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New code from IAJGS

Genealogists deal with all kinds of family information each and every day.

Including, of course, family secrets.

Some of them are laughable to us today: the 18th century court record showing an ancestor getting into trouble or the 19th century couple whose marriage preceded the birth of the first child by a lot fewer than nine months.

But many of the secrets we encounter, particularly in this day of DNA testing, can impact living breathing people. Sometimes people we care for. People we love. People we don’t ever want to hurt in any way.

And so we struggle, at times, charting our way through the ethical waters. How do we know what’s right to do as genealogists?

One way is to consult the ethical codes of organizations to which we belong. In The Legal Genealogist‘s case, for example, I hold credentials as a Certified Genealogist and Certified Genealogical Lecturer from the Board for Certification of Genealogists.1 Its code requires me, among other things, to “keep confidential any personal or genealogical information disclosed to me, unless I receive written consent to the contrary.”2

I am also a member of the National Genealogical Society, and its “Guidelines for Sharing Information with Others” advise us, among other things, to

• inform people who provide information about their families how it may be used, observing any conditions they impose and respecting any reservations they may express regarding the use of particular items;

• require evidence of consent before assuming that living people are agreeable to further sharing or publication of information about themselves;

• convey personal identifying information about living people—such as age, home address, genetic information, occupation, or activities—only in ways that those concerned have expressly agreed to;

• recognize that legal rights of privacy may limit the extent to which information from publicly available sources may be further used, disseminated, or published; (and)

• (be) sensitive to the hurt that information discovered or conclusions reached in the course of genealogical research may bring to other persons and consider that in deciding whether to share or publish such information and conclusions.3

In my DNA-based research, I look to the Genetic Genealogy Standards developed by a team of genealogists, genetic genealogists, and scientists, and the hard-and-fast rules there that

Genealogists respect all limitations on reviewing and sharing DNA test results imposed at the request of the tester. For example, genealogists do not share or otherwise reveal DNA test results (beyond the tools offered by the testing company) or other personal information (name, address, or email) without the written or oral consent of the tester.4

When lecturing or writing about genetic genealogy, genealogists respect the privacy of others. Genealogists privatize or redact the names of living genetic matches from presentations unless the genetic matches have given prior permission or made their results publicly available. Genealogists share DNA test results of living individuals in a work of scholarship only if the tester has given permission or has previously made those results publicly available. Genealogists may confidentially share an individual’s DNA test results with an editor and/or peer-reviewer of a work of scholarship. Genealogists also disclose any professional relationship they have with a for-profit DNA testing company or service when lecturing or writing about genetic genealogy.5

And, now, there is a newly-updated Code of Conduct/Ethics from the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) we can all consult for additional guidance.

Its preamble notes:

It can be argued that the study of genealogy itself, if not an “ethical” activity as such, is a mitzvah in accordance with the Torah principle of teaching knowledge of the people, their tribes, and “remembering the days of old.” All human endeavors are capable of corruption and it is therefore appropriate to institute mechanisms to safeguard against behavior that is inimical to the common good. The IAJGS has felt it should take the lead in setting standards of ethical behavior as applied to the world of Jewish genealogy. The intent of this document is to set out guidelines for such standards. It is also offered as a code of “good practices” which may inform readers. Finally, it includes an updated version (in more modern English) of the late Rabbi Malcolm Stern’s “Ten Commandments in Genealogy,” which remains as relevant today as when they were penned years ago.6

And, key to our decision-making when it comes to living people, the code advises, in relevant part:

If data is acquired that seems to contain the potential for harming the interests of other people, great caution should be applied to the treatment of any such data and wide consultation may be appropriate as to how such data is used. Information concerning living persons should be treated with appropriate discretion. …7

The Code acknowledges candidly the tension between privacy and freedom of information, and offers this guidance:

• While understanding the privacy concerns of both the public and governmental agencies, the IAJGS will continue to advocate for access to all records relevant to genealogical research. Individual genealogists should respect requests made by persons asking that certain information about themselves or family members be kept private.

• More recent data should be evaluated in the light of sensitivities of the living versus the importance of disseminating information.

• Generally, requests made to genealogical researchers should be respected when individuals ask that certain information about themselves or family members be kept private.8

All of these resources can and should be studied to help us make good, sound, caring, ethical decisions in what we share and what we reveal in the course of our genealogical research.


  1. The words “Certified Genealogist” are a registered certification mark, and the designations CG, CGL and Certified Genealogical Lecturer are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, used under license by Board-certified genealogists after periodic competency evaluation, and the board name is registered in the US Patent & Trademark Office.
  2. Code of Ethics,” Board for Certification of Genealogists ( : accessed 24 Aug 2017).
  3. Guidelines for Sharing Information with Others,” National Genealogical Society ( : accessed 24 Aug 2017).
  4. Genetic Genealogy Standards” ( : accessed 24 Aug 2017).
  5. Ibid., ¶ 9.
  6. Preamble, “Code of Conduct/Ethics,” International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies ( : accessed 24 Aug 2017).
  7. Ibid., ¶ 9.
  8. Ibid.
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