Thursday, 3 July 2014

Am I Defined by One Action?

As family historians we want to tell the story of our ancestors, to bring them to life and to add personality to the names and dates and this is a laudable desire.

Potential issues can arise in the telling of the story. There was a discussion last year (September 19) around a question posed by Thomas MacEntee on the "Right to Do Genealogy" . The question was "what right did we have to do genealogy and share and publicise people's secrets"

After a lot of discussion among the genealogy online world the general idea was we had the right to do the research but we also had an ethical obligation "to do no harm".

In more modern times we have access to quite a lot of information about people, often from multiple sources, some within people's memory so it becomes a lot easier to write a story of the person showing all aspects of them.

Further back in time we see our ancestors via the records that are left, the vital record, the court case or the newspaper report. Often this is only a snapshot in time.

Do I write the military stories of my soldiers: who fought at Gallipoli and survived,  who fought on the Western Front for a time period and was wounded, the soldier who was sent back to to the Front but to different unit to the one he left, the soldier who was found in the house of ill-repute, the soldier who spent three years in a military prison.

Each of these is a good story worth telling. 

However they are definitely better told as the whole story. Each of these snapshots in time relate to just one soldier's experience of a long, long war and together make a whole.

Should I tell the story of the woman who was arrested for neglecting her child while being under the influence of alcohol? 

Do I instead tell the story of the woman who had received the news that her husband and her son had both been killed on the same day? That bit did not get into the news when the temperance paper reported the arrest six weeks later.

Today we know that sensational news sells papers,  good news stories rarely make it into print. 

Do we really think times have changed and that the past was any different? It is often said the winning side writes history.

So do you write the snapshot in time which may only show one facet of a person? Is that ethical? How do you decide what to write? What do you do?



  1. Helen, I have read and reread your post several times. It really got me thinking. I blog about family history. I started when I first took over my Dad's genealogy research after health issues prevented him from continuing. Because of the way I started, I started the blog to connect with my far-flung younger generation in order to entice one of them to become as passionate as me. They are true millennial; they live on their mobile devices. I try to write shorter posts. There is no way to do that without defining "one action."

    And that's why your post got my attention and made me think so hard. I still don't know how I feel. Sometimes I highlight one heroic moment, sometimes a moment which was not so heroic. How do I balance that out?

  2. Schalene, that is a great way of sharing the family stories with the younger generation. Maybe ways of expanding the context could be with links to other posts of yours about that person or comments about how this action is just one of the stories of their lives and more will come another day.

  3. A thought-provoking article Helen, and one to which I don't have a "one size fits all" answer. Whenever I write a story I try to balance the bare facts with social and personal context...a "there but for the grace of God" perspective.


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