the person is still alive. The restatement is this rule is that absence of a birth record does not mean that the person never lived. 

So what is genealogical research? One simple definition is that genealogical research is the process of examining historical records and extracting and recording information about a particular relationship of individuals or families going back in time. The process becomes challenging when the historical record is incomplete or contradictory. In addition, genealogical research identifies patterns of relationships built upon naming practices, cultural practices, and kinship systems. 

Obviously, genealogical research depends on both the preservation and availability of historical records. I recently received a comment where an individual "discovered" relationships going back to Charlemange. Unfortunately, during most of the time when genealogies were being compiled, the main purpose of a pedigree was to add legitamcy to an ancestral line usually to establish a royal connection. Most of these pedigrees have no real basis. All valid genealogical research must be supported by a demonstrable parent/child relationship. If you choose to believe an extended pedigree connecting you to a royal family line, you can certainly believe what you want to believe but a careful examination of these pre-fabricated pedigrees always discloses gaps in the parent/child documentation. 

I have examined thousands of pedigrees over the past almost 40 or so years and I have seen only a very small number of pedigrees that unarguably connected a person back to royalty. 

To summarize; genealogical research is the process of examining historical records, extracting information about individuals and families, and then recording and documenting that information in an organized manner. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Jumpstart Your MyHeritage Family Tree with Instant Discoveries

This is my latest contribution to the website the MyHeritage Knowledge Base. The Knowledge Base contains articles, webinars, and how-to videos that will help you with both your use of the website but also increase your knowledge of genealogical research. New material is regularly added to this useful website. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Is Accuracy Important in Genealogical Research?


You may wonder why I have to ask whether or not accuracy is important in genealogical research? The simple answer is that apparently there are a lot of people who simply ignore the fact that the information they enter into online family trees is not only inaccurate but entirely unsupported by a valid genealogical source document. Every item of information asserted in a family tree should be adequately supported by the historical record. In the case of almost all genealogy software programs and websites, this means citing a supporting document for all of the information alleged. Most importantly, this rule requires that any information added to a family tree must be substantiated by a corresponding historical record that actually contains the information entered. Here is an example of some birth information from an entry in the Family Tree.

The information on the left side of this entry is substantiated by the records cited on the right side of this entry. This is sometimes called a "source-centric" model of family history although a truly source-centric approach would be exhaustively more complete. One concept of a source-centric genealogical model was published in an interesting analysis of the issue in a paper entitled, High-Level View of a Source-Centric Genealogical Model: “The Model with Four Boxes" back in 2006 by Randy Wilson, David Ouimette, and Dan Lawyer. One assertion of this paper concerning the function of a family tree is that "The family tree’s job is to represent the world’s current best conclusions as to who has lived, what we know about them, and how they are related." (See page 4). 

Some genealogists assert that the Family Tree is an attempt to codify the ideal source-centric family tree. To the extent that such a family tree would insist that every allegation be supported by a verifiable source, ultimately the source-centric tree would eliminate duplication and become verifiably accurate. 

Unfortunately, the ideal source-centric family tree relies on the ability to have access to and to incorporate every possible source of family history or genealogical information. Absent unlimited access to complete data sets, any approximation to a source-centric family tree falls short of its ability to avoid duplication and inaccuracy. Although I eschew the use of the term "evidence" in conjunction with writing and talking about historical and genealogical information because of its legal connotations, one good summary of the process of adding information to a family tree is contained in an article entitled, "Using the Genealogical Proof Standard in Your Research (National Institute)." The term "evidence" implies the existence of an independent entity that can decide whether or not the application and interpretation of historical information can somehow be certified as "correct" or accurate. In the world of genealogical and historical research, no such entity (judge) exists. 

In my example above the conclusions and the list of sources for the evaluation and incorporation of the information in the Family Tree, there appears to be a sufficient number and variety of sources to come to an informed conclusion. 

Now, let's suppose that someone enters information in a source-centric family tree without a source. Hmm. This seems to imply a contradiction in terms but further assuming that the family tree is based on a cooperative, wiki model, users or contributors to the family tree could add information that was not supported by a source. Does the addition of information that is unsupported by a source invalidate the family tree? The answer to that question is not as simple as it might seem to be but the question does imply a question of whether or not the structure of the family tree should allow such unsupported contributions. However, in any event, it is clear that promoting the addition of unsupported information is destructive of the entire source-centric concept. 

