Give me a good historical conundrum, a pile of archival records, and that day is a good one for me. Throw in a smoking gun, and I become an absolute bloodhound. And then–if I should further discover something that overturns all previously accepted historical myths and also involves famous people, why it is a positively spectacular day. In that case, it will be all I can do to restrain myself from clanging symbols on the public square. Probably any researcher worth her salt swells with a feeling of pride at having performed some grand public service sort of like the little Dutch boy who put his finger in the dike to save a town. The only problem is that most of us will be utterly dismissed as scholars if our field of study happens to place us in that amateur rank of micro-historical buffs known as (are you ready?)–genealogists!
Sometime before writing my thesis on library-museums I had developed a bad habit of chasing family records. These were the days before Ancestry had gotten off the ground and people had to drive hundreds of miles to courthouses, churches and other locations for records. For most of my life I’ve been fascinated by the topic of human migration across the globe and trying to figure out what I’m doing here in this strange world.
My mother had interested me in the subject by age ten, though I had largely lost interest for a few years before picking up the thread again. Intellectual boredom with my job and social circle renewed this trajectory. Like most people, my life was: go to work, come home; go to work, come home, etc. This was not the life I signed up for.
Personally, I blame Penny Press Variety Puzzles
I started nurturing my analytical mind one hot Texas summer with those Penny Press variety puzzles they sell in supermarkets. They contain a several-part series of logic puzzles, and those were my forte. You have to solve several puzzles’ worth of clues to figure out the final solution to the last puzzle in the series. It involves a lot of analysis and the process of elimination, a skill coincidentally necessary for historical and forensic research as well as genealogy.
I was working on one particular puzzle series that summer–the hardest one I’d ever wrestled to the ground. I slaved over that thing for three straight days, determined not to cheat, not to look at the answers in the back. “I’m smarter than this!” I kept telling myself. But the clues brought me to a dead standstill. I felt bested. Degraded. I was ashamed in my own eyes. I finally did the dirty deed: I peeked in the back of the book.
That’s where they explain the solution of every clue, blow by blow. I examined every last one of them and made a notable discovery. The puzzle makers had forgotten to include some of the information for the clues in the puzzle itself! I had been on a fool’s errand all along, for it wasn’t even possible to solve the puzzles without the omission. The dignity of my I.Q. had been rescued, but I felt like a fool for wasting three entire days with nothing to show for it. Even had it been possible to derive a correct solution to that puzzle, what did that amount to in the overall scheme of things? At best, I could have achieved self-satisfaction for about five minutes and then been left with nothing.
What could I have done with those three days instead? For starters, I could have done something besides numb my mind and twiddle my thumbs. I might have sewn a dress and worn it for at least a year. I could have learned origami and proudly have paraded the results of my work. Of if I’d stuck with simple information gathering and analysis, I could have produced new knowledge about something. Yes, that was it! I would research my family history–always wanted to know about that anyway. It would provide an unending supply of logic puzzles while I awaited new inspiration for my life’s path. That would give me something tangible while awaiting the next adventure.
The Next Phase
My genealogy research was already well underway before I started my library-museum thesis. I was to discover some interconnections later between what became my thesis topic and genealogical research.
Other family members going back at least 200 years had already researched other branches of the family. In fact, many of the older lines were heavily trekked by many researchers and were hardly worth my re-doing. The records were there, claims were double checked, triple checked, and will probably be scrutinized by someone for centuries to come. I learned enough about the behavior of serious genealogists to know this: they don’t trust other genealogists very far.
The really savvy ones are huge library users, but they also make use of the libraries in museums, and at times even the material objects in them. A lot of them use Ancestry, but I’m sure some of them don’t even trust Ancestry and still make the trip to court houses, churches, cemeteries and what-not. They may trade information with other researchers, but the really persnickety ones question everything–even the stuff that is basically proven.
I’ve had a genealogy site for many years now, and it contains the lines I’ve proven personally (one is even rubber stamped by a corresponding heritage organization that requires a paper trail). I also have random notes and leads on other lines that I haven’t proven, and I make a note of that for all to see in case they want to pursue the leads for themselves (I can’t do them all). Some have taken issue with this–so when I say that some genealogists are “persnickety” and pooh-pooh anything that isn’t proven, I’m not kidding. I’ve caught some small flak over including my leads from the Internet even though I have a disclaimer acknowledging this. I’ve been told that it isn’t professional and serious–to which I say, if you don’t have a lead, proven or unproven, how can you follow up to find out the truth? That’s the method I use when I run out of a paper trail. I start sniffing around. Sometimes you can’t find a solid trail, but you may run across something that seems to relate to nothing and suddenly it leads you by a roundabout way that ties the whole thing together. I like to stay open.
