To Reveal or Not: More Thoughts on the Ethics of Genealogy

My post yesterday prompted a lot of comments both here on the blog and also in two genealogy groups I follow on Facebook, Tracing the Tribe, which is a Jewish genealogy group, and the group.  I am very grateful for all the thoughts and discussion, and I have a better idea of where to draw the line between revealing and not revealing information.   I will try to summarize the viewpoints articulated by those who participated in these discussions.

Generally speaking, there are two different views.  One view is that telling the truth is an important principle in reporting the results of genealogy research.  Genealogy is a form of history, and without all the details, we are distorting history.  If we delete information, we are not giving a full picture of a family’s history.  In fact, we are whitewashing the information and creating a picture that presents people as perfect when in reality people are always flawed, make mistakes, endure hardships, suffer from illnesses, marital problems, financial problems, and so on.  What is the point of history if it is not truthful?

On the other hand, many people argue that there is a need to respect the privacy and feelings of others and thus to keep certain information that may hurt someone or embarrass them from being disclosed, both publicly and to those it might hurt or embarrass.  Several people mentioned the traditional Jewish principles of not doing anything to shame or embarrass another and of  lashon hara—not to say anything about anyone, whether true or false, whether flattering or insulting.  My rabbi and dear friend Rabbi Herbert Schwartz also reminded me that even God did not reveal the truth all the time and that lying is sometimes better than truth-telling when the feelings of others are involved.


IAJGS (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One person pointed me to the website for the IAJGS (International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies)  and its statement of ethical principles for genealogists.  Among the guidelines they espouse is one that suggests that information that is more than 75 years old may be disclosed.  Quoting from the IAJGS website:

Regarding the “right to privacy” versus the “freedom of information” area of potential conflict:

  • Data more than 75 years old should be regarded as sufficiently historical to be available, without restriction.
  • More recent data should be evaluated in the light of sensitivities of the living versus the importance of disseminating information.
  • Generally, a request from an individual that certain information about themselves or close relatives be kept private should be respected.
  • It if is decided not to publish any particular piece of information, there should be a clear statement to that effect so that the reader is not misled by the omission.

Ethics statement approved by the IAJGS Board of Directors 2 November 2002

The website also includes the Ten Commandments in Genealogy written by Rabbi Malcolm Stern.  These include the following:

9. The sensitivities of living people must be respected and the memory of the deceased likewise, but for the latter it is permitted to record the objective facts about them.

All parties seem to agree that anything about a living person should not be disclosed.  I agree whole-heartedly with that point of view, and I only provide information about anyone living if they consent first.  I keep the details of my family tree on password-protected pages for that reason, i.e., that they include living descendants.

So where do I come out on this debate?  As I said, my views are more clear now than they were before, but they are not yet truly defined.  I agree with both views.  I honor the principle of truth.  As someone who loves history and who is educated in the law, I believe that knowing the truth is important to each of us personally and to our society as a whole.  But I also embrace the need to avoid harming another person if at all possible.  I would hate to think that something I write causes pain to another, but I also know that that pain is rooted in the truth I’ve revealed, not simply in the fact that I have revealed it.

For me that means that, as we lawyers like to say, it depends.  It depends on the circumstances.  Here are some of the circumstances I will and do consider before writing about something that might be upsetting to another person:

  1. Are these documented facts or just allegations? If the latter, I must indicate that they are only allegations or perhaps not even report them at all.  If it was information from a newspaper article, I will quote that source; if it is something that I was told by a relative, I would not report it unless I could find sufficient corroboration.
  2. How long ago did these events occur? I like the 75 year rule adopted by the IAJGS, meaning anything before 1940 would be considered generally publishable if documented.  For me, I might even use a 100 year rule, meaning anything before 1914 is publishable if documented.  However, even in those circumstances, I might still hesitate to reveal the information if there is some other reason not to do so.  For example, if a living descendant asks me not to do so (see #4 below) or if the facts are relatively insignificant.
  3. If I do reveal those older facts, I may also take steps to protect the identity of any living descendants of that person.  For example, if someone who lived 120 years ago committed a crime, is it necessary to reveal the names of his or her children or grandchildren in a blog post about that person? By making it less obvious who the descendants are, it will be harder for others to make that connection. If a descendant, say, a great-grandchild, looks hard enough, they might find out that their great-grandparent committed a crime, but if they look that hard, they also likely would have found it the same way I did—from publicly available records.
  4. For information that is more recent than 75 years, I would only reveal that information if I am sure that either there are no living direct descendants or if I am in touch with living descendants and am able to discuss the facts with them and get their permission to write about it on the blog.  I do not generally think it is my role to tell someone something that may upset them; I am not a psychologist and am not able to deal with the reactions I might cause.  But if I know that that person already knows the information, then I am more willing to let them know that I have learned about it from some public source and then to talk to them about it.  If I can’t find the living descendants, then I would not reveal information that is more recent than 1940.
  5. If a descendant asks me not to write about something on the blog, I will not do so.  Yes, that may distort history, but this is personal history, family history—not the kind that changes society or reveals the truth about how political decisions are made.  This is not a cover-up that will affect many people, if any, outside of one particular family.