Now it is time to address the issue of whether or not accuracy is a goal of genealogical research. This question arises in the context of the assumed source-centric objective of the Family Tree. Presently, allowing users to enter information without citing a source or even an opinion as to the origin and accuracy is allowed. The effect of this lack of control or concern about accuracy forces those informed users of the Family Tree who value the source-centric model to spend a considerable amount of time and effort trying to maintain the integrity of the Family Tree. Why should the users continue to try and verify, evaluate, and correct the work of others who do not value the effort? In addition, it appears that the effort to maintain the conclusory accuracy of the Family Tree is not appreciated or supported at times by those whose job it is to maintain the website where the tree is hosted. 

Can the Family Tree actually function as a source-centric family tree? A careful reading of the 2006 article cited above would lead me to conclude that absent a much greater source basis that presently exists and absent some internal checks on the addition of unsupported information, only small portions of the present Family Tree can actually be considered to be source-centric. 

Of course, the Family Tree is ultimately religiously supported by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and as such, it ultimately can only be judged on the basis of whether or not it is fulfilling its religious purposes. From this standpoint, it is easily the best possible presently available format and structure. Is there a need to increase accuracy? Of course, there is. But presently, those people who are working on increasing the accuracy of the Family Tree have adequate tools to do their work. As the source base increases, the accuracy will also increase and the amount of inaccurate information will remain within acceptable limits. 

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Starting Your Genealogical Investigations


I recently received a request for help with starting some genealogical research. The person asking for help in an email relating that his great-grandfather came from an eastern European country. I agreed to help and asked for some basic information about the name of the person, the place where some event in that person's life had occurred, and a date of an event even if the date was approximate. Hmm. Does this sound familiar? I hope so. So far, he has given me a date, a name, and the name of a country that did not exist at the time of the date given. Granted, he may not know any more details about this person but I can't help him with suggestions other than to try and find a more definite place where the ancestor lived. Before you write to me, of course, I have also told him to try and find information from his surviving family members.

This type of correspondence is fairly common. One of the most common instructions given to budding genealogists involves collecting your own genealogical information and then gathering information from existing relatives, particularly older relatives. Because seasoned genealogists hear this admonition all the time, they tend to think that this step is obvious. It is not obvious. Additionally, sometimes the information given by relatives may be confusing or inaccurate. So let's start with a different emphasis.

Rather than generally advise people to gather information, how about starting with a particular goal? Here are some questions that might be more appropriate than a general admonition. 

Where were you born? Do you have a birth certificate or other document evidencing your birth and showing your parents? Do you have the same documents for the members of your immediate family?

Now, this question can be expanded to include additional documentation and to also include parents, siblings, and any other near relatives. The key here is to document a parent/child relationship for every person. Next, the information should be entered into a genealogy program such as the free Family Tree. I would suggest avoiding programs that require a periodic subscription cost until the person percieves a need for additional resources. 

Now, this basic instruction includes additional requirements. The idea of documentation does include orally transmitted information from ancestors but where it is possible, that information should be verified with other documentation. The idea is to establish a pattern of only entering information that is support by some external substantiation. What happens when the person "inherits" a substantial amount of genealogical information from someone else? Usually, someone who is much older passes on a "lifetime" of accumulation. This sort of information needs to be closely examined to determine if there is documentary source information establishing each parent/child relationship. 

What else? If the core research is substantiated by documentation for each generational step backward in time, then there is a good basis for extending the pedigree further. Absent that kind of information, it is highly likely that the pedigree will be unsubstantiated or wrong. 

Now, how about a quick execise? Look at your existing pedigree and see if every line has documentary substantiation for every parent/child relationship. If there are children with no documentation identifying a parent, that is the end of that particular line even if the line apparently extends off into the distant past. 

This is called source-centric genealogical research and it is the only supportable way of extending family trees and any other method and any thing less than this is not going to be as accurate. 

