Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Do's and Don'ts When Researching The Living

Readers who have been following the series of posts about Marjorie Pauline Frost understand that there are certain challenges involved when attempting to locate living persons and perhaps subsequently writing about them on your blog.

While the research techniques may be the same or similar to those used when looking for our dead ancestors, there are certain approaches which work the best, and certain precautions which should be heeded.

Public vs. Private Information

As genealogists, most of us understand the need to protect private information especially for living persons.  This is why we often privatize GEDCOM files before posting them on websites, etc.  The same is true when attempting to locate living persons especially in a public, collaborative space such as Facebook or Twitter.
  • Keep private info private.  Don't post names, addresses (including email addresses), and telephone numbers of living persons publicly.  On Twitter don't tweet publicly, use the Direct Message option.  On Facebook send an email, don't post such info on The Wall.
  • Link where possible.  Although the data might be publicly available through a "people finder" site such as ZabaSearch, post a link to the page, not the data found on the site.
  • Twitter: follow the leader.  If using Twitter, appoint one person as the collector of "leads" and have others participating in the research direct message the data to that person.
  • Facebook: this group is closed.  If using Facebook, use a closed group and monitor access,  This allows you to post data and control who can and can't see the data.
Contacting Living Persons
  • Expect hesitancy.  While contacting living people via telephone is preferred, understand that the person who answers might feel you are a scammer.  Consider sending an email with links to your blog or website in order to build legitimacy.  Or send a letter using the snail mail method, providing the recipient with your contact information.  Let them contact you if and when they feel comfortable.
  • Expect to be rejected.  Some people are distanced from their families for a reason, and at their own choosing.  Respect their desires without judging.
Be Careful What You Write

If you decide to document your research experience, understand that while you can't defame the dead, you can be accused of defamation and/or libel when posting information about the living especially if it is untrue.
  • Just the facts ma'am.  While blogs are often forums for personal views and free speech, play it safe and avoid injecting opinion when posting the facts which can be publicly located about a person.  Don't let your personal judgments get in the way.  Let readers come to their own conclusions.
  • Do your own research.  When I locate family tree data online, I always try to verify the information even if it is properly sourced and cited.  The same goes for supposedly public information on living persons.  Don't just copy from another site or blog without knowing the source of the data.
  • Consider the source.  Just as in genealogy research, certain sources are better than others and carry more weight.  Some sources may not be useful or may be biased.  When in doubt, don't include the fact if you don't feel comfortable with the reputation of the source.
  • Admit when you are wrong.  If after posting you realize you made an error in research or stating a fact - make a correction.  And make the correction obvious - don't just edit the original post.  Some bloggers will use the "strikethrough" function and add an update in bold at the top of the original post explaining the edit.
© 2009, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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