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Eleventh Hour Ethics

By Daniel Hubbard | October 10, 2010

This week I’m writing about something a little different, a genealogical occurrence but nothing to do with research techniques, wandering cemeteries or interesting records.

I wrote this awhile back as something of an act of catharsis. In the end, I think I did what was right. Yet, it still bothers me the way that any desperate plea that cannot be fully met is bound to gnaw away. I’ve let it sit for quite awhile so that it is well into the past. I didn’t go into details. Actually, I never got the chance to know much in the way of details anyway.

It was not the kind of phone call that I ever expected to get. It seems like an episode from another world. I’d like to think it was overblown but it wasn’t.

A Few Phone Calls

Friday, I got a call on my office phone. I was out and when I returned it could only leave a message of my own. This went on through a good part of the evening until finally we connected. Even so, it wasn’t easy—my caller’s phone disconnected. It was a cheap phone, I remember being told when I called back. Our topic was a research request. I’m actually glad that I don’t know the details of the present in this case, only the fairly distant past. Something truly serious depended on a point of ancestry and a deadline was looming. My caller sounded tired and worried, even a bit distraught. I’m sure that this call was far from the first on this subject. Could I help? It was the kind of request that is hard to turn down, one always wants to help, yet I was not used to the unusual records involved and the hurdles and hoops of a very special and specific kind that needed to be jumped over and through with virtually no time left on the clock. I realized there would be no time for ordering microfilm or trying a second tactic. I took notes and checked them with the caller.

To not help seemed unethical. However, I could not in good conscience say that I could make a serious attempt at the speed necessary. I’m not convinced that anyone could. Some things simply take time and the amount of time is beyond control.  After I got off the phone, the reality of the whole thing began to really sink in. I’m proud of what I can do but pride would be a very bad reason to proceed. I spent the rest of Friday evening checking my notes against every record that I could. I found some serious errors in what I’d been told. I did some research into exactly what would need to be done to accomplish the goal. As I read, I began to feel like a physician who is confronted by a new and very desperate patient who needs to see someone with a very different specialty but who doesn’t have the time left for another appointment. If there was an emergency room for this sort of thing, I would have been tempted to send my caller there but even that wouldn’t have done anything other than maybe ease my conscience.

We had agreed to talk again on Monday but I called already on Saturday instead—waiting would have wasted time. I explained the errors I’d found the night before and I met with many objections based on family stories and subtleties of spelling. I explained that those stories might be indicative of the truth without being strictly true down to the letter. I explained that small spelling differences when all else is the same are just variations until proven otherwise, not reasons to disregard a piece of evidence. I wanted to explain that I didn’t think the required proof would be possible. I didn’t see a way for what was necessary to also be true. Even then, even if there was a chance in principle, there was not nearly enough time. Yet, as realistic as I thought that was, it was only my opinion. I can’t see how reminding my caller of the lack of time would serve any purpose and I’m not the expert in that unusual field who can confidently state that the case was terminal.

With some struggle, I had found a phone number to an expert, probably one of the few. I read the number to my caller twice and made sure I got it repeated back. I explained if that expert was not the right person to help then he ought to know who could. It was the best help I could give my caller. I’m afraid that the expert knows enough to explain that there is no hope—the case is terminal. Maybe though, there is a way. I hope so.

Like everything in life, there are questions of ethics in genealogy. You shouldn’t mislead—who can forget those books of a few decades ago that made claims like “your family history already researched and explained,” which contained little more than some ramblings about a surname and a list of people who bore that name and their phone numbers. You shouldn’t willfully present fiction as fact. You shouldn’t misrepresent yourself. However, this kind of desperate request was one that I hadn’t anticipated.

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