Genealogy Etiquette

By Kristen
Updated November 24, 2007
  • Be polite to everyone. This include librarians, government employees, fellow genealogists, family members, and anyone else you run into. You never know who can help you with those big questions or grant you some huge favors, so it pays to develop a good reputation with everyone you meet. Greet everyone with a smile, and say "hello" or "good morning" (or whatever time of day it is). Say "please," "thank you," "excuse me," "could you tell me ..." (before questions rather than just saying "hey, where's the section on ..."), and other polite phrases when appropriate. Send thank you cards or notes whenever possible.
  • Don't ask, expect, or try to manipulate anyone to do the work for you. This again includes librarians, government employees, fellow genealogists, family members, etc. Don't ask a librarian to find all the information about Uncle Joe (you should have done your homework to find out what items you need to look at). You can, however, ask the librarian to show you where those items are. Don't try to guilt your mother into sitting down and filling out all of your genealogy charts for you because "she knows the answers better than you do" while you go out for a night on the town, but you can ask her to help you do it by sitting down with you or interviewing her. Don't send any requests by mail without a self-addressed-stamped-envelope. Don't assume that a fellow genealogist should want to give up his/her free time to study up on your ancestor (even if they are studying the same family), and don't assume that anyone else researching your family tree should give you all of the information they've found (you can politely ask for it, and pay for shipping, but don't expect it).
  • Be especially careful with sources. This includes books, journals, records, microfilm, CD-ROMs, photographs, and so forth no matter where you find or use them (e.g. at a library, at your uncle's home, in your own attic, and so forth). You go to a library, check out a database on CD-Rom, and discover that the disc has been scratched by another patron and can't be read; oh, the aggravation. Of course, the library could probably get another CD-Rom, but it's still a pain in the neck to have to wait and hope that they get the funds to purchase a new one. Some items can't be replaced, like official records, so once you spill your coffee on it, it's ruined for everyone else who looks at it after you; let's just hope it can still be read. It's also irritating to see that somebody has taken notes directly on the document or on a piece of paper that was on top of the document, indenting the document with their handwriting. Some people even use a highlighter. Other irritations include tearing pages (big or tiny tears), breaking spines in books, wrinkling pages (such as with paperclips, by placing all but the edges of it in a closed book, sitting on it accidentally, and so forth), trying to "fix" pages when you don't have the proper document restoration supplies or techniques to do it (such as taping up a tear, using whiteout on marks you or other people made on the page, or correcting a date that you think is wrong), and letting your dog, cat, child, or [fill in the blank here] get a hold of the document because you didn't keep it in a place where they couldn't get to it.
  • Look respectable. Dress the part of a serious researcher and you'll be treated like a serious researcher. While this is primarily to help you get assistance (a clerk will be much more willing to help you if you look like you just came out of a business meeting on casual Friday than if you dress like biker or punk star), it also helps the people around you to feel comfortable.
  • Don't be arrogant. So, you read the Genealogy for Dummies book; that doesn't make you an expert. Always be willing to learn from others, and never assume that your information is 100% correct and everybody else is wrong. Keep an open mind, and don't take criticism personally. You lean something new every day in this hobby / profession, so keep educating yourself.
  • Follow the rules. Don't go to a library, archive office, or even your grandma's house without knowing and observing the rules. Don't complain about them, either. If hours of operation are 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, you need to be out the door at 6:00 pm. If you are supposed to sit and take notes at a specific table, do so rather than sitting in the aisle or going to some other area where you'll just be in everybody else's way. If grandma says, "no shoes in the house," take off those shoes.
  • Put things back where they belong. Don't you hate it when you go to a library, look up a particular book that you want in the catalog, make sure that it is available, go to the shelf where it's supposed to be, and discover that it isn't there because somebody put it where it didn't belong or left it where they were last using it? It drives me nuts, just as it drives other researches crazy. If you can't remember exactly where something should go, ask somebody who does know (preferably somebody who works there) to help you. The same goes for items in somebody's home. If you take a box out of the attic, put everything back into the box the way you found it, and put the box back in the attic (unless the individual has given you permission to organize it).
  • Give credit to others for their work. I know it's so easy to just download a GEDCOM files off the Internet, put it in our family tree, smile, and say, "I did that," then publish it on your website as your own, but doing so is completely unethical. When you use information from somebody else, give them credit (even if it's the U.S. government) and ask permission when necessary.
  • Share your work. There are many fellow genealogists struggling for a tiny clue to help them fill in their holes, and your work may provide them with that clue. Of course, don't share any information about any person who is still living without that person's consent, and make sure that all of your work is well documented and based on solid research.
  • Stick to the standards. Don't invent a new way to abbreviate the names of locations or to write dates. You'll just confuse everyone. If you insist that your method of [fill in the blank] is better, make sure you explain all of your abbreviations, format, and so forth whenever you share your work.
  • Know how to use your tools. If you use a library, learn how to look up information in the library (you can find tutorials and guides online and in print, talk to your librarian, or take a class). If you use a computer, know how to use it as well as all of the software and peripherals you use (look for tutorials or guides online and in print or take a class). Learn how to use office equipment, such as a photocopier, fax machine, and so forth, so you won't have to bother people to help you.
  • Tell people how you plan to use their stories, documents, and so forth. Don't take notes while having a conversation with a family member and use what you've learned in your work without letting your family member know about it. You can easily say, "Oh, I'll have to add that to my family history / genealogy project. That's so interesting." If you plan on sharing your work with others, be sure you tell your family members this as well. Ask them if they would be willing to let other family members, genealogists, and historians read a letter they wrote you or see the notes you took during your conversation. If they are not willing, ask them if you could simply put their name as the source for information you've collected. If they refuse that, you can still share your work but note that the individuals who provided some of the information wish to remain anonymous (you can always use their names as sources after they die, but that doesn't mean you get to start having morbid thoughts about waiting for your family members to meet the reaper, so you can publish their names).