Genealogists: Unsung Heroes of Micro-History
I’ve often noticed some commonalities within the observed bell curve of serious genealogists. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that they are, on average, more genteel relative to the rest of the population. Or perhaps that is more to say that they are often (not always) a bit on the introvert side, as the drive to find things out almost requires that. They are data-oriented and will work hours on end sorting through odd bits of paper and random or exotic clues. Many of the ones I have met seem a little on the conservative side, mildly to greatly patriotic. It stands to reason they would include a higher proportion of those who love tradition and history. I have met very few anarchists among them–none that I can recall, in fact.
Why this group of researchers should be dismissed as “not serious” among history scholars is beyond me. Their work often requires so much brain work that, in my opinion, it often outshines most post-graduate and some doctoral level work I have run across. The really good genealogists I met are super critical thinkers. They are less vested in the broad historical myths that schools teach. Micro-history often requires more intense analysis and synthesis than macro-history because you are dealing with data that often 1) runs contrary to broad “truths” about the times, or 2) requires trickier (more delicate methods) of extraction than that readily available through ordinary means. In the first instance, I have accidentally run across social realities that are denied in official textbook history, and in the second I have seen material data yield information only when historical-archeological methods of back dating were applied.
Genealogy not “serious” scholarship? I have also seen historical and literary accounts that relied heavily on the work of genealogists to better grasp the broad topic being covered. (Notably, I think of The Barretts of Jamaica: The Family of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, by Robert Assheton Barrett. The genealogy was important for understanding the relationship of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s family to the history of Jamaica.) In fact, one of my own family lines owes a great deal to the work of a couple of musicologists-turned-genealogists who happened to be in a better position than the genealogists to study the people we needed to know about. They had access to a mountain of legal papers in other countries, devoted one full chapter in their book to the genealogy of this family, and contributed a great deal of new knowledge about English Renaissance music in the process. Clearly, somebody out there in academia values the genealogical discipline and its ability to shed light on the relationships of individuals to recover history that has been lost to us.
A Double Endeavor and a Web Site
About halfway through my library-museum thesis, I got bored. I always get bored when I have been on a project for some time. Finding stuff out is always more exciting for me than writing about it, so I have to use little tricks to get my enthusiasm back on long projects. It might working on another project at the same time or doing something physical. Whatever–a change helps. I started working on what I thought at one time would be a book on the line I was then researching, which was already well underway at the time. (It never became a book because of my time constraints, but it became a chapter that one library was good enough to bind as a book and list on WorldCat. The “book” ended up at a total of three libraries and one museum, and I did this so that no one researching the line would have to reinvent the wheel at a future date. I have seen too much family information thrown out by the next generation, only to have to be reconstructed by the one following after that.) So–yes–you read right. I was working on two research projects at the same time, one of which was my thesis. I actually feared holding it up because I was so engrossed in the family research project. (But I got the thesis finished in time!)
At some point I was harried for time and space, so I quickly transferred an existing web site–I’ve had so many–to a better platform, where I stored all my family information (both proven and unproven lines with corresponding notes as to their completion and accuracy–or lack thereof). I no longer have time to carry on this research myself, but remain interested and have left the information public in case others want to fill in some gaps or correspond with each other. Occasionally, I contribute a tidbit when something comes up–notably new information that sometimes comes through from the DNA analysis I was having done on two lines back then.
Of small frustration is that most of my listed surname categories have no comments except for the one containing a famous American. So be warned: If you have a famous male relative from the 1700-1800’s, a lot of men were named after him. A lot of people will show up thinking they are relatives when they aren’t. It also attracts people who really are related, but the sad thing is that nobody is interested in proving the unfamous lines you may be more interested in.
There are several things I hope become apparent in my discourse here. I hope in some small measure, at least, that my comments have shown how some of the important work of libraries and museums goes beyond what we think of as traditional scholarship. Further, that we should not discount courthouses, churches, cemeteries and human relics among the resources of cultural memory. The few incidents I have shared here are only a few among many, many reasons we should not tamper with or destroy written and material records of historical significance; nor should factual evidence in legal records be altered upon caprice. These records, once memory fades, are all we have and practically all that may be known of human life on this planet. Without their veracity we have nothing left to build upon but lies and speculation. There are many other things that also preserve our knowledge of the past and what has brought us to the present.
I hope also to have raised respect for those micro-historians, better known as genealogists, who perform the most laborious tasks requiring the highest levels of critical thinking and ingenious pursuit that regular historians often won’t touch. They are rarely paid for their trouble, freely share what they have learned, and often know more about the environment of the individuals who are subjects of academic study than those who write about them.