Our duty to the living
It’s family reunion season — apparently big time here in 2021, if The Legal Genealogist‘s email is any indicator.
We’ve all been locked down for 18 months now, those of us with functioning brain cells are fully vaccinated if we can be and — judging from the email inbox — we are so ready to get together with family and show off the work we’ve done as family historians.
And every single one of the questions is headed in the same direction. Let’s just say that if I had a nickel for every question I’ve gotten about publishing family reunion genealogy books over the past few weeks, well, I wouldn’t have to worry about cat food for Clancy any time soon.
The concern: including information about living family members.
One person wanted to know: “can I include people who are still alive? I have seen many books that do this and I know people who are included in several books, but I wonder if this is legal? Is it accepted or considered in poor taste? I’m only planning to include name, birth date and place as well as marriage date and place.”
Another said: “I … plan to publish … all deceased and living relatives with birth, death and marriages and dates. … Should I put out a note on my family Facebook page I manage that if anyone wants their info private, I will do so? We are set to send to the publisher July 1st and I certainly don’t want to do anything wrong.”
It’s one thing to publish a family history book to hand out to the whole family that discloses in exquisite detail the foibles of great granduncle John, the family black sheep who died 50 years ago and whose antics could fill several pages.
It’s a whole ‘nother issue when we’re talking about publishing a family history book that includes so much as a single solitary personally-identifying fact about a living person — unless we have that living person’s express permission.
Now… before the nitpickers get their knickers in a twist… this isn’t so much a legal issue as it is an ethical issue.
In general (and there absolutely are exceptions, particularly in countries outside the United States), we’re not going to be held liable for damages because we included accurate information about cousin Susie’s birth, marriage(s) and children in a family history book.
But boy can we get ourselves into ethical hot water for doing that.
Not to mention getting put on the family’s blacklist for the rest of eternity.
Here’s the bottom line from an ethical perspective: as responsible genealogists and family historians, we never ever ever publish personally-identifying information about a living person without that person’s permission.
This couldn’t be clearer in the ethical norms of our field:
• The Genealogist’s Code of Ethics of the Board for Certification of Genealogists provides: “I will not publish any personal, genealogical, or genetic information disclosed to me unless I have informed consent or omit personally identifying detail.”1
• The Code of Conduct/Ethics of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies reminds us: “Information concerning living persons should be treated with appropriate discretion.”2
• And the National Genealogical Society’s Guidelines for Sharing Information with Others couldn’t be clearer: “genealogists and family historians consistently … 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 publishing information about themselves; (and) 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…”3
And every one of these ethical codes tells us why we hold ourselves to these standards: because real live living breathing people can be hurt if we don’t.
We know — or we should know — that when we deal with information about the living, we have to treat that information “with sensitivity and … not publish any information with foreseeable potential for harm.”4 That “great caution should be applied” any time we get any information that even “seems to contain the potential for harming the interests of other people.” 5 That we always need to 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.”6
It’s a simple fact that some family stories are not ours to tell. Cousin Susie’s January 1971 marriage date and her first child’s June 1971 birthdate, particularly if Susie and her husband celebrated their “50th” anniversary in January 2020. The fact that Uncle John had an earlier wife and kids from that first marriage — if his eight-year-old from his current marriage doesn’t know that. These are just a couple of examples of how we can go wrong including “just the facts” about our living family members.
So when we’re getting ready to publish those family reunion books for the get-togethers this year, we need to stop. To slow down. And to think.
It may be legal to include that information about Cousin Susie and Uncle John.
But there’s a difference between what’s legal… and what’s right.
And we need to be on the side of the right.
Our ethical duty to the living members of our family means we don’t publish information about those living people unless they’ve given their permission.
Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “About that reunion book…,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 22 June 2021).
- To protect the public: Bullet point 6, “Genealogist’s Code of Ethics”, Board for Certification of Genealogists (https://bcgcertification.org/ : accessed 22 June 2021). ↩
- ¶9, “Code of Conduct/Ethics”, International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (https://www.iajgs.org/ : accessed 22 June 2021). ↩
- Guidelines for Sharing Information with Others, National Genealogical Society (https://www.ngsgenealogy.org/ : accessed 22 June 2021). ↩
- To protect the public: Bullet point 6, “Genealogist’s Code of Ethics.” ↩
- IAJGS “Code of Conduct/Ethics,” ¶9. ↩
- NGS Guidelines for Sharing Information with Others. ↩