Opinion

Beware of sharing family trees freely

You have to be wary of what you post online these days and that is also true for genealogists.  

Many genealogical websites encourage users to post family trees online. Often the sites allow you to sync online trees with all your devices, including phones, laptops, tablets, etc.  Syncing means a change made in one will automatically produce a change in all. Many sites allow people to keep their trees private, only open to someone you allow to view or add to the tree.  However, some sites allow people to alter anyone’s tree without permission. And, remember sites are being hacked at an alarming rate. So far we don’t know of any genealogical sites being hacked, but it is probably only a matter of time.    

Most of my genealogical pals post their trees online but hold them private.  They share information only with someone they know, such as a relative, who is researching the family line.  Others argue that if you want to learn more about your family, you have to put all your information out there with no limits as to what and who can see or repost your material.  Reposting, for the technologically challenged, means they can take material from your tree and post it under their own names on any site.  

A friend has posted his tree just about everywhere, which unfortunately has led to errors being reposted and circulated around the internet.  Another friend switched hers to private after some erroneous material was added to her tree.  

Others choose to enter only a portion of their tree in the hope it will lead to someone with more information.  I had a small portion of my tree on one site and one day a photo of my mother popped up. I had no idea who posted the formal portrait I’d never seen before.  I sent a message to the poster, whom I’ll call “Janet.” Turns out Janet was a descendant of a good friend of my mother’s. Janet meant no harm but I wish she’d contacted me first and saved me the shock.

In this day and age where hackers are everywhere, how much do you want to share with the world?  We are seeing our privacy eroded every day, so think carefully how and what you post. Never, ever, post the name or details about a living person, including yourself.  Start your posting with the nearest dead ancestor or just one line, perhaps from a grandparent and perhaps only a few generations to see if an unknown relative or in-law emerges.

I recommend you think carefully what you wish to post and which site you want to use.  Posting a private tree is wise to begin with and you can later mark it public. Just remember, once on the internet, it’s there forever.  So be careful with anecdotes, embarrassing stories or photos. Make sure you’re comfortable in what you make public.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com.

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