When it comes to genealogy and reading other people’s mail, ethics and etiquette are two sides of the same coin.
Is it morally correct (ethical) to read other people’s mail?
Is it socially acceptable (proper etiquette) to do so?
Family historians have been uncovering long-buried family secrets long before genetic testing was available. Historians and biographers devour personal correspondence, diaries, and journals for clues to understanding people and events. No one complains that academics shouldn’t read Anne Frank’s Diary or the love letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.
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.
In the not-too-distant genealogists will also have the option to run DNA tests using viable samples extracted from sealed envelopes, used postage stamps, and other family artifacts. What kinds of ethical considerations will be asking at that time?
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? These questions aren’t new, but but they are good questions for any genealogist confronted with a packet of personal correspondence.
3 Questions to Ask About Reading and Sharing Old Family Letters
Although we may overlook old family letters tucked away in obscure archives or libraries, any genealogist with a personal stash of family correspondence will surely include those papers in their “reasonably exhaustive search” of home sources. To reject reading old letters on the basis of “personal privacy” seems counter-productive. The researcher’s act of reading is one thing. Sharing information you learn is another. If you have qualms about reading other people’s mail, it may be helpful to consider these three questions:
1. Who will benefit by reading old family letters?
Every piece of correspondence, including mundane business letters, holds the potential to extend or disrupt pedigrees, to add biographical information to ancestor sketches, and to expand our understanding of the families we study. The genealogist will gain insight to the family and individuals under study, and if the information is shared, a wider audience may benefit as well.
A hand-copied and much-worn letter from my grandmother’s sister revealed the family’s ordeal during a deadly Galveston hurricane in the early 1900s. This first-person account is a rich source of historical detail that would have been lost if not for the reading and widespread sharing of this letter.
You may be the final home for letters written to your ancestors by friends and other family members. I have dozens of letters written to my mother, aunt, and grandmother by their friends. One day, I hope to connect with the descendants of those long-gone letter writers and return the missives to them. Wouldn’t you love to receive a letter your ancestor once penned?
In the meantime, I’ve carefully storing those letters, opened flat with the envelopes intact. Each letter is placed inside acid-free, archival file folders which are then stored inside an archival box in my family history closet. The box protects the fragile paper from light, dust, and small changes in temperature and humidity. I buy my archival supplies in bulk, but the Archival Family Archives Document Preservation Kit is an economical option for a small collection of letters, papers, or photos.
2. Who might be harmed by reading old family letters?
Reading is one thing. Sharing information you learn is another. You’re the reader, and it’s up to you to decide if and when to share what you learn, and who might benefit from that knowledge. Just because you discover an surprising story doesn’t mean you are obliged to share that information. Family gossip isn’t always family history, no matter how interesting it may be.
Not long ago, telephone calls were expensive and mail was cheap; vicious family arguments often crossed the miles leaving written evidence of strong feelings and hasty words. When recent generations are involved, it’s wise to carefully weigh benefit vs. harm before opening old wounds. We can and should include personality and temperament when crafting an ancestor’s biography, with the understanding that honesty does not require brutality nor that we compromise our integrity as a researcher.
3. Is it a breach of good manners to read old family letters?
When I was growing up, personal mail was sacred. We knew that reading other people’s mail was just plain wrong. The anticipation of the sealed envelope, the delight (or dismay) in the message, and the final disposition of the missive all belonged to the addressee, and woe to she who intervened. But what happens when the letter writer or recipient are deceased? Is it still “bad manners” to read those old letters, savor the words, and hear your loved one’s voice again?
As a child, out of sheer nosiness I once opened a letter meant for my father. The lecture wasn’t worth the guilty pleasure. I would never open my parent’s mail if they could handle their own affairs, but life can and does demand rethinking former standards. I’ve also learned from clearing family estates, that you may as well destroy anything you deem “private,” because you won’t be able to do it after you’re gone.
You Didn’t Think We’d Burn Those Letters, Did You?
Having learned this lesson oh so well, you’d think I would resist reading the boxes of correspondence inherited from my grandmother Arline. Not so at all. My father might have been a stickler for private correspondence, but my mother had no such compunctions. And after Arline’s papers moved into my family archive, Mom loved nothing better than sitting at the dining table reading her mother’s old mail. We covered the table with a sheet, washed our hands, and brought out the archival boxes.
Mom’s sister, my Aunt Frances, didn’t approve. She shook head and refused to listen to us as we read gossipy news aloud or commented on Grandma’s wild antics. She said those letters were “private” and “none of our business.” Mom ignored her older sister and continued reading, much to my delight.
Now that I’ve inherited not only my grandmother Arline’s letters and those Arline saved from her own mother, father, sister, and friends, but also letters saved by Mom and Auntie, I’m revisiting the ethics of reading other people’s mail. I may feel comfortable reading Mom and Arline’s letters, but knowing how Auntie felt about “private” papers, it’s surprising that she seems to have saved every letter and every scrap of paper that ever came her way. I wonder what she thought would happen to all those old “private” letters?
How do you feel about reading other people’s mail?
View my video interview with genealogist Amy Johnson Crow for ideas on How to Preserve Old Letters.
This post was first published 22 March, 2016; revised and expanded 6 April 2018.
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