Family History Etiquette, Ethics, Legalities

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Basics of Family History Research

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Family History Research
Home Sources
Family History Collaboration
Basics of Family History and Technology
Basics of DNA
Basic Record-keeping
Evaluation and Goal Setting
Family History in Time and Place
Family History Etiquette, Ethics, Legalities
List of Useful Resources for Beginners
Topics

This article originally appeared in "The Foundations of Family History Research" by Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, FUGA, and Loretto Dennis Szucs, FUGA in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

Family historians who understand how etiquette, ethics, and certain laws affect their family history research are able to move through the research process with less difficultly than those who ignore such considerations. Good etiquette can open closed doors, attention to ethics can help you avoid being duped by false claims or plagiarizing other peoples’ work, and being aware of the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act will help you know which records you legally have the right to obtain.

Contents

Etiquette

Research etiquette makes good sense no matter where you are researching. Acting in a polite and respectful manner when collecting or presenting family history materials can help maintain easy access to institutions, preserve record availability, and ensure an excellent reputation for all family history researchers. The basic premise is common courtesy—treating others respectfully and complying with the rules and expectations of the repository or other location in which you find yourself. Conduct that seems reasonable while working at your home computer—answering a cell phone and loud or extended conversations—are not appropriate in a library or other repository because they can disturb others.

The staffs of repositories such as libraries, museums, courthouses, archives, or other records centers are usually pleased to answer questions about the use and content of their holdings. However, they seldom have the time to respond to onsite detailed inquiries about a particular family or record. The family historian who prepares well by learning about the local history, geography, and records generated in the research site, will be able to ask intelligent questions without giving a detailed description of their family or their previous research. For suggestions on research etiquette—before, during, and after your visit—in public or private record repositories and libraries, consult James W. Warren and Paula Stuart Warren’s Getting the Most Mileage from Genealogical Research Trips and Christine Rose’s Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures.

Ethics Online and Offline

Although family history research might seem to be a solitary exercise, it is not. Family historians, professional and amateur, are often viewed by the general public and even occasionally by the institutions that serve them, as a collective entity—a group. Because the group is often judged by the actions of a single individual, many genealogical societies, including the National Genealogical Society, publish codes of ethics which they require or encourage their members to sign. Most codes conform to the following guidelines:

General Code of Ethics

To protect the integrity of public records and published materials:

  1. I will be courteous and respectful to all record custodians, librarians, archivists, and others who serve the public.
  2. I will handle carefully all books or records entrusted to me and return them to the designated place.
  3. I will not tear, erase, mark, or remove any document, book, or film, nor will I mutilate, deface, destroy, or otherwise change any part of such document, book, or film.
  4. I will present my genealogical findings with honesty and integrity, using permission when necessary and attributing work that is not my own to the proper entity.

Detecting Fraudulent Pedigrees

Although few family historians would knowingly create fraudulent pedigrees, it is important to know that inaccurate or false pedigrees exist so that you do not rely on inaccurate information in your own research. Some researchers, considering their work as “just a hobby” or “just for the family,” may have resorted to guess work or to “quick fixes.” And just as there have been forgeries in the arts and letters, so there have been forgeries in genealogy. Some researchers may have fallen to the temptation to fabricate a pedigree. Supplying phony noble ancestries for the newly rich has been a profitable business for centuries. An entire issue of the Genealogical Journal, “Genealogical Deception,” was devoted to case studies in fraud. The editor, Gordon L. Remington, proposed the following guidelines to detect genealogical fraud:[1]

  1. Suspicious, inadequate, or no citations.
  2. The ancestry provided is “too good to be true.”
  3. The reasoning doesn’t make sense.

Plagiarism

In addition to verifying the veracity of others’ pedigrees, you will also want to protect yourself from pitfalls in your own work, including plagiarism and copyright violation. Plagiarism in genealogy is the innocent or intentional use of someone else’s words or ideas without giving appropriate credit to that person. Even if an idea, rather than the exact words or text, is used, a source should be cited. If the exact words are used, cite the source and surround the text with quotation marks or, if the quote is more than a few sentences, use the block indent as shown next:

Don’t drag-and-drop too much from the Web into your notes. It’s hard to keep straight just who wrote what, and it invites trouble. When you do drag-and-drop some material, it’s important to have a consistent system to mark someone else’s words and ideas and where they came from. You need to identify the source page, first in your notes and later in your papers.[2]

In summary, employ two rules to avoid plagiarism: (1) always give full credit to the person or source from which the material or text originated; and (2) when quoting another’s words, use quotation marks or block indent.

Legalities and Copyright

There are essentially three federal legal issues that concern the family historian: the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the Privacy Act, and the Copyright Law. A working knowledge about these legalities is important for family historians because they determine what records may be accessed and the format in which the collected information may be used. While it is not feasible to address all of the legal questions that one might encounter in conducting genealogical research, a few points about each are worth considering.

Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) generally provides that any person has a right, enforceable in court, of access to federal agency records, except certain exempted or excluded records. The FOIA does not affect local or state records; most states have their own laws covering these records. Details about the FOIA are available through the National Archives website.

Privacy Act

Understanding privacy rights enables researchers to determine who has access to records. Broadly stated, the purpose of the Privacy Act is to balance the government’s need to maintain information about individuals with rights of the individuals to be protected against unwarranted invasions of their privacy stemming from federal agencies’ collection, maintenance, use, and disclosure of personal information about them. The Privacy Act of 1974 provides for disclosure of, and personal access to, all federal records containing personal information, regulates their transfer to others, and allows for legal remedies in cases of their misuse under the law.

Current guidelines for FOIA and the Privacy Act are available as A Citizen’s Guide on Using the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act of 1974 to Request Government Records.

Copyright Law

As you create notes, summaries, or even a published family history, you will need to know what works—or portions of works—are protected under federal law. The law defines how certain photographs and other illustrations, and many intellectual works such as musical or dramatic creations, may not be used without written permission. You will also want to know how the work you seek to publish or otherwise share is protected. For example, facts are not copyrightable. Because much of genealogy is the discovery of facts, much of what you might choose to publish will not be under copyright protection. A researcher can own the arrangement of facts, but this does not mean that because you arranged your family’s information in pedigree charts and family group sheets or in a family tree computer program that the items you created are copyrightable. To learn more about the Copyright Law and how it affects your work, visit the U.S. Copyright office.


References

  1. Defined in “Charlemagne or Charlatan: Case Studies in Genealogical Fraud” (paper presented at the 1994 Federation of Genealogical Societies/Virginia Genealogical Society conference in Richmond, Virginia). See also Gordon L. Remington, “A Royal Genealogical Fraud: Prince ‘Petros Palaeologos’ of the Isle of Wight,” Genealogical Journal 32, no. 4 (2004): 154–57; and “Gustav Anjou in Cyberspace,” Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly 18 (December 2003): 151–55.
  2. Charles Lipson, Doing Honest Work in College (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 13.
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