Friday, April 23, 2021

In Genealogy, Books Still Matter


How many times in the last month have you looked at a book about genealogy? Perhaps, the question should be extended to a year. I could extend this post to ask a question about the number of books you read last year of any kind. According to the Pew Research Center in a study done in 2019, about one-fourth of the people in the United States do not read at least one book in print or online in a year. See "Who doesn’t read books in America?" Of course, there are a huge number of "educational" classes, webinars, podcasts, and other venues for learning about genealogy. I usually teach, at least, one or two classes or webinars every week. See, for example, the Brigham Young University Family History Library YouTube Channel and the BYU Family History Library Website

Yes, there are a plethora of online resources to teach you about genealogy but to really begin to understand a subject, you need to have the ability to actually study. Here is an example of this process. 

Some time ago, I began volunteering to help patrons of the Salt Lake City, Utah Family History Library in conjunction with RootsTech Connect 2021. In part, because of the closure of the Library during the Pandemic, the Library was expanding its outreach program to provide one-on-one consultations. See Virtual Genealogy Consultations. It turned out that almost all of the people I helped and continue to help spoke Spanish and were trying to find ancestors in Italy. Although I had done considerable research in Italy previously, I felt like I needed to upgrade my Italian research skills. I tried watching some videos on YouTube and looking for some online classes. I soon realized that these venues would not provide the help I needed. In looking at the Research Wiki, I found a link that mentioned an in-depth book about Italian research. Here is the book mentioned. 

Cole, Trafford R. 1995. Italian genealogical records: how to use Italian civil, ecclesiastical, & other records in family history research. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry.

There is no way that all of the extensive information in this book could have been presented in a class or webinar. I could have looked for a digital version of the book, but usually, this type of reference book has too small a potential audience to have been digitized. The information in this book quickly gave me the additional background and especially historical context I needed to update and increase my Italian research skills. I bought the book online and had it within a few days. 

Now let's suppose you were trying to find an Italian ancestor. You could just sign up for an online consultation or watch a webinar but that would not give you the extensive information contained in the book cited above. No matter what you think, genealogy is a difficult and knowledge-intensive pursuit. You need to treat your genealogical research efforts like you would if you were taking an advanced college or university class. Read the book. Use all the available materials online or otherwise to learn what you need to know about doing research and how to do genealogy. 

Friday, April 16, 2021

Free Access to Birth Records on MyHeritage


Quoting from a recent notice I received from

Birth records are an incredibly valuable resource for family history research. Depending on the country and historical era in which they were recorded, they can provide a wealth of information on your ancestors — not only names, dates, and locations, but also information about additional family members and details about the circumstances surrounding the birth.

MyHeritage’s collection of birth records includes 115 collections containing a total of 1,144,541,613 individual records from all over the world. Some of the collections contain indexes which help you find out where the birth record is located, while others contain the actual image of the record.

If you have wondered about the collections on, here is a way to see this huge set of birth records for free.  

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Expanding the Scope of Your Genealogical Research


One of the most common genealogical research issues I am asked to help with involves help with finding the date of one particular event in an ancestor's or relative's life. Most commonly, the goal is to find a birth, marriage, or death date. Commonly, this inquiry is accompanied by only a vague identification of the possible place where the event occurred. Unfortunately, this category of research can become an obsession. See "Don't get Obsessed with One Ancestor!

Let's look at the reasonableness of searching for a particular document of a particular event. The first and main considerations are when and where did the event supposedly occur. Both birth and death records for ordinary people are relatively recent additions to the types of records that have been created since about 1850. Quoting from Wikipedia: Civil registration, "For example, in 2009, the World Health Statistics Quarterly of WHO estimated that only about 1% of the estimated deaths in low-income groups are reported and just about 9% in lower-middle-income groups. You can only expect that going back in the past the percentages are going to go down. 

My paternal grandfather was born in 1895. Despite years of research in a variety of records, my family has never found a birth record. That is not to say, we have not found a record of his birth, but we have not found any record that was created at or near the time of his birth. The best record we have found is World War I Draft Registration record where he entered his own birthday when he filled out the card. 

