Ethics In the Association of Professional Genealogists: Image or Reality? (Updated 26 July)
Until I resigned in protest earlier this year, I was a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists, and until last November worked as a professional genealogist. When I first joined the association, I believed the ideals they promoted, and was proud to be a member. In fact I think at that time the organisation made a real effort to live up to those ideals.
Over time, I noticed a shift in attitudes, as members' concerns about earning a good enough living became more prominent, and as some members allowed their ambitions of being accepted by academia to overwhelm other ideas. Several specific incidents have solidified my opinion that the APG's vaunted ethics are nothing but a sham.
The first incident began when a member posted a rambling, apparently drunken message to the APG list. In it, he made a number of ridiculous statements about prominent genealogists. No intelligent person believed these statements then, and I don't believe them today. He claimed someone else sent it in his name, but someone was offended enough to file a formal complaint, and word quietly filtered around that he'd been disciplined.
Given the problems inherent in validating electronic evidence, problems that are also of significance to genealogists, I was troubled by the way this was handled, for reasons I explained in a post to the mailing list archived here . In response, very indirectly, I was given to understand there was other evidence, but refused permission to quote anyone.
Due to the excessive secrecy, I was uncomfortable with the notion of a member being punished for nothing more than insulting a few prominent members of APG. I also felt, for an organisation that claims to encourage learning important skills, to allow a post which raised valid questions in light of the knowledge I had to remain unanswered was bad policy. However, I dismissed these concerns, and tried to remain a loyal member.
Not long after, another post casually mentioned the first issue of the NGSQ had advocated eugenics, the 'science' that claimed those with 'inferior' genes should be 'eliminated' from the gene pool, through forced sterilisation or other means. Since the eugenics movement used and perverted genealogy, often fabricating information to match their theories, and since the Nazis had also used genealogical information to identify "hidden" Jews, this information appalled me.
I quickly posted, expressing my hope that those who espoused such repulsive "ideals" were no longer being honoured by us today. In response, I was attacked, and not a single person supported me. Over time, as I considered the longstanding, although seldom discussed, links between genealogy and eugenics, and the fact that many modern genealogists work with DNA and also do research for medical purposes, this troubled me more and more. Any individual's failure to speak out to support me does not suggest they support eugenics. However, the overall lack of support, on a list that flooded my mailbox the instant the subject of our income and prestige was raised, is troubling.
Although I consider eugenics to be one of the most evil beliefs mankind has ever developed, I limited my concerns to the APG list since I still trusted the overall ethics of the organisation. I did not, at any time, advocate attempting to alter history or destroy records. I did suggest we should no longer honour people who advocated such repulsive and harmful ideas, and that we should add a provision to the Code of Ethics explicitly forbidding ethical genealogists from being involved in or with eugenics in any form.
Since then, as I detail below, my trust in the ethics of the APG as an organisation has been eroded. As my confidence in the organisation waned, my concern over the potential for future abuse in this area grew. And as I attempt to think about this clearheadedly, one question haunts me. Since my opponents claim it is an unimportant issue, and it is an issue which does concern some segment of the public, why not add a provision to the Code of Ethics repudiating eugenics?
The real change came when someone started a thread asking how many of us earned an adequate income. Those who were unhappy with what they were able to charge began seeking ways to increase their rates. Reasonable enough, until a certain posting. Before I mention this posting, I must admit something: I once posted a suggestion that genealogists seek to have access to records limited to identified professionals.
My reasons for this, as stated in my post, were the threats of records closures; I felt this might be the only way to preserve access at all. Since then, I've decided I was wrong, but it would have been reasonable for someone to make a suggestion reluctantly, as the best way of keeping records open on a limited basis. However, if you follow the (long) discussion that began here and quickly degenerated, you will see that some members seem to have been suggesting licensing and limited access to records as a way of increasing their own income and, incidentally, prestige.
That was the moment I was forced to make a choice, and was forced to realise the APG no longer had the best interests of genealogy in mind. They failed to recognise the same economic pressures that forced the consolidation of so many other businesses and industries. They ignored the impact of Ancestry, which, by making so many lookups easy for anyone, reduced income from such minor projects for many researchers, and when many of their members ended up in trouble, all many of them could think of was protecting their own interest, even at the expense of non-"professional" genealogists.
