My Genealogy Moral Dilemma

I had been wrestling with a ‘Moral Dilemma’, within my Family Tree for some considerable time, in fact over 20 years! Whether to share the story and personal notes, that my Grandfather made before he died.

So let me give you some background thoughts, before I explain my own situation in detail.

When we first start off researching our family history we probably never imagine that we might need to consider the ethics and morals of our hobby, or even that we could be subject to the law. After all, it’s our family tree, why would we be subject to ethical codes or copyright law?

The first thing we need to consider is the fact “once it’s out there, it’s out there”. Once something is in the public domain, although you can of course remove it, the damage could already be done. After all those sadly no longer with us, have no choice about what we publish as genealogists.

My rule of thumb is, if the person that you were referring to, in your story or article, was in the room today with you, would they be happy with you sharing their story to a perfect stranger?

ET Wootton 2

With that in mind, here is the ‘Moral Dilemma” that I faced.

My Grandfather died in 1986 and before he sadly passed away, he had started to write up his own life story, in his own words. Sadly he had only completed around eleven pages and had only really, just begun to tell his story, before he passed away.

The Dilemma I was faced with was “Should I make these Public”. To add further weight to the dilemma, I had no real idea of what Grandad’s intentions were, when he started to write the story. Was it for himself, was it for the whole family, or friends? I had no real idea of his ultimate purpose.

My conscience has made me keep them to one side, but as time has gone on, the urge to tell his story has grown. To quantify this a little, there is nothing in there to hide or nothing controversial, it’s just his own words about a bygone era, but yet I still felt a pang of guilt and it almost felt like I am betraying him in some way?

This week I told my story and dilemma to my good friends on #AncestryHour (Twitter group of Genealogists who meet online every Tuesday at 7pm), to canvas opinion on how to proceed. Can I first say how grateful I am to those that took the time to respond, I read every single reply, the overwhelming opinion was to “tell Grandad’s story”, but with lots of great ideas, such as writing in my own words, an end to the story that he had started. If I could sum up all the positive responses that I received online, with one line, my good friend Jude (@GenealogyJude) summed it up perfectly……….”it will help to keep his memory alive”.

So with some good advice from a genealogy friend, David Dobie (@DavidDobie2), I decided to share with everyone the thread from the discussions on #AncestryHour

The following are just a few examples of the wonderful responses to my original dilemma and if you are in a similar situation yourself, hopefully these might help you to reach your own decision.

@sibsandnibs ‘I’m sure he’d want people to read them’.

@GrandmaLiggy ‘I can’t imagine that he started writing his own story for it not to be read’.

@KimberliHull ‘Wow what a treasure, if he was writing his own story he’d probably be fine with it’.

@WillsmanOneName ‘I’d say publish, especially if there is no intimate detail. How lovely to have something in his own words’.

@KatherineHern8 ‘I’m firmly in the please share camp.’

@GenealogyLass ‘I think if he was writing this to pass on to his family, then you should use it and make sure family members get a chance to read about his life in his own words – a real treasure to have too!’

@HDFHS01 ‘Perhaps if you decide to write your own family history into a story you could include his writing in a chapter’.

@FamilyTreeUK ‘ I’d say publish, but you could top and tail them with a fitting tribute and your knowledge of his life, maybe some photos, let him have these last words.

So the over riding opinion was to publish, albeit with a few caveats. I have spoken to my “Cousins” and they were also very keen that ‘Grandad’s Voice’ be heard.

So I have reached the decision to let Grandad’s voice be heard………….

I will leave you with one last thought, which I already mentioned above, but which really resonated with me;

“it will help to keep his memory alive”.

Look out for ‘Grandad’s Story’, coming soon………

ET Wootton 1


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41 thoughts on “My Genealogy Moral Dilemma

