Sunday, May 22, 2011

Knock Knock – Who’s There?

Knock Knock.
Who’s there?
Sharon who?
Sharon share alike.

I made that joke up when I was about eight years old, and thought it was drop dead hilarious until I was about twelve. It came to mind recently when I was following a debate on the Fermanagh-Gold list at Rootsweb on the pros and cons of sharing genealogical research.

Sharing, has always been our family way. I can take no credit for the fact that I am pretty open handed with what I have. None. It is sort of our family’s default setting. Other families seem to come with a default setting of holding their cards tight to their chest. That’s just how it is. We all work with what we’ve got.

My mother would often go to the freezer to take out the roast for the Sunday dinner, only to find that it was gone because my father had given it to a family down on their gums. In my early twenties, I shared my cars the way my father shared roasts. My first car was a black Austin Westminster which I bought for $400 when I started my first full time job at the YM-YWCA. I loaned it to a teenaged brother, and it ended up in a cornfield in Chilliwack with a blown engine. Mind you, it wasn't all bad, This brother and a buddy of his found a second hand engine, rigged up a hoist and installed it. Still, after another friend drove my next car, a Fiat, through axle-high floods on Highway 1 on his way back from California, I quit sharing my car with such abandon.
Mine was black with red leather seats. I couldn't believe my good fortune.
Photo from Wiki

Apparently, this phrase about sharing first came into being in 1719, when Daniel Defoe put the words into the mouth of Robinson Crusoe: He declar'd he had reserv'd nothing from the Men, and went Share and Share alike with them in every Bit they eat.

Last October, I was sitting in the hospitality suite at The Granville Island Hotel, yakadoddling with a handful of writers including DavidMitchell, Kathleen Winter, and Genni Gunn. We were talking about what we choose to share on the web and what we don’t. None of them shared research for their books on line. This makes total sense to me since they are all fiction writers. Who wants to get two thirds of the way through a great tale only to get scooped by someone who hasn’t done the leg work? It is bad enough when a story is in the public domain, and two writers pick it up at the same time.

My own work on my current project is different. I suppose it is conceivable that someone could scoop me on my book about Sir Thomas Jackson, but it isn’t likely. As Genni Gunn said, You have faith that you will tell the story your way. If someone else uses the material, they will tell a different story. Exactly.

More to the point, The Silver Bowl is a story that could never have been told if I hadn’t proceeded as I have. Over the past eight years, I have transcribed hundreds of deeds, wills, letters, and other sundry bits and have made literally thousands of postings to my web site along with scanned photos of people, places, maps and more. There are now about 6,000 people per month who click on to this material, and every month a few of them get in touch with me and add to what I know. I already talked about some of that in my piece in this blog, My Web Feet – Quack, Quack

The arguments against sharing family research seem thin to me. The ones that I have heard are:

  • Someone will get credit for work that I did. Personally, I don’t see how that takes anything away from me. So far, when I have seen my work used without credit, people have been happy to include a link to the source when I bring it to their attention.
  • Big corporations will make money off it. In my case, this is probably true, but I benefit also from the platforms they provide. When they do make money, they are not taking any rice out of my rice bowl, so I am good with that.
  •  I have spent huge amounts of time and money to create this material. People shouldn’t just take it. I can certainly attest to how much time and money it takes to do this kind of research. I have spent close to ten years on the work, and several thousand dollars in travel. At the same time, I didn’t set out with a goal of making money from my web site. I deliberately chose a format that has no ads, although from everyone I have spoken with about ads on websites, they are more bother than they are worth. For freelancers such as me, books and research are really no way to make money. I would do better being a greeter at Walmart. My book Some Become Flowers won awards and sold decently, but earnings from both royalties and prizes didn’t top $10,000 – and yet the book took a full year to write. My next book will likely earn more, but then again it has taken ten years so far, and there will be a couple more to go before it is done.
  •   The rest of their research is garbage and people will believe it all when mine gets mixed in with theirs. The old saying, garbage in, garbage out covers a lot of what is on the internet. If a reader is not prepared to sort the gold from the dross, then that is on their head, not mine.

