31 August 2016

The Right to Privacy – Personal Correspondence

Letter from John Richard Fountain to Margaret (Fountain) Acey, his daughter, 27 January 1967.
This letter was written shortly before he died on 27 February 1967.
You can learn more about John Richard, his sister Rachel
and the Fountain family through this link and this link.

The Right to Privacy – Personal Correspondence

Following up on the post The Right To Privacy – Care & Selectivity in What You Publish About Others, I wanted to share a blog post written by The Family Curator, Ethics, Etiquette and Old Family Letters where she talks about …

Some argue that famous people give up a right to privacy, and their papers are fair game. But, many people don’t become famous until years after their death, and it’s the writing they leave behind that makes them famous.

What about the not-so-famous everyday folk like our ancestors? Do they have more rights to privacy than public figures? And what about the deceased: Do dead people a right to privacy?

I know that I delighted when my “Auntie Edith” shared her stories of my mum, grandparents, great grandparents and other extended family.  After all, I only knew most of them through the dry statistics of vital records, census records and related.  You can share in her stories in “A Window of Memories” which is a compilation of stories which she shared with me and gave me permission to reproduce.  I added some family photos from my collection to supplement what she provided.  As the commercial often says … these stores are “priceless” to me.  They give me such a sense of the “people” behind the statistics.  They are my heritage!

I literally own only three pieces of family correspondence that I inherited.  A letter from my grandad to my mom soon after she moved from the UK to the US, a letter from my grandmother letting my mom know of her grandmother’s death, and the letter pictured from my grandfather to his daughter just a month before he died.  Just sitting here typing, tears come to my eyes over the power of those letters, almost 50 years after they were written. 

I do a lot of research at Wilson Library (UNC, Chapel Hill) and I have spent hours pouring over personal correspondence and diaries of just “every day” people.  These are not famous people, in the sense that we usually define such, and yet their incredibly personal papers give me such insight into their lives and the time periods in which they live.

I am glad that such papers were not destroyed nor lost through time. That said, I am very cautious with what I share from such correspondence, diaries or related. We do have a responsibility to the deceased authors.

That said, just as we need to be respectful of family correspondence that we have inherited, we also need to be mindful of what we leave behind for others to read.  If there are letters you’ve written or received that you do not want others to access or you have concerns that the content will not be dealt with sensitively by your descendants, they are something you need to deal with NOW!   I kind of view it like Facebook – only post what you are willing to share with the world.  The same kind of thinking applies to what you place in a “memory box” – only keep what you are willing to have your descendants share with the world.

What personal family correspondence has either provided you with invaluable genealogical clues or made you feel personally connected to an ancestor?

Have you had to deal with an ancestor’s correspondence that was of a sensitive nature?  How did you do so?

What are your rules in terms of sharing family correspondence?

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