I refrained from speaking out publicly at the time, despite moral qualms that I should do so, since there are still many honest, decent members of the APG. I hoped to resolve the problems from within, somehow. Not long after, there was a slight amount of publicity because of someone who seems to have felt the same arrogance and elitism that I noted.
Writers have a rule of thumb: if you show a work to one person, and they criticise something, you are still free to believe they just don't understand. But, when you show it to a second person, and they make the same point, you just don't understand. Their response? They mocked Lee, saying the fact that she gave up just proved she didn't have what it took. What they really proved is that they refused to understand their own growing arrogance.
I still stayed quiet, however, although I abandoned active research not long after. I could no longer stomach the profession I had once loved. But I had friends on that list, and people I respected. I stopped taking an active part in the list, although I read the messages for any information I might be able to use in my own research. Then something more happened, which forced me to think again.
I will not link to these postings, since doing so would violate the privacy of an innocent individual, but will provide links to any posts that have not been removed to legitimate members of the press who inquire, upon written assurance the links will not be made public, or the details of innocent individuals released.
In one more example of elitism, listers suddenly began pestering anyone who used a pseudonym. In response, one person posted that she wished to remain private, and so was leaving the list, in order to respect their wishes. Instead of honouring that, one member of the APG responded by posting her name and a link to her personal web page with more information about her and her family, noting how "easy" it was to find.
To me, this was cyberbullying. Not only that, it played right into the hands of those who believe genealogists will dig up your personal information even if you want it kept private. Yet, when I posted insisting the APG take action, I was told it was "policy" to only act if an individual filed a formal complaint. Of course, any one of them could have filed such a complaint, but they chose not to, and I refused to do their dirty work for them.
The only reason I can see for the reluctance to punish this member, as the drunken member was punished, even though his offence only harmed his own reputation and hers reflected on everyone, is the simple fact she is a longtime member of the APG with powerful and influential friends. At this time, when I was exposing the rotten underbelly of their policies, the APG suddenly implemented a new feature of their web site - private forums.
Secrecy, of course, is a great way to hide what you're doing. No matter how many good reasons they may come up with for having such forums, the timing suggests hiding was at least part of the reason for having them. I remained a member of the APG, so I e-mailed my intention to resign and instructed them to take my name off the membership list, rather than be associated with this.
Unable to resolve these concerns, I "threatened" to go public with them. In reality, I made it plain I was hugely reluctant to do so, and would prefer a meaningful dialogue that might resolve the problems without harm to anyone's reputation. Some members answered; I replied to them, but only two even acknowledged my answers. In fairness, I have noticed a number of e-mails to and from my accounts have not been delivered, and have heard similar stories from others, so I can't say who received them.
I can say that few of the people who answered were those who might be able to do anything, and no one in a position to act entered into anything like a real discussion of these concerns. I tried to salve my conscience that I had done what I could. I realised that the last incident was, in a way, a 'litmus test' for me, which is why I reacted so strongly. If the APG had acted honestly against this member, I might have gone on believing the organisation was, on the whole, ethical.
Yet they didn't act. There are still decent people, people I respect very much, who are members, so I didn't act either. One other reaction increased my concern, though. Most people assumed I had some personal issue to complain about. I was insulted a few times by members, one member who did some research on my family in another area made a mistake, and I never said a word about those things.
Why didn't I pursue my personal "issues"? Simply because they were personal, too petty to make a fuss about. People make mistakes, say something thoughtless, and none of that is worth a lot of time and trouble. Yet, when they learned my concerns were larger, and not personal, most people couldn't understand why I made a fuss. The fact they felt a little lost money or an insult were more important than issues that should concern everyone only deepened my concerns about the culture of the APG, and the moral compass its leaders were providing.
Today, something happened that forced me to revisit all this, and I am finally speaking out. Today, an APG member posted the full text of an article in the Providence Journal (I am not linking to the post, out of respect for the Journal's rights) and specifically noted they were doing so to circumvent the Journal's requirement that every reader register (at no charge).