Do these principles/guidelines make sense? I am still struggling with this, and I know that not everyone will agree.  The truth-seekers will not be happy with me for holding back some information; those who do not believe in revealing upsetting information will not be happy that I will reveal that information in certain circumstances.  I know that my thoughts and my practice will evolve over time, and I know that I will continue to struggle and to seek counsel from all of you.

Thank you to everyone who commented, both here and on Facebook, and for helping me think through this difficult issue.



18 thoughts on “To Reveal or Not: More Thoughts on the Ethics of Genealogy

    • Schelly, thank you so much for letting me post on the group page. It was incredibly helpful, and everyone was both thoughtful and courteous (more than I can say for one person on the page who was very rude). I think we all learn from a group discussion. I have found the Tracing the Tribe group a wonderful and knowledgeable and generous group of people. Please keep up the good work you do keeping things civil there!


  1. Your post really resonated with me because I faced a similar decision: whether or not to report distressing findings to a family I was researching. In this case, they had been told a fiction to explain an ancestor’s death and had no knowledge of the facts I’d found (and confirmed in public records). The reporting of the true circumstances surrounding the death would have served no useful purpose, 60 years later, and would have been disturbing, hurtful, and perhaps permanently harmful to the whole family. I faced a dilemma, because I generally believe it’s important to tell the truth, the whole truth. But I realized that, in this case, only harm–not peace of mind–could come from this knowledge, so I omitted it from my report to the family (in this case, publication was not an issue) and will keep the secret for the rest of my life. If I’d been told that the family had partial information or strong suspicions and wanted confirmation and clarification, I would have decided differently.


    • Thank you, Susan, for your thoughts. It is so hard to know what to do. When you are researching someone else’s family, it presents different issues. You are not trying to learn the truth about your own relatives, so in some way the true story seems less important. On the other hand, since they asked you to do this for them, it presents a harder question. My long lost cousins are not asking me to do this; I am doing it out of my own interests. If they asked, I might feel more obligated to share what I’d found. I can certainly understand not sharing the information. It’s the delicate balance between truth and compassion that we are strive to meet.


      • “…the delicate balance between truth and compassion …” — very well put.

        I should clarify that I was researching the family history as a favor to this family; I’m not a professional genealogist working for pay, nor am I a professional writer or blogger. (I suppose that, if I were, that would call for somewhat different considerations.) But I know this family well, and I’m aware of the emotional status of the primary descendant in question. He has a tough exterior, but I know how vulnerable he has been to other stresses in the past and how he has dealt with them. There’s just no need to inflict further pain unnecessarily. On the bright side, I was able to tell him a lot about earlier generations of the family, which gave him and his family a great deal of information and pleasure.


      • It sounds like you gave this a lot of thought and took into consideration all the circumstances. I think that that’s the best we can do, and it sounds like this was the right answer for this person.


  2. Amy, this is really helpful to me. You also have given me the idea that for something I found last year and have not posted, I could just not discuss the names of the people involved. At least I can think of that as an option. Also, I have a dilemma about writing about people who are gone, but remembered by living people, and who don’t have the ability to say if they wish to be on the internet or not. I’m probably babbling, but you have gotten me thinking more about this subject.


    • Those are my concerns as well, even for those relatives the living people may not themselves remember, but who they heard about from their parents or grandparents. I have not yet reposted the one I took private, but am still redacting and rereading until I feel comfortable that I am not going to make it easy to find by the descendants or easy for others to figure out who those descendants are. And this person was not even an awful person—just broke the law, never hurt anyone or did anything violent. But nevertheless, I want to be thoughtful about it.


  3. I for myself keep it simple. If I am to error it will be in telling the truth and giving the story as full as possible. That being said I do not make a campaign of getting the story to everyone who will listen. My ancestor’s full (as I know it) story goes into the complete profiles that I have and which are given to family. Also the family history is being put into a book that I will publish. If I was to hide, ignore, the true facts of my family history then I am wasting my time.


    • Thanks for your thoughts. One question: what do you include or exclude from your blog? Is everything there as well, or do you filter out some information? Thanks!


      • So far my blog has only (for the most part) been of a positive nature. So I guess some filters are in use. If you re-read my posting “Found” you will see where I avoided some not so nice details. However in my family profile or story file at home no detail is spared. This are available to all family members. Also if I finish my family history book all details will also be there. I plan to give this book to all the libraries and historical societies that are in places that my family had lived and were helpful to me. If it is to be a true history all the details must be there.

        Also as far as my blog goes I try to show the fun and some of the how to of genealogy. I did not intend it to be a history of my family. I will admit much does come out. However that is to show the results of the work and research done.

        I hope I answered at least in part your questions.


      • Yes, thank you. I will go back and look at that post. I see my blog as doing two things: compiling and telling the family history and also explaining how I found it.


  4. Thanks, I do enjoy reading and learning from your blogs. I feel the longer I do genealogy, the more I feel I am still a beginner. It is a balancing act to keep my own thirst for knowing and respecting the needs of others in my family. This blog caused me to think of things in a different way as I record my family history.


    • I think we all learn from each other—one of the things I love about blogging. I started out doing it for my family, but as I found other genealogy blogs, I realized how much I could learn from everyone. We are all beginners!


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