Withholding history: Open Source Genealogy

I belong to a few handfuls of mailing list, message forum, and Facebook group dedicated to Genealogy. Every so often, someone discovers that a picture, story, or details from their ancestor has been copied and added to a stranger’s family tree and is very upset. Often, their reaction is to make their research private, so no one can see it.

It’s an understandable feeling; genealogy is a very personal effort. You’re spelunking into your own history. It’s natural to feel protective of it, but that instinct may deprive others of their history.

With a few exceptions, I would argue that you may be doing a disservice to every other person connected to your ancestor – distant cousins or grand-children – by not sharing those photographs and stories.

In a way, this reminds me of the principles of open source software. Free exchange of information, collaboration, meritocracy, and community.

I research, collect and citing sources, and publish my findings. Some of that is done to scratch the itch – to know about this person whose ripples in life’s pond intersect with my own. Making those stories available to others, who read them out of general curiosity or to satiate their own drive to know, is part of my responsibility as genealogist.

I look at genealogy as research on a micro scale, with a dash of context from the macro. Between public records, city directories, graveyards, and newspaper articles I can find a lot of information about a person. Where and when they lived. Notable events in their life. Dates of birth, marriage, and death.

That only provides a sketch of the person’s life, though. Sometimes, I’m lucky enough to find someone who is a closer relation to the person I’m researching, finding pictures, stories, and written letters. These discoveries are cherished, because they give us deeper insight into that person’s life and who they were.

As a genealogist, I consider myself a caretaker of family history, from parents and grandparents to distant cousins.

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