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A Few Words of Warning and Advice

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 02.03.2006:

By Leyla Zuaiter

Now that you are inspired to learn more about your family’s history, here are a few words of warning and advice:

There is More than One Kind of Identity Theft

Not all “Identity Theft” has to do with appropriating elements of another people’s heritage as one’s own, as I was reminded when hearing those words on TV used in relation to Hurricane Katrina. Already wondering if this experience would allow people to identify with Palestinians, I rushed to see just how the identity of the people was being stolen. I was disappointed to discover that the identity theft in question referred merely to the paper trail which could allow others to access to one’s bank account, credit account and such. That said, one should be very careful in what kinds of information one passes on to others, or posts on the Internet particularly when it comes to living individuals.

· Do NOT mention living individuals on family trees you submit to the internet, and be very careful with which correspondents you share this information.

o It is an invasion of privacy to list a living individual without his consent.

o Armed with the information you have provided, dozens of imposters could show up to claim a piece of your inheritance—and they would have all the right answers when you tried to test them.

o Bank accounts in the West typically use “mother’s maiden name” as a test of identity, since before the genealogy boom, few people were likely to have this information other than family members. By posting living individuals, you make it easy for others to assume your identity for criminal purposes particularly in the Diaspora. The person whose personal details you have revealed may have his credit rating ruined for life.

o Even if you share your information with bona fide newly found cousins, and caution them that it is for their own use and not to go further, these things have a way of getting around. It’s a bit like gossip. That person may then give it to one more person with similar cautions, who will pass it on to another, with whom you have had no contact, and thus feels no pangs when sharing your information. One day you will be surprised to find your name and perhaps date of birth or other information about you and your family on-line. The information may be incorrect, or you may not even know what the information is unless you pay for the privilege of using for the data base in which it is found. It is very difficult to track down the submitter and demand that such information be removed.

o Genealogy is not exempt from the nefarious uses made of technology. Family Tree Software is reportedly being used by the American Government to track family relationships of insurgents in Iraq. Need I say more?

Your Family History Research Will Probably Wax and Wane

No matter how interested you may be in your family history, your efforts are likely to wax and wane depending on what else is going on in your life. But don’t worry. If you are truly interested you will get back to it one way or another. There have been long periods in the last eight years when I did not actively work on my family history in the sense of checking new records, or organizing my data. Yet my research advanced all the same through correspondence or reading novels and memoirs, for example, which often provided new insights. My mind was at work reflecting, processing, synthesizing, connecting the dots of my research to date and integrating it into my identity. Best of all, the results of earlier work often paid off in these latent periods. Out of the blue, I might receive a long-awaited package of family information or documents—just the thing to get the juices flowing again.

Not Everyone will Share Your Passion—or Information with You

For a Genealogist, there are only two kinds of people, those who care about their family history and heritage and those who don’t. Once you have been bitten by what in genealogy circles is referred to as the “Genealogy Bug,” you may be disappointed to discover that not everyone in your family or entourage shares your passion. At mention of your latest findings, spouses might sometimes regard your research with a jaundiced eye, children might roll their eyes or people at social gatherings might look over your shoulder. Some may simply belong to that class of people who are indifferent to the subject. Others may not like to recall painful periods in their lives.

It can be frustrating sometimes. On the other hand, when you really think about it, would you want everybody to be as interested as you are? That’s part of what makes you special isn’t it? You get to be the family ambassador, the one to write the story.

Patience Pays Off

Once you’ve located family members and sent off requests for information and documents, you want it yesterday. But the fact is that even when others share your interest, they are likely busy juggling work, family and other activities, and it may be a while before they get around to responding or fulfilling your request. Work on some other aspect of your family history in the meantime. While some people may never get back to you, I have been surprised more than once to find thick packages from people I had given up on up to a year after my initial request! The best thing is that they usually arrived in a period when I was not actively working on my family history—and got me going again.

Organization Helps

I have to admit that this is one area where I wish I could better follow my own advice—advice I also received when starting out. Family history generates large numbers of physical and computer files. Without careful organization, you will soon forget what you have and who you got it from, and even waste time searching for information you already have. You might know you have it but just not know where you filed it, or you may have forgotten that you have it. Either way, you will waste much time and effort you could put to better use elsewhere.

Back Up Your Data

Everyone thinks it won’t happen to them, but often, without warning, people’s computers go on the blink, and years of work could disappear in an instant, if you haven’t taken the precaution of backing up your data on a CD. You should make hard copies as well. But that in itself is not enough to protect you. It is a good idea to periodically send copies to people in a different geographical location. Writer Maxine Hong Kingston came home one day to find that her just-completed manuscript she left on her desk had burned to ashes in a fire that engulfed her whole house—which understandably gave her writer’s block for several years. And think about it: what good is a CD of family history to Hurricane Katrina victims? Another way to preserve your data is by putting it online. If you are not ready to share it with the world you can get a site which requires password access and share it with one or two trusted people. Check out the personal genealogy web-pages you can create on

Be a Thoughtful Ancestor

While part of the fun of family history research is the thrill of the chase, why not let your descendents start off with a treasure box full of clues: keep those letters, wedding invitations, newspaper clippings, and school records, label those photos and write a few words about the occasion next to them, and keep a diary.

This article first appeared on AEI’s Genealogy and Family History Website

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