The avocational genealogist’s code of ethics

The Ethics of Genealogy_Summary ImageI’ve heard it again and again from my fellow GEGs. “I’m not a professional genealogist, but I want to be as good as one.” Perhaps we should begin by adopting their moral compass. The Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) requires its members to agree to a Code of Ethics. If avocational genealogists adapted the code to their own work, how might it look?


Update as of March 28, 2017: This morning, the APG announced its first revision of its Code of Ethics since 1991. The post below used the old code -- still a useful discussion. But if you want to review the new code, see

In fact the Association of Professional Genealogists Code of Ethics –with the exception of several business- or association-related items — could stand as the code for us all. Here is the code (in bold) with my commentary beneath each item:

Promote a coherent, truthful approach to genealogy, family history and local history.

We’ve all seen the viral nature of any type of history we produce. It gets picked up by others as true, whether or not it is. If our conclusions are a mess, they are reproduced as a mess. Whatever we plant, the world will reap.

Present research results and opinions in a clear, well-organized manner; fully and accurately cite references; and refrain from withholding, suppressing, or knowingly misquoting or misinterpreting sources or data.

Perhaps this, more than any other item in the code, demonstrates that we have embraced professional ethics, even as non-professionals. Inexperienced genealogists are prone to skip over that tedious business of citing sources thoroughly. They are doing the genealogy for themselves, without consciousness of larger repercussions. But the non-professionals who want to be as good as the professionals (let’s call them GEGs) are ever conscious that their work will be consulted and copied by others. It will be a legacy, for better or worse, that we leave our families. And it will be challenged. Will it stand up to that scrutiny?

Promote the trust and security of genealogical consumers.

While this code belongs to those selling services, rather than us non-professionals, it reminds us that genealogy is the livelihood of a growing number. When we whine about having to pay for the services others are providing, we need a wake-up call. The people on the other end of these services have a mortgage to pay, just like we do. We have the right to expect professional genealogists to be skilled, honorable, and trustworthy. They have the right to a living.

Advertise services and credentials honestly, avoiding the use of misleading or exaggerated representations; explain without concealment or misrepresentation all fees, charges, and payment structures; abide by agreements regarding project scope, number of hours, and deadlines and reporting schedules; keep adequate, accessible records of financial and project-specific contacts with the consumer; and refrain from knowingly violating or encouraging others to violate laws and regulations concerning copyright, right to privacy, business finances, or other pertinent subjects.

This item also falls to professionals exclusively, except for the last clause. Certainly GEGs must “refrain from knowingly violating or encouraging others to violate laws and regulations concerning copyright, right to privacy, . . . or other pertinent subjects.” The absence of this ethic has created much angst for those who find their own work and property picked up from public sites and reused without credit. Further, we are historians, but we also have to honor privacy. There are things we have the legal right to share but are honor-bound to keep secret. Be honorable.

Support initiatives that preserve public records and access to them.

Every one of us using the records and indexes created by individuals, organizations and public entities owes a debt forward. Let all GEGs join with the professional genealogists in putting our time, money, and moral support behind any who are bringing these treasures to us.

Be courteous to research facility personnel and treat records with care and respect; support efforts to locate, collect, and preserve the records by compiling, cataloging, reproducing, and indexing documents; refrain from mutilating, rearranging, or removing from their proper custodians printed, original, microfilmed, or electronic records.

How well I recall when the Alabama Department of Archives and History created an awe-inspiringly beautiful and ultra-secure research room with personnel occupying a central view of every research table. Why? Because so-called “patrons” were stealing documents — sometimes priceless documents. Why do we have to restrict ourselves to pencils in archives? Because “patrons” deface documents with pen markings. Not GEGs, though. We join our professional colleagues in the commitment to respect the facilities, personnel, and artifacts of our archives. We leave things better than we found them.


Promote the welfare of the genealogical community.

Our work is bolstered by the genealogical community, and we have a responsibility to see to the health of that community. For GEGs, we especially need to look to the welfare of the new members among us — those who have not yet made the mistakes we made as neophytes. Let us lead them to better practices earlier. We will all benefit.

Give proper credit to those who supply information and provide assistance; refrain from (or avoid) knowingly soliciting established clients of another researcher; encourage applicable education, accreditation, and certification; and refrain from public behavior, oral remarks or written communications that defame the profession, individual genealogists, or the Association of Professional Genealogists.

While this is worded for those engaged in the profession and a part of the APG, we non-professionals can benefit from the spirit of the code. Give credit where it is due. Respect boundaries. Encourage education and adherence to standards. And doesn’t this last one apply to all of life? Build up, rather than tearing down. Refrain from hurting each other.

Be a GEG with a code.

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2 thoughts on “The avocational genealogist’s code of ethics”

    1. Thanks so much, Lisa-Dawn. I’m not familiar with the badge concept, but it sounds great, but I’ll figure out how. And you’ll be the first to know! I appreciate your support.

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