There is no doubt at all that he was born, so why should we obsess with finding a non-existent birth record? Remember the Second Rule of Genealogy: Absence of an obituary or death record does not mean the person is still alive. See An Update on the Rules of Genealogy

Suppose that you have found a real property deed with your ancestor's signature and some limited information about the ancestor or a member of the ancestor's family. Do you doubt that he was alive when he signed the deed? It is possible that the deed was fraudulent and that he did not sign the deed but if there is enough evidence to convince me that the ancestor did sign the deed, then we can assume that the ancestor was alive and depending on the time frame, that looking for a birth record would not be productive. Do we need to worry or obsess over the lack of a birth record? However, there is an issue here. You do need to find a document that clearly shows a parent/child relationship. It is very often the case that older birth records do not list the full names of both parents. We then use deeds, wills, probate documents, and church records to establish a parent/child relationship. 

It is always a better practice to expand your research and include a variety of types of records. Just because one type of record that you believe will be helpful is missing does not mean that it is the only possible way of documenting a person's life or their parental relationships. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Pandemic: Closed Family History Centers and Restricted Records


In March of 2020, we received notice that the Brigham Young University Family History Library was closing for the duration of the pandemic. At the time, most of us thought about this event in terms of weeks. Now, more than a year later, the Library is still closed to patrons and only open to students and faculty at the university. Concurrently, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also closed all of the world's other buildings. This closure included, of course, all of the over 5000 Family History Centers worldwide and the Salt Lake City, Utah Family History Library. Despite limited reopenings of some of the chapels around the world and many businesses, the Family History Libraries and Family History Centers remain closed. 

Both the BYU Family History Library and the Salt Lake City Family History Library have now created provisions for limited online consultations. See Research Consultations. However, there is still a major obstacle that is caused by the issue of many of the unique records on the website being designated "Restricted."

This notice on the website says:

Due to contractual obligations, FamilySearch cannot offer expanded access to historical records that are restricted to family history centers and affiliate libraries, despite the temporary closure of these facilities. We apologize for the inconvenience caused by COVID-19 precautionary measures.

In the meantime, we encourage you to explore the vast record collections that are available on FamilySearch. Millions of new indexed records and images are added weekly. And if you haven’t used our new Explore Historical Images tools, you might be surprised at the potential discoveries you can make in our growing unindexed image collections. We appreciate your patience, loyalty, and support.

On April 10, 2021, by a statute passed by the Utah State Legislature, the statewide mask-mandate imposed on the entire state of Utah was repealed. See "UTAH’S STATEWIDE MASK MANDATE ENDS TODAY. HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW." This means that despite a tremendous surge in COVID-19 new cases worldwide, Utah is sending a message that the pandemic is over. However, as the article above points out,  private businesses are still able to impose their own mask requirements. Brigham Young University has, as of the date of this post, still restricted visits to the Family History Library. 

I am certain that some of the Ward and Stake Family History Centers around the world are opening given the relaxation of the limits for church meetings. But the issue of rather extensive restricted records still exists for those of us that still do not have access. 

Why are the records restricted? Here is the official answer from an article entitled, "Why are there access restrictions on Historical Records?"

Access restrictions usually come from the organization who owns or manages the historical records. These restrictions determine where and how FamilySearch can make the records available. We do our best to support these agreements so that we can maintain the trust of those we partner with and continue to work with them on future projects.

The present question is why are the Family History Centers and Libraries closed to patrons when the chapels are open to Sunday meetings?

I can do almost all of my research now without visiting any library or Family History Center. But some people, especially those in certain countries are completely stopped by the worldwide closure. Personally, I can see the statistics. Worldwide levels of the Coronavirus are surging to almost their highest levels ever. Here is a copy of the graph from April 12, 2021.

This situation leaves the Church, FamilySearch, and Brigham Young University in a conflicting position. States in the United States, such as Utah, are acting as if the pandemic is over when it is just beginning. However, it is difficult to understand why I can go to stores in person, eat out at a restaurant in person, travel on an airplane in person, and still cannot go into a library or Family History Center. It doesn't really matter to me because I have plenty of research I can do online anyway, but it does affect a lot of other people around the world. 

