Story: Genealogy and family history

Page 4. Issues in genealogy

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Issues of ethics and privacy

Comprehensive and accurate genealogies and family histories will often include events that at the time evoked emotions such as embarrassment, dismay and shame – and may still do so. Contemporary New Zealand society has very different attitudes to ex-nuptial birth, de facto relationships, divorce, termination of pregnancy and homosexuality than those that were customary several generations ago.

Issues of privacy and censorship may arise in genealogical and family history research. Codes of research ethics speak of avoiding harm to research subjects. Does this extend to the deceased? Is it right to respect privacy and acknowledge sensitivities by the deliberate omission of an ex-nuptial birth or a divorced ex-spouse from genealogies? Or should old prejudices and social sanctions be ignored in the interest of an accurate record?

Loss of resources

Despite the growth in online genealogical and family history resources, families’ pasts can slip away. Key informants may die before their memories have been captured. Papers, photograph albums, documents and even meaningful heirlooms (albeit of little intrinsic value) in deceased estates may end up in second-hand shops or rubbish dumps. Photographs and emails held on computers may be lost with a hard-drive crash or an upgrade.

Another issue is easy and affordable access to the official records that underpin many genealogies and inform many family histories. Legislation and official policies around issues of privacy and threats of identity theft result in restrictions on access to heritage data. User-pays policies can put data out of reach. The dubious quality of cheap digitisation is also a serious problem. Data on specific local resources may exist on CD, but are sometimes difficult to locate.

Resources under threat

There is also a threat for future genealogists and family historians in the ephemeral nature of contemporary materials that will one day be heritage data. 19th-century photographs printed on acid-free paper and stored in acid-free albums survive in the 21st century, but colour photographs from the late 20th century in plastic-paged albums disappear before our eyes. Letters and diaries from colonial New Zealand survive and are of enormous value; emails and online blogs (not to mention photographs located only on computer hard drives) can be lost when websites close or hard drives crash.

The media used for digital storage are regularly superseded and discarded, from videotapes to removable computer disks.

How to cite this page:

David Swain, 'Genealogy and family history - Issues in genealogy', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/genealogy-and-family-history/page-4 (accessed 24 October 2019)

Story by David Swain, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 4 Apr 2018