Why I do genealogy: a personal manifesto

Photo source: Cambridgeblog

Last night, as I was tucking in for what I hoped would be a quiet evening at home delving into my family tree (I know none of you ever does that, right? 😉 ) I saw an e-mail notification popping up at the bottom of my screen. I instantly recognised the sender: it was a second cousin of my mother’s (whom I’ve never personally met), who lives in another country and with whom I used to be in touch years ago because of our shared interest in family history. The tone of the e-mail was friendly and familiar… and I could also tell the reason why he was contacting me, even before I opened the message. He wanted me to send him a full report of the family tree, as he has (allegedly) lost all of his family tree data.

On the face of it, many of you will think: “Well, just do it: give the poor guy the information! He’s your cousin after all, and he’s interested in family history, so why not!” Ah, but here is where you need to know the full story.

When this cousin and I were in touch years ago (I had only just started delving into my family tree, but by chance happened to have access to much more information than he did) I would put all the information into single .doc files (yes, by hand!) in Ahnentafel format and every now and then share them with those few relatives of mine who I knew took a keen interest in family history. This was at a time when family tree software programmes were either being developed or else were not as accessible as they are today. It was then that my cousin introduced me to this new website (I won’t say which) where I could be given access and basically share all the data that I collected, along with a handful of other relatives of his who were not at all connected with my side of the family tree. At first I was thrilled. This could only be a win-win situation, right?

But then, reality struck me: after a few months of willy-nilly uploading names, dates and photos of my relatives on this supposedly private platform, I realised, much to my horror, that someone with access to that tree was posting the information I had just shared on a second online family tree platform which was (and still is) 100% freely accessible. It then dawned upon me that even the original website where I had been uploading data was not as private as I thought, even without access to that particular family tree. By doing a simple Google search for my ancestors’ names using the inverted commas method, I was actually able to find a fair amount of vital information about them, without even having to have an account on that platform. Seeing this as a breach of confidentiality and privacy, I decided to remove the data that I had uploaded onto the tree and left the group for good.

Many among you (and I realise this is going to be an unpopular opinion) think, indeed often tell me, that the purpose of genealogy is to share our family history. I strongly disagree. The purpose of genealogy is whatever purpose we want to give it. Some of us want to seek the origins of a particular surname or lineage; others want to find as many collateral branches as they can; others want to find their link to Charlemagne. There is no written rule as to what you should do with your genealogical research. I “do” genealogy because it gives me pleasure, in the same way that an artist paints because it gives the artist pleasure, not necessarily because he or she feels a need to sell paintings or hold an exhibit. Genealogy is my biggest passion and it satisfies me to unearth ancestors’ stories that have remained locked for decades, if not centuries. I spend hours, and significant quantities of money, carrying out my research. Publishing all my findings online, even by sharing it with my mother’s second cousin, just sells my research cheap.

There are many people out there (starting with the major companies who obviously want us to share our genealogy data online) who want us to believe that the purpose of genealogy is to share our family history. To each his/her own, I suppose. I particularly don’t think that is necessarily true, and moreover, I strongly believe that each person should be free to choose what to do with the genealogical data they collect, as long as they don’t infringe on anyone’s privacy, of course. I for one always tell my relatives that the personal data they give me (about themselves, their parents, grandparents, children or grandchildren) will not be published online or be passed on to a third party. How would I face them if they found out that the old family photos that they have so kindly given me a copy of have ended up on some random (as far as they’re concerned) family tree online?

It is so obvious that we live in an age of information. Actually, I think we live in an age of excess. It’s not about quality anymore, it’s about quantity. Privacy remains one of the most delicate and, in my opinion, most violated subjects in the industry, no matter what the CEOs say whenever there is a serious privacy breach in their company’s database. I and thousands of other genealogists out there are the perfect bait for large multi-million companies to take our data and use it to whichever noble or ignoble means they please, whether it’s catching a murderer through DNA or to sell our biological information to pharmaceutical companies.

The bottom line is not that you shouldn’t share your family history data, but rather that you should feel free to choose whatever you want to do with it. If you only want to keep your family tree information on your laptop software, and not upload it online, fine! If you want to keep your family history on paper format, that’s fine too! Genealogical research should first and foremost be a fun experience, and no one should dictate what you should do with your own research.

PS: I’ve since written back to my mother’s second cousin informing him of my negative experience years ago, and while I will not share a full family tree report for the reasons explained above, I will be happy to fill in any specific gaps he may have regarding our shared family history.

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