Sharing Information in the Digital Age a Story of Frustration

The first few months of this year have proved challenging for me with regards to family history information that I have shared with others. There was the tree on Ancestry that has my information linked to a family that is not related to mine in any way. I can prove this with documentation but there is nothing to be done.

Photographs that were shared with another researcher showed up on Ancestry without my knowledge. The photographs were shared with someone who was directly connected to the people in the photographs. They did not ask my permission to put my photographs online. One was attached to the wrong person. I respectfully requested that they be removed. They were and it was appreciated.

Then the photos showed up on other trees in Ancestry. They were probably copied to other researcher’s files before they were taken down. Now the problem of the photograph being attached to the wrong person is rampant throughout Ancestry’s family tree database and probably will continue throughout the internet.

Another family line was connected to a family tree where the link was minute. The two families married into the same family generations apart and were not direct lines. Still they had the family tree four generations down connected to their family tree.

When I requested the pictures to be taken down from the family trees some of the people could not understand why I would not share my information. One person said it should be online for all to find. Some got rather hostile.

If someone is found who shares a direct line I share my research. Now I only share information from the shared generation back and not forward. Sometimes I wish I knew back in the 1990s what I know now but as Maya Angelou says “You did what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better.”

While all this was going on Marian Pierre-Louis of Marian’s Roots and Rambles had a blog posting called “The Digital Age Discourages Sharing.” Marian discusses the fact that the internet encourages too much sharing and that if it is found on the internet then people feel that copyright does not apply. The sub topics were photos, writing, genealogy and the future. Go and read Marian’s blog posting as it is very informative and provides food for thought on the subject.

Thomas MacEntee of Geneabloggers has come out with a chart to help people decide whether or not to post an image. The blog post is called “Infographic – Should I Post This Image?”

The frustration for me is that it feels like people are collecting names to add to their tree to make it as big as possible. People are finding information on the internet and not examining it closely enough to make sure there really is a connection. They are not researching the records for themselves in order to prove the connection that was found on the internet really exists.

I understand the elation of finding information on the internet that seems to relate to your family. The excitement of finding distant cousins and family connections not previously known can be exhilarating. Gathering names from family trees posted on the internet is not doing family history research. In my opinion you are missing out on the best part of the research process by only focusing on the internet.

New information is being put on the internet everyday but at the same time less than 2% of all genealogical information is found online. At some point you will have to go to libraries and archives as well as purchase birth, marriage and death certificates to further your research.

The internet is a great tool, I use it everyday, but it is just a tool. To further my research I need to go to the brick and mortar repositories to find more information. Most of my brick walls are broken down with research in libraries and archives.

When I started my research in the 1970s you had to mail a letter of request and wait for a response. If payment was required you mailed that in a return letter. Then you had to wait for a response and hope that the search was successful. Finding distant relatives was not part of the process as they were difficult to locate.

In the 1980s there was the Genealogical Research Directory. You would pay to put in your names, dates and places of interest and a large book would come out each year. If you found a connection in the book you would write the person a letter and hopefully share some information.

I could not wait for the book to come out each year and went through it several times with a highlighter to make sure nothing was missed. Writing paper, envelopes and lots of stamps were purchased, not to mention International Reply Coupons. It was exciting to find a variety of envelopes in the mail box. I got quite a collection of stamps from around the world. A distant cousin in South Africa was found through this book. The family had not been in contact since both our Great Great Grandmother’s wrote to each other in the late 1800s.

In the 1990s when I started online you could use mailing lists to find people and share information but you still had to mail the information to them. It was at this time that it took one year from the time a family tree was sent to a distant cousin and another distant cousin was found who sent my own tree back to me. They did not know it had come from me in the first place. A little research showed it had been through four different people.

Now in the 2010s you can contact someone online and it is feasible that within 10 minutes or less you can have confirmation and information shared. You do not even have to contact anyone you can just download their tree from their website or the online database they are using. People are still sharing information with me that originated with me and they do not know it.

Now this will not stop me from sharing my information but it will curtail what and how much I share in the future. People need to understand the power the internet has and the effect it can have on your privacy. Maybe the pendulum will start to swing the other way and privacy will be in vogue again.

There also has to be a certain respect for the work and effort of the person who did the research on the family in the first place. There are notes in my family tree that tell me where the information came from originally. It includes a person’s name and contact information.

Two questions keep coming to mind – How can you be sure that the family tree you find online is really yours? How valid is the research that was done on the family tree that you have found?

©2011 – Blair Archival Research

  1. brenda’s avatar

    Good post, Ruth. It will help all serious family historians be aware of the line between private sharing and public infringement.

  2. Ruth Blair’s avatar

    Thank you Brenda. It is a topic that people need to think about.

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