  1. I agree keep his memory alive. Unfortunately, there are people like me who don’t have that ability because we are walking “Antwone Fishers” (good movie btw). We just don’t really know anything about our family to share anything. So, yes, keep this as an opportunity to learn even more about him as you research and write and I agree with merging the stories with your life and his. Oh the journey you will have in putting that together. Best of luck to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s kind of what I’m doing with my dad’s story…he started it, I’m finishing it. At some point, I probably will publish it, knowing that it may or may not make $$$. But at least family and friends will be able to read his story, in his words and mine.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. He obviously started to write it for a reason, no-one would do that for no reason at all. In which case if you share you are helping him achieve what he was trying to do. I would say if the rest of your family are fine with it being shared then do so and as was mentioned will help him be heard and preserve his memory.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. It’s good you decided to share this, I think, especially since there is nothing controversial or negative. I can understand your dilemma since a grandfather is not that far back in a family tree. But still given there is nothing negative, I would not hesitate to let his words be shared and live on in perpetuity. As for moral dilemmas, I can relate. I have come upon skeletons in the family tree closet on occasion, and at times have decided to write about them because it helps put a family’s life in context. I always thought one of my 2nd great-grandmothers was an only child. Then I did research and learned that she had loads of siblings including one who was quite the black sheep. I wrote about him because his actions impacted everyone’s lives at the time. Alcoholism destroyed lives then as it does now. It made me have greater empathy for all of them. Yes, it was a skeleton they probably never wanted exposed but I think they deserve to be seen as real people who had real challenges. They can inspire us in our own lives.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks Gail and thank you for sharing your own story. We just never know what we are going to uncover when we set off on our Family Tree Journeys. We have to accept the good bad and the ugly as I always say, thats all part of the fabric of what makes us who we are today

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Excited to read it! I agree with the consensus about sharing. I would like to think that our grandparents would ultimately be happy about us being interested enough in their lives to want to keep their stories alive.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I love the thought of keeping Grandpa alive…It is why I write my blog for sure… I too, guard what I write about and try to present every person with as much love as I can or why write? We have wonderful stories to share! Thanks…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I have written my life story, at least for the first 56 years up until 2003, had 8 copies printed of which 6 were distributed around family members. Had I died before completion, I would have hoped that family would have valued and made use of it for FH purposes as that was the primary purpose of writing it. Currently doing part 2, up to 2016, but unsure of cut-off date, this virus makes 2020 a good time to end it. Of course, there may well be a part 3 covering an ever decreasing number of years!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Not on-line, too many living people included and I’ve tried to be frank in places. I have also transcribed my age 15 to 18 day-by-day diary amounting to 250,000 words, again for family history reasons.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I think you have made the right decision to publish his story. My Dad told me lots of stories. I am very glad that I pulled the recorder out on quite a few occasions. It is wonderful to have their stories in their own words. I look forward to reading.


  9. I faced the same dilemma when I was starting my blog. I had just finished organizing my grandfather’s “letters home” during WWII and I thought, it’s a shame my cousins don’t have an opportunity to read them. I made copies for myself with the intent of hard publishing them and passing them out to the cousins. When I started the blog, I thought it would be cool to publish each letter on a blog around the same time that he wrote them. But I worried about “putting it out there”. I conferred with my father, aunt, and uncle (who is the current holder of the letters) and they all agreed to publish them. Whenever I come across something I think may be “embarrassing” to the family, I will edit it. Thankfully, I’ve only had to do that once or twice. And editing the embarrassments are more in consideration of the living – who have different ideals than my grandfather had in the 1940’s war time era. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Valarie for sharing your similar story with me. It is difficult to strike the right balance between sharing the stories and protecting the lives of those that might be affected by what we publish. There is no right or wrong way, it’s something personal to each of us and only we can decide when we are ready. Thanks again I appreciate you stopping by to read my post and share your views with me.


  10. My 2nd cousin gave me the transcripts of my great great grandaunt’s papers for the family reunion which included a number of her letters to family members. I sat on it for 20 years and recently published the entire volume in book format with added photos and pedigrees. The book has been a hit with my cousins who descend from that line! (and a number of the words used in her letters in the 1920s would not fly in the 2020s, but I left them in with the explanation that the times have wonderfully changed for the better).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing that Pat, my story was similar, I had sat on Grandads papers for a similar length of time, but I’m glad I have published them, as my good friend reminded me, it helps to keep their memory alive


  11. I wish I had even 11 pages from one of my grandparents or great-grandparents…I agree, publish, especially as there’s nothing there that you perceive as information he wouldn’t like made public.

    My own great-grandfather had two brushes with the law – I have told one of the stories obliquely (using pseudonyms) on my blog. They are a matter of public record and the events happened well over 100 years ago. I have no idea how he would feel (he was quite the character), but I know my mum and uncle would prefer I don’t publish the stories, so for now, I’m holding that back.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Teresa, I agree it’s always difficult to strike a balance between telling their story and keeping memories alive and protecting their privacy. It’s different for each and everyone of us, there’s no right or wrong it’s whatever you feel comfortable with.


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