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Confidentiality and Privacy When Sharing (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Standard for Sharing [edit | edit source]

The Standard for Sharing Information with Others particularly addresses ethical considerations among family members and professional colleagues (and even strangers). It also touches on the issues of confidentiality, privacy and copyright. A few additional comments for reflection:

Confidentiality[edit | edit source]

In client work, you must respect the confidential nature of the agreement you share. While you as author of the report have copyright to its form of expression, the client too has certain rights for the use of that report you were paid to research and assemble. This is why spelling out in a contract the current and future rights can ensure fairness to both parties. The client may choose to make that report available to other people, but you should not assume the same option without permission. Having permission in writing, in your file, is the smart thing to do if you wish to make future use of that report. For example, you might want to make a point in lecturing by using a case study, or write an article about solving a special problem. You must also acknowledge that permission.

Sensitivity[edit | edit source]

In family research—and this includes client work besides your own ancestors—sensitivity to others’ attitudes and feelings is absolutely essential. The collecting of information normally includes facts and stories from and about living people as well as those long gone. The majority of family historians probably have at least one living parent or relative to help make the first connections to the ancestral trail. Some of those facts and stories may involve an old family scandal or secret. You may find that there is a family secret but no one will talk about it. That might be your first big challenge—to uncover it, so you can make progress into the past. Be very aware that older family members may not share the modern general acceptance of common-law unions, unwed mothers and racial or religious differences. A family history is not written from your 21st century point of view; it takes into account prevailing social values of the times.

While we perverse genealogists would like to discover something shady or dramatic in our family tree, we may have grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews who are not so inclined! Some of them may have lived with a secret they don’t want made public. Some of them may have been unaware of a sad secret all their lives and could be quite distressed if you announce the salacious details at a family gathering.

Illegitimacy and bigamy were not uncommon during the lifetimes of our ancestors and such incidents may be too close to home for revealing within the family, let alone to the general public. Adoption is an obviously sensitive issue. The stigma of being the perpetrator or victim of a criminal offence can linger for decades and generations. Bankruptcy, betrayal, orphans, runaways, adultery, divorce, alcoholics, death by misadventure, estrangements ... any kind of human misery or skeletons in the closet may well appear in a family you are studying.

In cases like this, a professional will be compassionate and discreet. How much you incorporate into a report or a family history is a judgment call from your personal knowledge of the expected recipient(s). You can tell yourself that honesty is the only policy in the face of undeniable evidence, but discretion has a role. Generally speaking, recipients who have some experience with family history will be more open to such news than the relative or client who only wants to hear good things.

  • With family, it’s possible to keep the details in your own file, saving them for a future day when you or someone else may feel more free to reveal them. Your current (public) report, text or footnote can be an edited version.
  • With a client, it’s best to prepare them first for bad or sad news. Advise them that the research results were not what you or they expected; an unforeseen event occurred that her family may have trouble accepting. When you send the report with the details, you could refrain from editorial comments or hypotheses on the situation until the client draws her own conclusions and makes a decision whether to continue or not.

Privacy[edit | edit source]

Another side of the same coin, so to speak, is a living individual’s right to privacy. Most jurisdictions have legislation to protect information submitted by individuals to government and other agencies, such as income taxation and banking. However, there are no effective controls on submissions or access to the Internet and electronic communications in spite of recurring changes to copyright and other laws. Identity theft and financial fraud are a growing threat. No professional genealogist or family historian will ever publish vital information about living people (dates and places of birth and marriage, addresses and telephone numbers, email addresses, etc) which a stranger could manipulate for criminal purposes. Jean Dryden (Demystifying Copyright) suggests that encryption of work on your website is one way to restrict access by unauthorized users. Web services with passwords are offered now for secure sites accessible only by invitation from you.

If you are preparing a full genealogy or family history for publication as a book, it’s a good idea to consult with some family members to decide how to treat living people and the best way to protect their privacy. Often, simply a name alone or a name with year of birth may suffice.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.