Perhaps, there is a middle ground where access to the Family History Center portal can be made more available and thereby allow people to view the records. By the way, even though I am participating in providing online research consultation to the patrons of the BYU and Salt Lake Family History Libraries, I don't have access to the restricted records,

For the record, I am in favor of all of the health restrictions imposed by the pandemic including masks, limited access, and shutting down businesses. I don't think the pandemic is over or will be for the foreseeable future. I just think that current policies here in the United States where some activities are restricted and others that are just as dangerous are allowed cause a lot of the confusion and controversy. I expect to see another round of general closures and a lot more controversy in the near future.

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Challenge of Handwriting to Genealogical Research


While I was involved in digitizing records at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis, Maryland for, I was interested to notice when typewriters were first used to record the records I was digitizing. A little bit of research I found the following from Wikipedia: Typewriter.

The first typewriter to be commercially successful was patented in 1868 by Americans Christopher Latham Sholes, Frank Haven Hall, Carlos Glidden and Samuel W. Soule in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, although Sholes soon disowned the machine and refused to use or even recommend it. It looked "like something like a cross between a piano and a kitchen table". The working prototype was made by the machinist Matthias Schwalbach. The patent (US 79,265) was sold for $12,000 to Densmore and Yost, who made an agreement with E. Remington and Sons (then famous as a manufacturer of sewing machines) to commercialize the machine as the Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer.

Here is an image of the Patent office model of the machine patented July 14, 1866, by Sholes, Glidden, and Soule. 

As I worked at digitizing records, I watched the dates that the first typewritten documents appeared. Of course, I was not looking at all the documents, but I began to see typewritten documents in the mid to late 1880s. However, it was not until well into the 1900s that all of the documents began to be typed. 

Why is this important for genealogical research? The simple answer is that anyone doing genealogical research will have to be able to read handwritten records for any research going into the 1800s. Granted, if you were born in the last thirty years, your "ancestors" back to your great-grandparents were probably born in the 1900s but extending research beyond that generation will inevitably require the ability to read handwritten documents. 

The basic issue in the United States is that even if cursive handwriting is taught in the school systems across the country, that does not mean that the students can read cursive documents. Here is an example of a modern cursive handwriting chart. 

Compare this chart to this image of a letter written in 1936.

For a real-life example of what I am writing about, give this sample to one of your young family members or someone in grade school and ask them to read it to you. 

Interestingly, much of the genealogical advertising and promotion today talks about involving the "youth" in family history and genealogy and at the same time uniformly ignores the fact that even many adults could not read a letter written in the 1930s. Here is another example from the 1940 U.S. Federal Census.

This would be considered to be easy to read by most genealogists. 

If you want a real example of the challenge of reading old handwriting, you only need to go back to the mid-1800s.

Is there a solution? I think it is time that the larger genealogical community recognizes that doing genealogical research requires a bundle of individual skills that must be learned and that learning those skills takes considerable effort and time. I would suggest that more emphasis should be made on giving people the tools and opportunities to acquire those skills. This does not mean that we stop trying to involve the youth, but it does mean that we do not ignore and denigrate those who spend the time and effort to learn the skills that are essential to genealogical research.

Monday, April 5, 2021

MyHeritage Deep Nostalgia adds 10 new animations

Introducing Deep Nostalgia™ Special Animations's Deep Nostalgia™ has changed the way we look at historical photographs. Now, Deep Nostalgia™ has been dramatically expanded to include ten new animations. Here is an explanation of the new process you can see from the above video.

Deep Nostalgia™ ( is the magical MyHeritage feature, powered by D-ID, that allows you to see the people in old family photos blink, move their heads, and smile. Deep Nostalgia™ has taken social media by storm, with millions sharing their animations and reactions to seeing photos of their beloved ancestors come to life. Since its launch 5 weeks ago, 72 million animations have been created on MyHeritage.

This feature is based on different sequences of gestures that can be applied to a photo, each originating from a pre-recorded driver video that we’ve prepared in advance using MyHeritage employees. When we launched this feature, 10 such drivers were available. Today, we’re excited to announce that we have doubled the number of drivers. The 10 additional drivers released today, which we call special animations, allow you to see your ancestors express a wider spectrum of gestures and emotions, for example, smile wholeheartedly, blow a kiss, nod approval, and more. The special animations are available exclusively to subscribers on the Complete plan.

