Genealogy Etiquette

The grave in question in bullet [Courtesy Victoria Pratt collection]

The grave in question in bullet 4 [Courtesy Victoria Pratt]

Jaya and I, in addition to being etiquette experts are really into genealogy. We both have branches of our family trees that go way back in America, both to the American Revolution and the Mayflower. I’m even a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Family history can be great fun- like being a detective! And it’s very rewarding in having the opportunity to connect with very distant family members.

However, like anything, there are a lot of rude genealogists out there! So here’s how to be polite:

  • Family trees are not subject to copyright. I had a 3rd cousin of my grandfather’s send me a very nasty email after I put the names and dates of our mutual family members into my Ancestry.com family tree. By all means, if you’re relying on a significant chunk of research from one person or website, cite it. But just because you are the one who told me that Charles Smith was born in 1790 and died in 1840 doesn’t mean I can never use that information for my own publically accessible trees! Of course, don’t plagiarize written stories and things that are original work.
  • Ask nicely- if you believe someone has some information that will be useful, ask them nicely for it, don’t demand it. That goes for professionals such as librarians as well.
  • Be careful with original documents so they will be available for future genealogists as well.
  • Don’t make assumptions! I had set up a Find-a-Grave page for one of my ancestors several years ago. Recently someone emailed me through the site and asked me to transfer the page to him as he was a direct descendant. Well, I am ALSO a direct descendant and I was there first, so no. If he had said, I’m a direct descendant of so-and-so and I would love to take control of the page to do this, this, and this and would you be interested in transferring it to me? The answer might have been different.
  • Always be thankful when people help you. Find-a-Grave does this awesome thing where you can submit requests for people to photograph a particular grave in a particular cemetery for you. (This is a very fun hobby, btw!!) I have submitted a few and gotten the photos I asked for. Of course I immediately wrote to the photographer to thank them for taking the time.
  • Don’t publically list information about living people! Ancestry.com hides all information about living people and you should too.
  • Always be willing to collaborate- don’t take and take information from people without giving any information back.
  • Feel free to reach out to people you might be related to, but don’t get mad if they aren’t interested. As weird as it may seem, not everyone is super into genealogy. You might trace some living relatives down through obituaries and then find them on Facebook or whatever, and that can be awesome! I’ve done it and had a great time chatting with someone who is my 5th or 6th cousin. However, I’ve also reached out to people and never heard anything back. It’s fine and totally their choice.
  • Be specific in your information requests. When reaching out to someone who might have a connection to you, make sure that you are specific in who you are researching and how you think they might fit into the other person’s research.
  • Don’t assume everyone is as fascinated by your family tree as you are. Family history is kind of like dreams- utterly fascinating to you, but a total bore to everyone else. If you must talk about it, keep it short and punchy with good anecdotes. For example, some of my family are buried in a small cemetery in the East Village in NYC and I always point it out to people when we are walking by and tell them about the dramatic suicide of one of my ancestors who is buried there.
  • Take rejection well. I get emails from other researchers occasionally who think that someone in my tree might be someone that they are searching for. After getting more information, sometimes it turns out that there’s no actual connection. Most people are fine. However, I emailed one woman back and said something along the lines of “I don’t think I have anyone by that name in my family tree and it doesn’t look like I can help you. Good luck in your research!” and she wrote back that it was the rudest response she had ever gotten and why didn’t I want to hear more about her family tree?

Also, apparently gravestone rubbing is passe now that everyone has digital cameras. Plus it’s bad for the preservation of the inscriptions. Happy family hunting!

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