As a part of my work as a public historian, and also from personal interest, I have done a lot of genealogical research. I will admit that even after a number of years doing this work professionally I am still surprised at the reaction of some of my colleagues to genealogical work.  Reactions vary, but at the minimum the research is thought of as being different, or set apart from historical research.  More extreme comments I have heard see genealogy not as being history at all.  You would think that in saying I do genealogy that I have admitted to practicing the black arts, conjuring family trees out of a cauldron filled with eye of newt, while singing incantations, when really all it is, is historical research.

One could say that genealogy suffers from an image problem, and to some extent, that is the case.  Genealogy deals with personal history and is practiced in the main by enthusiastic amateurs, most of whom are women.  For many professional historians it seems easy to dismiss the practice of genealogy and its products.  Some criticism directed at genealogical research points to the relationship of the researcher to the subject, that somehow being related removes judgment and objectivity, that genealogists are somehow unable to maintain the critical distance required to produce quality work.  Most pointed of all is that genealogy serves as a giant ego massage, that there is some form of personal aggrandisement which comes from knowing who your ancestors were.

The vast majority of those who do genealogy are seeking a connection to their family.  They are trying to understand their family’s past, and understand themselves and their lives within that past.  Family is central to personal identity, and the research into it, is a means to create or solidify one’s own identity.

Of course, perceptions of the quality of the research undertaken are not aided by the commercials for companies such as Ancestry, which promise remarkably quick results – finding whole family lines in only a few clicks.  Nor are the television shows such as Who Do You Think You Are?  Guiding celebrities through their families’ stories, which obscure the months of research and encounters with ‘brick walls.’ But those who do undertake this kind of research know that it does not come all that easily.  Nor are many people content to know the names of their ancestors; the handsome family charts produced are not nearly enough to satisfy a person.

There is a distinction made by many people who research their family between “genealogy” and “family history.” Genealogy is considered the straight creation of a family tree or pedigree, research done in order to go back as many generations as possible – a line of names stretching into the far past. Family history is the more complete research of the family including contextual research on occupation, locale, networks and society, which provide more understanding of the family’s life.  [www.fhsnl.ca] The researchers are trying to understand their family in all of its complexity by understanding the individual members and their place within a historical time and place.

Regardless of what the practitioners call it, researching family history has become big business.  The marketplace is full of databases providing access to primary sources, notably Ancestry and FindMyPast; access to software that organises and helps diffuse research; and publications that assist in developing the needed methodology.

For those who interested in uncovering the truth about their family, and not just creating a pretty line of names that lead back to a famous person who may (or may not) be related, there are a number of books, professionals and online resources to guide them through the researching process.  There is a large vibrant community which has developed to support family historians in their research.

I have been a member of a family history society for the last four years and have found its members to be talented researchers.  They have taken the time and effort to understand the sources, and to contextualize their ancestors’ lives in relation to the larger history.  Their work is balanced, well-researched, and realistic.  Through their experience, they have learned to accept the unlikable, unkind and uncomfortable ancestor. They do very good historical work.

In the last several years the genealogical community as a whole has begun to address the criticisms levelled against them regarding the use and citation of sources.  One example is in the development of standards and procedures which assure legitimate results.  The genealogical proof standard was developed in order to standardize how ancestors are identified – essentially a way to confirm that the John Smith in a document is actually your John Smith.   The Board for Certification of Genealogists summarize it in this way:  “In order to merit confidence, each conclusion about an ancestor must have sufficient credibility to be accepted as “proved.” Acceptable conclusions, therefore, meet the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS). The GPS consists of five elements:

  • reasonably exhaustive research;
  • complete, accurate citations to the source or sources of each information item;
  • tests—through processes of analysis and correlation—of all sources, information items, and evidence;
  • resolution of conflicts among evidence items; and
  • a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.” [http://www.bcgcertification.org/resources/standard.html ]

Genealogists and family historians who care about their work, employ historical method, gleaned from academic training, historical books, guides and methodological books, and from genealogical training now available from a wide variety of sources.  Citation is common, and care is taken that the research can pass the scrutiny of other genealogists. All of the popular genealogical software provides ways to incorporate the citation of sources, and the how-to’s emphasize the importance of citing sources. There are even manuals for citation available, some being adaptations of the MLA and Chicago styles. There is a large community out there of family historians and genealogists who take their work seriously, and are dedicated to employing proper “academic” techniques to ensure that their research and its conclusions are historically accurate.

Miriam Webster defines social history in part, as “the environmental history of an individual; specifically: Case History.” [https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/social%20history] Family history is social history – genealogy is history. Family historians are essentially writing social history – case history. The only difference between the work of genealogists and professional or academic historians is the practitioner.

Sure there are still those out there who go for the quick easy genealogy, tracing by a few clicks on web sites and adopting family members who seem to be related without much thought, and then calling it a day.  Their trees fill the commercial websites, and confound people who actually care for accuracy.  I have encountered trees that include children born to a parent in their sixties, people married after their death, and so forth. Their work is easily distinguished from those who have actually undertaken serious research.  But should we judge the all genealogists by the actions of these people?  I think not.  There is some amazing work out there, and it should be read by historians.

In the survey taken for the study Canadians and their Pasts, it was estimated that over five million Canadians had either worked on their family tree or done some genealogical research in the year of the survey. [The Pasts Collective, Canadians and their Pasts, UTP, 2013 p 71].  Historians risk, by ignoring or deriding family historians’ attempts to connect to history, alienating the very people most likely to support their work. Family historians and genealogists support their local archives through financial donations or volunteering, and buy specialist historical books and general histories. They are fundamental to the historical community. Professional historians should be a part of the historic community, not set apart.

Genealogy is history, and perhaps we should try to remember that the support of history, historical work and historians, no matter what the flavour, is integral to the maintenance of an informed and democratic society. “[F]amily history often serves as a foundation for a broader historical consciousness and is a fundamental building block of people’s citizenship in their communities, in their country, and in their world.” [Ibid, 83]

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