Ethical Accountability and Planning (National Institute)

From FamilySearch Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search
National Institute for Genealogical StudiesNational Institute for Genealogical Studies.gif

The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Ethical Accountability

Some dictionary definitions of accountability:

  • Required or expected to justify actions or decisions.
  • Subject to having to report, explain, or justify; responsible.

Our sample Codes of Ethics and some of the NGS Standards address nearly all the areas of professional responsibility in our field. The words honesty, truthful, trust, respect and credit are sprinkled throughout. They apply to the attitude, discipline and behaviour we all strive to maintain in our professional lives. However, there is one issue we want to expand on a bit, and another that needs to be explored here. Accountability can be considered with perspective to your clients, your family, yourself, and perhaps ultimately your Maker!

Unavoidable Errors

Occasional errors do crop up in our work as well as the work we might have sub-contracted with distant researchers. When errors are discovered—hopefully sooner rather than later—they must be reported to the client or recipient as soon as possible. They must be acknowledged and rectified! A mistake in record-searching, interpretation or analysis can have misleading results (as per a report) and take a next stage of research in an unreasonable direction, wasting time and energy on a false path. We need hardly say that your reputation will suffer if someone else uncovers the error. It is much more to your credit that you admit to a mistake than to hope it will go unnoticed.

If the error appeared in the work of a sub-contractor or record agent you hired, which was included in a report you sent out, then the same responsibility applies. It may be more difficult to spot an error in work that was done in records not as familiar to you as your own. This situation must be reported to the recipient as soon as possible, acknowledging your responsibility in the matter. Clearly, it must also be resolved with the record agent. Depending on the circumstances and his/her past performance, you will have to use your judgment whether you will hire that person again. There is a rising recognition that (earned) credentials are a way to choose qualified colleagues. True ... but no one is immune from human error. Ethical individuals, whether holding credentials or not, will accept responsibility for their own mistakes.

In client situations, rectifying a mistake—whatever the cost in time and effort—must be made at no charge.


Calamity Planning

Distasteful as the thought may be, we are all mortal. On top of that, living with recent weather patterns and other natural disasters, we see the destructive effects repeatedly on the news. It seems that few of us can avoid potential damage and loss—flood, fire, earthquake, mud slides, hurricane, burglary—but however remote the possibility, foresight is in order. What are your plans for the safeguarding and the eventual disposal of your years of work?

Safety for your entire collection, while you continue to carry on your work, can be practised by having homeowner’s and/or business insurance. Monetary compensation does not replace years of research, but it can provide for replacement of most books and other office equipment. Since most professionals work with computers, making backup CDs or tapes should be a very regular part of your routine. In fact, we recommend that you store backup copies away from your own home or office. At the very least, you can have a fireproof box for onsite storage. Computer disasters are another fact of modern life. You must expend the effort to keep your technology up to date and virus-free.

Retirement and Estate Planning

It may take years for a family historian to produce the finished product of her labours. Please, do not wait until you are finished to disseminate your work. Are we ever finished?! You can keep your family members up to date incrementally, just as you donate your writing to the appropriate libraries or societies one segment or chapter or family at a time. That’s where archival quality, acid-free paper is so important. Family photographs in your possession should be labelled.

Disposal of your personal and business-related genealogy for the time when you retire or die can definitely be planned in advance. Take charge yourself. Don’t put off making arrangements until your health fails or disaster strikes. We’ve all heard stories of disinterested next of kin throwing a genealogist’s lifetime work into the dumpster. The most happy circumstance would be a younger-generation family member who is willing to carry on the family research. During your lifetime you can be encouraging children, grandchildren or nieces and nephews to develop an interest in this absorbing activity. Hopefully you will find the right candidate to take over the paper and electronic material.

If you wish to donate books or files to a society, library, archives or friends, be sure to contact them first to ascertain their acceptance, and precisely where their interests lie. A library may not want duplicates of books already in their holdings. A society may not have the staff or volunteers to process boxes of material from you or your estate that is not clearly prearranged and labelled. Yes, donating family history research and genealogy files requires forethought and time.

What to do with inactive client files? Members of APG have discussed this disposal issue numerous times in articles and on their Members-Only Mailing List. Several suggestions have been made. One is to contact those clients about forwarding their own files to them. If the client cannot be reached, or does not want them, you could shred these old files after a length of time has passed, say after five or ten years. How much paperwork you can store in your office is one of the deciding factors.

Many of those files will have research of value to present and future genealogists. A professional herself, or an heir, may want to donate client files to an appropriate society or repository. Having client authorization for such an event is an obvious step. Such instances have occurred, leaving the recipient organization to process the collection coming from an heir or as a bequest. The material might go into limbo if not carefully organized ahead of time. Therefore, it is very important that you routinely cull sensitive information from them once they are deemed inactive. You need to make decisions on removing personal correspondence and financial transactions with the client, and perhaps re-naming the files to indicate the family being studied, rather than reference to a client’s name. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City is one that accepts private research papers, but again, contacting them in advance makes you aware of any preparatory requirements.

Estate planning is the ultimate method for disposal of all assets after death. In fact, we recommend that you make a codicil or memo attachment to your basic will, with the details of your wishes in regard to your family history and/or business items (this is equally valid for personal articles and family heirlooms). However, the same suggestions as above apply, when giving instructions in your will—about obtaining advance assent from potential donees, and the sorting/culling of your files. Your executor(s) and your family should be aware of your wishes. You could even appoint a specific person, separately, to handle the genealogy material, with their permission of course. They should know where to find the items you mention and how to identify them.

In a comparatively simplified vein, genealogists wishing to remember genealogy societies, archives, libraries and museums in their estate planning, may choose to direct cash in a straight donation, scholarship, or contribution to an endowment fund. Quite a few genealogy societies now have sample formats for this kind of giving in their journals and offices.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.