Wednesday, 24 October 2012

A solitary vice?

I have spent quite some time over the past week contributing to the new site being established at Stack Exchange. Genealogy and Family History is described as "Q&A for expert genealogists and people interested in genealogy or family history". The site is now in public beta which means procedures are not yet fixed but all are welcome to give it a try.

profile for Fortiter at Genealogy and Family History, Q&A for expert genealogists and people interested in genealogy or family history

The early discussions have caused me to reflect on a number of fundamentals about what I do and how I go about it. Among the issues kicked around have been:

  • What are the differences between genealogy and family history?
  • Why do genealogists use the same terminology as historians, but with different meanings?
  • If you consider yourself a family historian, which discipline do you adopt?
  • When does information become evidence?
  • What is the significance or the value of an unsuccessful search?

But the big question that has been exercising my mind is "How collaborative can family history be?".

I know we all enjoy participation in meetings of our local societies, attending conferences and engaging in on-line conversation. But isn't the real work of a family historian done when inhaling paper dust in a reading room or bathed in the late-night glow of your computer screen.

There can be a real challenge in puzzle-solving to break a chink in someone else's brickwall, but the feeling is just not the same as with one of your own. Tales of my great aunt Ermentrude are a source of endless fascination, but your relatives are really not all that interesting.

On the other hand, there are occasions when another family historian mentions a way he or she approached a particular problem, a new resource or a novel technique that immediately sparks thoughts of how you can do the same to move your own research forward. Then it does not matter that you have no real interest in birth registration in nineteenth century Patagonia because that person is discussing something of value in a context that you are passionate about.

Perhaps that is why there are so many Family History blogs that no one person can possibly read them all on a regular basis. And why Stack Exchange: Genealogy and Family History has attracted 350 members in two weeks; all eager to build their own expertise by helping others find answers to their problems.

Many questions posted to date (and there have been more than 150) have been through a series of edits to get them into a form that maximises value for both the person who asked and future readers. They are not perfect yet, but the purpose of beta is to learn.

Has participation in this new site convinced me of the value of collaborative genealogy? Well, I am still happiest at my desk poring, jotting and typing in blissful solitude, but there can be no doubt that working the right "others" can certainly enhance my efforts. Especially if they bring the type of expertise and relevant experience that this group is assembling.

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