Now here is a photo from my collection. First, I will enhance the photo. 

 The enhanced photo definitely has more detail.  Next, I will colorize this same photo. 

Lastly, I will add some of the new Deep Nostalgia™ animations.

Whatever the results are with a single photo, you have to admit the effect is amazing.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Genealogy: Ethics, Ownership, Work Product, Plagiarism, and Privacy, Part Five: Privacy

I heard a story today about a woman who refuses to get vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus because then the government would be able to track her movements. This probably comes from the false conspiracy theory that the vaccine contains a nano-chip tracking device. Some genealogists have the same kinds of conspiracy theories about having public online family trees. The silliest reinforcement for that type of misinformation comes from banks using a question about one of your grandparents as a security question. Just recently, the U.S. government changed Medicare numbers from a simple extension of a Social Security number to another randomly generated number. The change came with strict instructions about maintaining the privacy of this number. Those who sent out the new number and those who wrote the scary instructions about keeping the number quiet apparently had never used their Medicare card to get medical treatment. Every time you go to a doctor's office or hospital, the first thing you have to do is show them your Medicare card so they can make a copy for billing purposes. You might as well have the number permanently written on your forehead except then that would get into a really old conspiracy theory. 

As a long-time veteran trial attorney, I have a very realistic idea of what the word "privacy" means and what it doesn't mean. I still talk to people who are afraid to give out their home address because of privacy concerns but I can tell you right now, that more than one large, online genealogical database/family tree program can provide me with a list of every place a living person has lived in their lifetime. If you think your address is private, think about the last time you received junk mail to a former occupant of your house or apartment. I get regular mail letters addressed to members of my family who have not lived at my home for ten years or more. 

So, when we narrow down the topic of privacy and focus on what it means to genealogists, what do we come up with? First of all, dead people don't have any privacy. Also, you can't claim privacy on the part of another person. A legal action for invasion of privacy is a tort or personal injury claim. In the United States, an action for invasion of privacy is usually one of four main types of actions:

  • Appropriation of Name or Likeness
  • Intrusion Upon Seclusion
  • False Light
  • Public Disclosure of Private Facts

See "What Is Invasion of Privacy?"

Let's look at two common entry fields in an online family tree program. 


Your name stops being private the moment you are born and given a birth certificate or christened and entered into a church record. I suppose you could change your name as soon as you were born, but that would only create a court record of your change of name. What if you didn't tell anyone your name? Well, you could always try to live with an assumed name but absent engaging in counterfeiting and or fraud by obtaining everything from a driver's license to a Social Security Card, you would still have the same problems with the new identity. 

Date and place of birth

See my reference above to birth certificates. I was an intelligence analyst in the United States Army and I had my fingerprints taken dozens of times. Can I reasonably believe that changing my name or falsifying my birth information would prevent me from being identified? Think about this: as genealogists, part of our job is to find birth information. 

Of course, we deal with dead people so our interests include death and burial information. 

What about the identity of your parents? Hmm. DNA testing has pretty much put that issue out of any privacy claim. OK, so if I am worried about privacy, I shouldn't be doing any genealogy? We don't create information about people. We use records that are almost all publicly available to identify dead people. As a genealogist, except for my own immediate family, I don't really focus on living people much at all unless they are relatives and can provide me with information, oh, and family reunions and such. We do tell people, to make sure they interview all their older living relatives so they can make a start on identifying the dead ones. 

So what is there about genealogy that makes you think you should keep your family tree private? So your family situation could have been the plot of a murder mystery. How long does that fact remain private assuming no one was caught or went to prison or was tried in court or written about in the newspapers or was interviewed on TV or the radio or wrote a diary that was published as a best-seller or was the subject of a family story?

The simple solution to privacy as it applies to genealogy is don't publish anything you don't want the world to know. But don't harbor a false belief that what you find from historical records about your ancestors (who you share with other people) is in anyway actually private. 

See the previous parts of this series. 

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

Part Four: