A Genealogist's Code of Conduct
Despite the fact that a good genealogist must be a truly professional researcher, the public perceives genealogy as
nothing but a hobby in which the proverbial "little old lady" collects ancestors like the boy down the street collects stamps.
Unfortunately, this view is also held by many records custodians and librarians; and this perception is reinforced by the
less-than-professional and sometimes criminal behavior of many researchers. Glenn Atwell, professional genealogist
and member of the Western New York Genealogical Society, sums up the Golden Rule of Genealogy as follows:
"Do as you would if you were to return there as the next genealogist."
1 Here are some of my own specific Do's and Don'ts.
- When writing a letter to a relative asking
for information, keep it short and ask specific questions. You
can ask more questions later when you send your Thank You letter. Always
enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope when requesting information from all
but the closest relatives.
- When writing to an official repository for information give all necesary information,
but DO NOT write chatty family stories. Necessary information includes:
- Type of record requested
- Name of ancestor
- Relevant birth, death, or marriage dates
- Location of event or residence
- Correct fee stated and enclosed
- Research the holdings of libraries and archives before visiting them.
- Ask questions about the holdings, not about your particular family.
- Follow all rules of a repository even if you think they're irrelevant
and should not apply to you. Some frequently seen "Do Nots:"
- Do not refile books.
- Do not photocopy records without permission.
- Do not use pen if it is forbidden.
- Do not sneak into the stacks.
- Do not eat or drink in the library.
- Do not ask for more time when the library is closing.
- NEVER damage a book or record in any way!
I have seen evidence of all the above acts. In any other context, these
acts are crimes known as vandalism and theft.
- Do not alter a record because your information is correct and the
record is wrong.
- Do not steal even one little piece of paper from your grandfather's
- Do not remove pictures, maps, or other pages from a book because the
library will not allow photocopying.
- Handle all materials carefully and use microforms whenever available.
Genealogical records are old and archives need the users' help to preserve
- Libraries are designed for use by the public and librarians are trained to
help the public. Courthouses and many other record repositories are places
of business and do not exist for the sole use of genealogists. Remember that.
- If you are not treated politely, examine your own behavior before
criticizing a harried courthouse clerk. Remember these words, Please
and Thank you, and use them often.
The National Genealogical Society has published the following pages
on Genealogical Standards. Every genealogist, whether beginner or expert,
hobbyist or professional, should read these.
1Glenn R. P. Atwell, "Our Own Worst Enemy," in Western
New York Genealogical Society Journal, vol. XIX, no. 1, June 1992, pp. 6-8
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