Ethical Dilemmas in Genealogy: Book Review

I first heard about Ethical Dilemmas in Genealogy by Penny Walters on one of the many webinars, talks and meetings I follow online. I think it was during a Mondays with Myrt session where this book was discussed.

Ethics is a relatively new topic connected to genealogy. Back in the “olden days”, not only pre-internet but decades before, there wasn’t much attention paid to the ethical side of sharing family information in publications, whether it be in books, magazines or the local newspaper. Even the advent of the internet didn’t give most people pause to think about what information they were sharing online.

DNA testing cracked the door open a bit wider, but as individual testing gained in popularity, protecting one’s privacy was lost and not noticed until too late – like the proverbial horse that got out of the barn.

Ethics really moved to the forefront of the news when it was revealed that police agencies were using what had been seen as genealogical databases for a very different purpose –  to identify and arrest criminals in cold cases.

With this background setting, a book on genealogical ethics was timely and a topic that greatly interested me; I purchased a copy from everyone’s favorite online resource.

Ethical Dilemmas in Genealogy was published (in the USA) on 9 May 2020 in San Bernardino, California. No publisher is cited in the book.  Penny Walters, PhD, is a college lecturer in Psychology and Business Studies in the U.K. and it seems the book was first published there in May 2019.

Due to the pandemic, I had to wait several weeks for the book to arrive and, when it did, I excitedly delved into the reading.

Before getting into the review, two thoughts need to be shared:

1. While I am certainly not a trained expert in genealogical ethics, I make it a point to take advantage of learning opportunities that appear so I think I have a fair amount of foundational knowledge.

2. Likewise, I have no formal training as an editor, but taught English/Language Arts for most of my career.

I am mentioning these points because this book review is quite different than most reviews I write.

The book contains six chapters in 140 pages:

1. What are ethical dilemmas?
2. Ethical dilemmas in genealogy
3. DNA testing
4. Adoption
5. Ethnicity and identity
6. Potted history and potential future of genealogy

On the positive side – The author covers just about every ethical scenario that could occur during genealogical research. There are many many examples (perhaps too many) of dilemmas that may appear when researching, paired with a variety of responses that may be made to each situation.

Another positive point is that there are 771 footnotes cited to support information presented in the book.

Unfortunately, there end the positive notes.

I have to admit that I was quite elated to discover that page 140 was the end of the book; all the remaining pages were dedicated to reviews and footnotes. 140 pages is more the size of a handbook, but I felt like I had read all 1, 225 pages of War and Peace.

Why did I feel that way with so much good information in the book?

I mentioned that no publisher was cited in this book and that is a shame because it would be much more readable with considerable editing and revision. What this book is lacking is a good editor.

Chapter 1 has so much extraneous detail in it that takes away from the rest of the book. A definition of an ethical dilemma could be covered in one paragraph in an Introduction.

Next, each chapter has way too many sub-topics in it; some are off topic (see page 79 – Interesting Books with short synopses of subject matter) and should be in a separate appendix in the back of the book.

Third, I would actually advocate for more than six chapters, although they would be shorter, to give the reader a mental break before moving on to a different subject. For example, there were 20 sub-topics in Chapter 4 – Adoption, which was just 18 pages long. The chapters are too chopped up with too much going on.

There was one detail that, for whatever reason, was really annoying to me – Each chapter ends with a totally unnecessary separate sentence detailing what the next chapter covers. Given that each chapter has a title, those sentences are redundant and all to be struck from the text.

I have to admit I’ve never written a book review that had its main focus on the structure and format of its information. Because of the choppiness of the presentation, I didn’t enjoy reading this book, which is a shame because Ethical Dilemmas in Genealogy covers pertinent topics on a very timely issue in the genealogy world. I was definitely looking forward to the book’s arrival in the mail.

I’ve looked at other online reviews of this book and most readers, like me, agree that there is good information in the book. Only one other person commented on the format of the book, alluding to the opening being more like a dissertation.

I noted in the beginning of this review that no publisher was cited. A publisher would have sent the draft to an editor, which, in my opinion,  is what is needed.

If I wrote just a single sentence summary of this book, it would be that I felt like the book rambled on. . . and on. . .  and on. . . . .

If I had had the chance to peruse this book in person before purchasing, the format would have been a turnoff for me and it’s not likely I would have bought it. I have to repeat that that’s a shame because the author has covered her topic well.










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