That being said, a few guidelines about sharing family research material do make sense to me.

  •  Don’t include material on living people, unless that material is already in the public domain.
  • Check and double check to make sure you have your ducks in row before you post.
  •  Give credit where credit is due.
  • Reply to inquiries as soon as you can.
  • Fix mistakes as soon as you can.
  • Indicate where a fact is only a possible or probable fact when it is in the slippery zone.

For a closing line, I can’t think of anything better than Tom King’s line from The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour: Stay Calm, Be Brave, Wait for the Signs.


  1. Thank you Sharon,you have given me food for thought. I too like to share but I don't like to be taken for granted. Funny enough I have had two people contact me in the last few days that are interested in my files that I have like you being working on for a number of years. Some of it has been hard work as you will well know, getting people to open up and share their family, these ones I have been really happy to help but then these two recent ones are younger and I wonder deep down do they appreciate what has gone on behind the scene. I am trying not to rush in too quickly which is something I don't usually do. Maybe at long last I am becoming wiser! I would like to think so!

    Love all your work.
    Keep it up
    Carole Lindsay
    New Zealand

  2. Interesting take on sharing.
    I don't mind legitimately sharing with someone who is willing to share back. I do become very annoyed when I find someone deliberatley "copying" and not doing any of their own searching. Mind you, they are the losers as they are not enjoying the hunt!!!

  3. Dear Sharon,
    Enjoy reading your work on the Silver Bowl and certainly on the subject of sharing. I have found that by sharing I can quite often get a lot back eg one cousin by marriage (removed) has said he would research a line that is not at this time one of my main interests - great if he comes up with anything I will get it. To the people that say "it's my research" I say "It is all in the public domain", and to those that mix and match well hard luck to them funny trees that have children born before parents etc - someone will pick them up and finally to those who only like to follow direct lines - how do you account for cousins marrying, or confirming a possible ancestor as yours by someone you have never met having the same family story it really sets you going into finding proof. None of this would have happened if I hadn't been willing to share.

    Best wishes
    Robyn Fulton
    Sydney, Aust.

  4. Love your posts. Distant cousins and I have been researching together, in other words sharing totally, since we all met online 4 or 5 years ago.

    How do we get across to a distant cousin that they are not sharing enough? Here is the story:
    We are in a quandary over your very subject of sharing genealogy research and our paternal DNA results with another distant cousin who is 'not' sharing. We have shared much of this family genealogy with others around the world. They have shared in return. A newer distant cousin has shared a couple of old photos plus is very slow to respond to e-mails, in that months go by before communication is returned. In these constantly slow replies there is also no sharing of their genealogy, no fodder but always asking for more, more from us.

    How does everyone think we should proceed with this one cousin?!

  5. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on sharing. I too have been, perhaps, too willing to share and am a little annoyed when credit is not noted. Recently someone "stole" my great grandmother. I had posted her picture and later found the exact picture attached to a lady of the same name who lived in a different country and married someone other than my grandfather. Needless to say, contact was made and a correction requested. Thank you for your willingness to share. I often see your posting on Roots Web Co Antrim site
    Nancy S
    Alberta, Canada

  6. Glad you enjoy the posts. I also got lots of emails on this one. It seems that sharing is a hot topic amongst those who do family research. Hot! Hot!

  7. Hi Sharon,

    Great article Sharon.

    I am relatively new to genealogy but what I have learned is that sharing files and information related to non-living people always has a positive outcome. I am working on a worldwide Clowry family tree and without the ability to share documents worldwide in an instantaneous manner through the internet, the task would be torturous and even more costly than it already is.

    By sharing the files with other Clowrys, I have been able to make a momentous leap in the project and other individuals have also found the information that I shared vital to their studies. I have been able to help people in Canada, US, Australia and the UK with information about Clowrys by sharing content and vice versa. I have gained so much from other people.

    Why spend time doing work that is already done?
    Why make others spend time on tasks that are already done?
    You are just reinventing the already invented wheel!


  8. Consider sharing using a Creative Commons licence and release various rights, e.g., by-nc-sa =all but commercial use.
    For more CC licences, see …/licenses/.