Before you decide what you think about sharing scanned family documents and photos online, take a few minutes to consider the pros and cons.
Note: This article focuses on uploading digital files to genealogy-related websites as opposed to social media.
Pros of Sharing Genealogical Information with Family History Websites
Should you start scanning that stack of old documents and photos and upload them to one or more of the family history research websites?
When it comes to uploading ancestor photos and documents, often, the pros do outweigh the cons. Keep in mind, however, that uploading unformation pertaining to living people is a whole different ball of wax. See “When You Shouldn’t Share” below.)
You can help and find distant cousins.
In fact, that’s a key reason many bloggers give as a motivator for their sites. Placing family documents and photos online for other researchers to find does the same thing. Believe me, it’s pretty cool when it happens.
Crowd-sourcing information can break down brick walls.
Even if your document doesn’t shatter a heretofore-never-breeched wall, participating in initiatives like Wiki Tree’s Scan-a-Thon can help the community at large.
Crowd-sourcing documents that the big vendors won’t get around to scanning, indexing, and digitizing for a while makes them immediately available to all researchers.
What’s more, you may be the only one who still possesses family photos.
Preserving the past honors your ancestors.
Genealogical records traditionally favor the male and the privileged. Leaving information about your poor, enslaved, and/or female ancestors online levels the playing field a little. You’ll be hoeing the path for future genealogists.
Scanning and uploading documents can help you organize your records.
This is particularly true if you’re where family members park their records when they decide to downsize. The digitizing process can help you sort separate the genealogical treasures from overwhelming stacks of memorabilia. Jodi Bash’s article Sort, Scan, Share: How to NOT Drown in Family Memorabilia helps you make some of those critical determinations.
Cons of Sharing Scanned Family Documents and Photos Online
There are, of course, some downsides.
People may use or report your documents and photos without your permission or attribution.
Yes, it’s annoying. It’s unethical and often even illegal. But it happens.
Somehow that memo that anything on the Internet isn’t free for the taking has reached many of the 4.2 billion users of the world wide web. Many family historians chafe when they find their precious family memories posted hither and yonder.
But is that enough to stop you from helping distant cousins from getting their first glimpse of his or her great-great-grandfather?
Europeans are challenging us (especially us U.S. Americans’) privacy conventions, particularly with the ruling that people have a right to be forgotten.
Whether you agree or not, it’s good food for consideration.
My grandmother made it clear that she didn’t want her “Treasure Chest of Memories” published. However, I can’t help but wonder if she would have had a different answer if we’d had the forethought to ask her about individual entries.
Though I get that she wouldn’t want her naked grief exposed, I suspect she would have been happy to have her grandfather’s war stories shared more widely. But, the answers are not always easy or straight-forward. (See also Family Love Letters: Yours to Keep?)
In my opinion, the trick is to think carefully before you upload documents.
Your hard-wrought research becomes freely available.
You worked hard on your research; should you just give it away?
It’s difficult for us who began researching our roots in the age of digital records to grasp how much harder it was for those genealogists who researched before the Internet was universally accessible. They drove from cemetery to courthouse to archive, taking meticulous notes.
Some of those researchers, though happy to share with family members, even far-flung ones, hesitate about posting decades of hard work online.
If you fall in that category, perhaps you’re more comfortable sharing to the genealogist-run WikiTree rather than a commercial data bank. Or perhaps, a few key documents to help newbie researchers break brick walls (as well as to find you and confer with you) might be the answer.
When you Shouldn’t Share Documents Online
Wearing your genealogist’s hat requires proceeding ethically. (You can read the Association of Professional Genealogist’s Code of Ethics here.)
You definitely shouldn’t
- Share photos or documents still under copyright protection unless you’ve obtained the owner’s permission to use.
- Reveal information about or that is hurtful to living people.
- Upload information without proper citation. (See Credit and Copyright by Judy Russel. The footnotes are helpful too!
Have you thought about digitizing and sharing your scanned family documents and photos online? What did you decide? What swayed you one way or the other. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
 “Internet Users in the World by Region – June 30, 2018,” Internetworldstats.com, Accessed January 7, 2019, https://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm.