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In early 2007, Library and Archives Canada (LAC)—the national repository for Canadian historical documents and heritage in Ottawa—made a public declaration of its commitment to genealogy and family historians: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.” www.collectionscanada.ca/genealogy/index-e.html

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: www.bcgcertification.org/. 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.

1 comment:

Steve Danko said...

Hi Brenda,

Thanks for your thoughtful article.

Having come from the hallowed halls of academia, I've tried to approach family history with the same care that I use in my scientific profession. I never stopped to consider that some may perceive genealogy and family history as an endeavor less worthy or less rigorous than other professions.

I did raise my eyebrows at a cemetery office recently when a couple was speaking with a cemetery employee. I didn't hear their conversation except for the employee's statement: "If we did that, we'd be overrun by geologists (sic)."

And, by the way, I love the photo of you with the scarecrows!