Monday, 17 June 2013

Whose history?

Recently, I was sitting in a group of family historians asked to respond to the question "What names are you researching?". I recognised immediately that neither of my obvious answers was appropriate to the setting. (For the record: (i) All of them or (ii) Ones that look interesting.)

I sat transfixed as my companions reported that they were "working on my X ancestors" or "focusing on a 2xgreat grandmother's maternal line" or even "investigating the parish of Y in the county Z". I could not decide whether I admired their single-minded focus or pitied their lack of imagination.

When my turn came, I said that was in an eclectic phase and mentioned one or two that were "of current interest". There the matter might have rested (with me feeling a little odd) but for the fact that on the following day James Tanner's blog was concerned with what aspects of our genealogy receive attention (and which are ignored).

First and obviously, your own surname plays a major part in determining your genealogical research interest. This is natural and is wrapped up with issues of identity and family traditions. But how we form our predilection to one family or another is a little more complex.

That post on Genealogy's Star prompted me to revisit the uncomfortable thought that perhaps I do not "do genealogy" in the same way as serious family historians.

The scope of my own research is directly related to my motivation for undertaking it. I have no religious purpose; nor do I hold out any hope of establishing a connection to (inheritable) wealth or power. I understand that the achievements of those with whom I share a name reflect no particular credit on me. I don't crave contact with dozens of distant cousins.

I do what I do for the intellectual satisfaction of confronting a mass of obscured and/or tangled information and transforming it into something accessible to others who may have an interest. It is the same reason that I headed off to work each day for 40 years. I enjoy puzzle-solving and explaining.

For my own purposes, any genetic or legal connection that I have with those I study is almost irrelevant. The suggestion that I would study "my" ancestors but not those of my spouse is incomprehensible to me. This blog adopts the perspective of our children and always refers to "our family" because the principal audience for my research is our descendants.

An analysis of the first year of posts on this blog reveals that there are costs associated with my broad (alright, scatter-gun) approach. I do have more dangling story lines awaiting closure than might be desirable, but how could I decide that someone's tale was not worthy of attention?

Insofar as we are the product of our ancestry, it is illogical to laud the sturdy yeoman farmer while trying to hide the dipsomaniac barber. The family tree will have some gnarled branches and a few feeble shoots that also warrant (even demand) investigation.

In my defence, I call James Tanner again.

I guess the challenge we have as genealogists is to attempt to level the playing field, that is, to find information on all of the family members so that the family gets its genealogy recorded and not just certain individuals.

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