In other words, this was a deliberate act! They posted a copyrighted article deliberately, and deprived the newspaper of readership information which would be of commercial value to them. Now, I don't like registering either; I always wonder how much more spam I'll get. But this is a member of an organisation that makes a big issue of copyright, and members are quick enough to complain if their Copyrights are infringed. I am not a copyright attorney, but it seems plain to me this member violated Federal law, despite an ethical pledge that requires members to obey the law, and specifically Copyright law.
So I e-mailed the administration, including the offending message with full headers, the only evidence I had, or would be likely to have. Despite that, they e-mailed me in return to say they would only act if I filed an official complaint. I did so, but this forced me to consider: why have such a policy, and why wouldn't one of the officers file a complaint themselves?
Well, such a process is inconvenient, it takes time many people don't have, and it can be intimidating to some people. In other words, their ethics policies have been set up to insulate their members from as many criticisms as possible. Which finally convinced me, when members are working in areas 'sensitive' to the issue and the organisation is reluctant to publicly disavow eugenics, when members may still be working in secret on their private forum to plan ways to limit records access to "licensed" genealogists, meaning you won't be able to learn about your own family without paying through the nose for it, and when members openly violate the Copyright laws - I had no choice but to expose the APG for what it is.
I now understand how whistleblowers feel, and how difficult it is. Should I have spoken out sooner? Probably. I will never know how much harm has been done by my silence, while my speaking out now has ensured it is unlikely anyone who is a member of the APG will ever speak to me again. In fairness, while many who have contacted me have not agreed with me on every point, and some have disagreed with me on most or all of the points I made, the responses I have received have been far less negative than I feared they would be. But I sincerely believe that the APG has become corrupted, that its leadership, in the absence of real ways to advance the field of genealogy, has resorted to secrecy lest their image be tarnished, and that the only way to clean up the mess is to dissolve the APG completely, lest consumers believe their prattle about "high ethical standards".
Since I have no connection with the Providence Journal and didn't write the article in question, why do I care so much? Again, it isn't really personal, although I do have a slight personal interest in this one. But I also care about all my fellow writers - when a member of an organisation that makes so much noise about their "ethics" publicly ignores copyright laws, that can only encourage those who don't even understand the law to think it is okay. In other words, every writer has suffered an increased chance their work will be stolen because of that message. And since the APG administration didn't think that was serious enough to act against on their own, forcing me to file a formal complaint before they would even consider doing anything, it is past time I spoke up!
Today, the member in question made another posting to the list, reposting the article with permission from the Providence Journal. They included a message stating their omission of Copyright permission yesterday had been "inadvertent". While it does not technically say this in so many words, the message is carefully crafted to avoid accepting any real blame, by implying they had sought permission and just somehow forgot to mention it.
Aside from the fact I have trouble believing anyone would go to the trouble of obtaining permission to republish an article, and then forget to mention it (which the new post doesn't quite say, anyway), the original post gave as a reason for the full posting the fact that "viewing the Providence Journal requires readers to login". Again, this was deliberate! After the fact, when I complained, the person in question presumably contacted the Providence Journal, worked something out with them, and obtained permission to cover themselves legally.
Now, if the member had posted something like "I did wrong. I tried to steal Copyrighted work, even though copyright law is specifically mentioned in our Code of Ethics, and has been discussed on this list many times. I'm sorry, it was a crime, and I've already contacted the copyright owner and settled the matter with them" I would stick to the APG's response to this. In any case, they should have reacted faster and more forcefully.
But, what the member did instead was craft a post that left the real facts clouded, that could easily create the impression they had permission all along. Since that is only my judgment, judge for yourself. That message, to me, is the perfect triumph of image over truth. Which is exactly what I've said here: the APG has changed, and their ethics are image, not truth. It reads, to me, like something written by the kind of lawyer who originally studied the law in order to find out how to bend it to their will. No statement is technically false, but the overall impression is far from the truth as I see it.
And, if this little attempt to preserve one member's image succeeds, it will have exactly the effect I feared in the first place: those inclined to violate copyrights will think it's easy enough to wiggle off the hook. Writers everywhere should be outraged, and truly ethical genealogists should be outraged as well.