24 July 2007

Cheers and Boos

In early 2007, Library and Archives Canada (LAC)—the national repository for Canadian historical documents and heritage in Ottawa—made a public declaration of its commitment to genealogy and family historians:
“At the individual, family and community level, genealogy is an essential and primary learning tool for creating an understanding of who we are. It celebrates the social contract between the individual and society through one’s family structure, history and heritage.... Creating a focus around genealogy gives LAC a unique opportunity to reach many new audiences who are interested in genealogy and, at the same time, encourage them to go beyond a name on a family tree.”

The announcement of the LAC Strategy for its Genealogy Program was, in itself, a historic moment. It represents another success in a long struggle for recognition of family history as a valid study and genealogy as a legitimate discipline. Way to go, National Archivist Ian Wilson and your team!

Academia is a much harder road to hoe in terms of mutual respect. Genealogy has been considered as almost irrelevant in the halls of history. And yet our standards of proof are now higher than those employed by historians and related disciplines that rely on “secondary sources” and/or preponderance of evidence for presenting their conclusions. In the last fifty years, genealogical standards of research and evidence have reached a high level of refinement, thanks to the Board for Certification of Genealogists: Ivory towers take note: university degrees in family history will win out!

That is why it’s still discouraging to counteract ignorant or negative impressions, especially when those impressions are published in a high profile, prestigious magazine. An article in the July 2007 Smithsonian Magazine by Richard Conniff called “The Family Tree, Pruned: Its Lure is Powerful—but Genealogy is Meaningless, Relatively” raised a powerful reaction on my professional listserve. The article paints genealogists and family historians with the pathetic old brush of seeking noble or celebrity ancestors (we only want to connect ourselves to an aristocratic or famous historical figure). *Yawn.* Where did this man do his research? Are we too sensitive to a little humour? Was humour actually employed? If it was tongue in cheek it leaves quite a bad taste in the mouth. Never mind the unsuspecting readership who will take it at face value. And so old myths are perpetuated.

Some of the hurdles we continue to surmount are inherent in the dual nature of ‘genealogy.’ We have professional genealogy—those who work at it as a career, whether in client research or a wide variety of educational activities and family historians who want their end results to be as accurate as possible. We also have ‘hobby’ genealogy—a greater majority who work at their family histories as a part-time pleasure, perhaps in splendid isolation apart from the ambiguous effects of Internet searching. Those of us who live it at a professional level have an obligation to help educate the ever-expanding growth of “newbies” about acceptable standards of proof and presentation.

Ultimately, what all of us want is to honour those who went before us. We want our own ancestors to come alive. Most of us want to know what makes us tick, who and where did it come from, how did they live, what local events influenced them. We uncover connections to “lost” family members, medical history, genetics, community and religious history, migration movements, legal issues, and social context. As we age, it’s so interesting to see physical features or personality characteristics repeated in the new generations sprouting up.

Still, sometimes it seems that only commercial concerns recognize us as a large and important segment of the North American population, albeit as a driving business force. But we are more than consumers. And we aren’t going away.

04 July 2007

Cemetery Power

One of my favourite subjects again ... The New York Times 25 May 2007 had a lovely article (“Cemeteries Seek Breathing Clientele”) by Patricia Leigh Brown in Philadelphia. Hardly breaking news to family historians that cemeteries are heritage sites and deserve attention! We struggle to save abandoned cemeteries and fight municipal bureaucracies that favour development over respect for the deceased. Now, the boards of historic cemeteries have created novel fund raising ways for the necessary upkeep. I quote:

“Historic cemeteries, desperate for money to pay for badly needed restorations, are reaching out to the public in ever more unusual ways, with dog parades, bird-watching lectures, Sunday jazz concerts, brunches with star chefs, Halloween parties in the crematory and even a nudie calendar. Laurel Hill, the resting place of six Titanic victims, promotes itself as an 'underground museum.' The sold-out Titanic dinner, including a tour of mausoleums, joined the 'Dead White Republicans' tour ('the city’s power brokers, in all their glory and in all their shame'), the 'Birding Among the Buried' tour, and 'Sinners, Scandals and Suicides,' including a visit to the grave of 'a South Philly gangster who got whacked when he tried to infiltrate the Schuylkill County numbers racket.'

“Some cemeteries are betting on infotainment. At Heritage Day last weekend at the 200-year-old Congressional Cemetery in Washington, a 70-piece marching band serenaded the grave of John Philip Sousa, and dog owners held a parade for dogs dressed as historical cemetery personages, including a Union soldier.”

Great stuff. The mind boggles with rapture at the nascent possibilities. Guelph, Ontario, was a leader here with creative tours of Woodlawn Cemetery that feature the raising of the dead in period dress and their tales of miscreants, mystery or mayhem (the ideal ancestors). The old burial ground at St. James Cathedral in Toronto still contains the bones of first citizens of the historic town of York under its adjacent lawns and parking lots. I'm all for a son et lumiere spectacle at the Cathedral reenacting ancient duels, distillery building, cholera shed workers, free speech at bar-room gatherings, temperance complaints, and other tranches de vie.

Unfortunately, this is not a photo of burials at St. James, because no stones are left to mark the remaining forgotten who were never transferred to newer cemeteries. Brenda has substituted a photo from a Loyalist burial ground in Bear River, Nova Scotia.

Nevertheless, family historians, take note of fundraising and fun. GO, cemetery directors!