How many times have you been asked why we do genealogy?
Back when I was a working archivist-librarian, the bosses who held the pursestrings would ask me why we should even bother with all that old stuff. After all, it was so expensive to take care of and nobody really cared about those dusty old archives. My immediate, though internal, answer was always, “How can you not care about history?”
None of my grad school classes in history or library science prepared me to justify archival preservation, research, or outreach, especially to bosses who had never done primary-source research themselves. Eventually I figured out ways (with more or less success) to make preservation and access to the historical records in my care palatable to administrators who only had eyes on the bottom line.
A few years ago, I posted about a visit to the Tenement Museum, one of the best historical museums anywhere.
I have eight great-grandparents who emigrated from Europe to Chicago. Though none had settled in Manhattan, everything about how this museum interpreted the real, immediate 19th-century past of immigrants to America resonated with me. It made me think in almost overwhelmingly emotional terms of my European ancestral counterparts.
One of the museum staff members saw my post and asked if I would also post on why it mattered to me. I tried to write something up, but just like the questions from library administrators, the answer to “Why?” seemed so fundamental, I had no good answers justifying why this was important, not just to me, but to every thinking person.
Finding the origins – birthplaces, dates, parents, siblings, occupations – of all eight of my great-grandparents seemed essential, and, I aged, only grew in importance. They were the reason I enjoyed a privileged life in America. They were the authors of their own fate. They and their labors were the reason why America became a first-world power, for better or ill. They were braver than I could ever be.
Today I found some answers when I read an article by professional historian Alexandra M. Lord, entitled History Matters, at the website for the American Historical Association:
[I]t is time for [professional historians] to think critically about how and why Americans spend millions of dollars on genealogy each year. We need … to respect these genealogists. I have spent hours watching my older sister, an attorney and a summa cum laude history major from Yale, research our family’s genealogy. Over the last five years, she has traced not only our family’s journeys from Britain, the Netherlands, and northern Greece to America—but also the journeys my husband’s and her husband’s families made from the shtetls of eastern Europe to America.
Her ability to navigate name changes, to find relatives as they appear and disappear in the written record, to untangle family myths from historical truths, and her desire to understand the context in which our families and those of our in-laws made their journeys is multifaceted. [emphasis mine] …. Yet I have met countless professional historians who express, at best, a bemused condescension when confronted with the idea that genealogists actually do good history. The assumption that genealogists need to be educated by professional historians—as opposed to the idea that professional historians and genealogists can learn from one another—is widespread. [emphasis mine]
Although rarely discussed, tapping into the love of history found among genealogists, preservationists and others is crucial if we are to promote the study of academic history. We need to ensure that our conferences are welcoming not only to academic historians but also to those who love history and do history within their communities. [emphasis mine] Restructuring the AHA annual meeting so that the discussion is about the diverse ways in which people (in the United States and elsewhere) use, understand, and value history would be an excellent first step.
Dr. Lord’s post was written in 2011. I’m not sure what has changed since then vis-à-vis professional historians and genealogists, or even between professional historians and the archivists who preserve the materials that make their research possible. But I do know that Dr. Lord is on the right track. She and Henry Louis Gates are the only professional historians who acknowledges that the love of history exists at many levels, all of which advance our understanding of the past.
Those bound volumes at the top of this post? They are among the hundreds of thousands of files on members of the French resistance, Communists, and Jews hunted by the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy government in France during World War II. The Paris Police Prefecture Archives opened these records to research in December 2015. That’s why archivists preserve records. That’s why academic historians interpret the past. And why we do genealogy? To articulate the burdens and successes of our ancestors. That’s why we do genealogy.