Wednesday, March 9, 2011

History and Genealogy

For some time now I have been mulling over an article written by James Tanner in his blog “Genealogy’s Star”. In his article, “Is History Genealogy ?” (October 6, 1910) James writes:

“In a real sense, all history is genealogy and genealogy is nothing more, or less, than detailed localized history. Traditional history was focused on the grand scheme of politics and society. It deals with wars and only mentions individuals as they become prominent.”

The more I think about it the more I disagree. A bit too generalized I think. For me history is an interpretive story or narration if you will. Unfortunately, I have yet to see a well researched historical narration in which the author leaves interpretations up to the reader. Everyone, it seems, has an agenda somewhere.

I have always tried to figure out what “traditional” history is or was. I suspect that the reference is to the “textbook” history of the kind that was inflicted on all of us in high school (not that I can remember that far back !).

When I was in graduate school from 1971 to 1974 the up and coming flavours of the decade were women’s studies, economic history (vast economic forces folks), and computer studies. Yes folks the computer was beating at the wall of the ivory tower, and the fight was on. A merry battle it was since it generally took place during well lubricated meetings of the graduate students’ society.

Genealogy at that time was known to me as local history. Believe it or not there was a chair of local history. Two professors that I studied under, James J. Talman and Frederick Armstrong, were hand in glove with the library’s archivist in amassing a collection of papers, and memorabilia, that is now housed in the excellent J.J Talman Collection at the University of Western Ontario.

It seemed to me at the time that research was generally done by the graduate students for the benefit of the professors. I am inclined to think that that has not changed. Interpretation of that research is the issue that spawns new articles, and books. As archives become available after copyright limits expire new facts come to light, and new interpretations emerge. In my own field a good example is the way in which historians today are revising their views of Sir Douglas Haig (I‘m not convinced). Secondly, more books are being written which have been influenced by letters and diaries that were written by veterans. More and more I am seeing historians use what we would view as being within the definition of genealogy.

For me that is a good thing as it adds colour, and interest, to the lives of our ancestors. It puts them into perspective. Frankly 90% of what I have seen, that is to say, this individual was born in 1900, died in 1950 was son of, or daughter of, makes me yawn. My response is - AND? I guess my training. such as it was. required me to use the word why quite a bit. When I look at my own family tree I ask why quite often. My great great great grandfather immigrated from Wiltshire either in 1830 or 1831 - why? He came to Canada - why? Why not the United States or Australia? He settled in Southwestern Ontario - what was the attraction that brought his family here? Why did the family largely stay, and not go west young man (sorry couldn’t resist) ?

I guess for me history is all about finding the answers to questions. Here I am guilty of generalizing just a tad. One prays that the answers are in a well written form.

No comments:

Post a Comment