Thursday, 8 August 2013

Are Genealogists Historians Too?

The past is a time gone by, and is inaccessible to us in any direct way. We're usually left with documents, pictures, recollections, or memories but these are merely evidence of those past times.
 
History is a branch of knowledge that records or explains the past. Even with newsreel footage or video recordings, any record of the past is related to discrete events (usually "significant events") for which supporting evidence exists. Hence, any explanation of the past is attempting to relate some of those events to prior ones using a mixture of logic and conjecture.
 
OK, so much for the quick lesson. The interesting aspect of this is that genealogists, or rather family historians, share the same issues as academic historians. The significance of events may have a different scope, depending on whether you're researching a family, a surname, or a local place, but the principle of interpreting evidence to yield conclusions is the same. We're all creating a structured description of the past as best we can from the available evidence.
 
You'd think, therefore, that academia would accept family history, and the other forms of  micro-history such as One-Name Studies, One-Place Studies, and personal histories (as in APH), as genuine forms of historical research. I had suspected there was a gulf for several reasons, not least of which being the bad reputation of some unsourced, copy-and-paste, online family trees. A slightly different take appears below by kind permission of Dr Nick Barratt. Dr Barratt is a broadcaster, historian and academic who has been a huge advocate of family history. He returned to The National Archives in 2012 to take up a position as head of the 'Medieval & Early Modern', 'Maps & Photographs' and 'Legal' teams.
 
The text below appeared in Issue 43 of Your Family History magazine, of which Dr Barratt was editor-in-chief until very recently, in his regular column entitled The Last Word. In there, he recounts the reaction of academic historians at a conference when he suggested that family history was not only a valid form of history but an essential one for appreciation of history by ordinary people.

Last Word
Insidious
Dr Nick Barratt

Insidious – proceeding in a gradual, subtle way but with harmful effects

I recently attended an academic conference at the British Academy entitled ‘Uses of the Past in Past Societies’, where I had been invited to provide some comments to the final plenary session as one of two external historians who operate outside mainstream academia. Given that the two-day event had seen a range of papers presented by historians who discussed how societies around the world have used history to define identity at national level for a range of reasons, from propaganda to state building purposes, I thought it would be useful to bring the debate into the present and look into the future. In short, I wanted to focus on how history is being used in the twenty-first century, and argue that we need to close the gap between academic and public historians.

The arguments I rehearsed are probably familiar to most regular readers of this column – research into personal heritage (covering family, local and social history) has become popular and accessible due to the twin impact of the media and the internet, permitting a more democratic ‘bottom-up’ view of the past to emerge. I described some of the practical benefits that our use of the past has delivered, from the Ryde Social Heritage group’s work in attracting tourism whilst delivering education resources, to projects such as Making History that allow students to make parallels between their identity, the community in which they live, and the journey their families have taken to get there. At the heart of this new trend lies the importance of the archive, and a relationship with higher education that encourages academic studies to deliver real impact to the communities they serve. Nothing too controversial, I thought.

How wrong I was; after a few polite comments and some encouraging words, a couple of audience members of began to question the importance of impact and engagement by the higher education sector with mainstream life, and particular disapproval was reserved for the family history community. It was suggested that family history was not ‘proper’ history, based on the idea that research without analysis was pointless; further, that the notion that people could only appreciate history if they accessed it from the perspective of their ancestors or local community was ‘insidious’, with figures trotted out to suggest that there were more postgraduates than family historians, and millions of people who liked history but didn’t care about their roots. Indeed, one person questioned the continued need for archives at all, based on a quick straw poll of audience members who had researched content for their papers in a record office.

Where to begin with this nonsense? Let’s start with the figures. There can be no more than 10,000 postgraduate researchers in the UK but for the sake of argument, let’s call it 30,000 – compared to a conservative estimate of 300,000 members of family and local history societies, and upwards of a million members of Ancestry, Find My Past et al. Leaving aside this popularity contest about ‘active’ historians; I am sure there are millions of people who buy history books written by academic historians without the slightest inclination to research their past, but probably an equal number (if not more) who do both.

It is sad to find that this rather Jurassic attitude still holds sway in certain quarters of Higher Education. Introspective self-congratulatory events really don’t paint a good picture of academia, at a time when large sections have made great moves towards tackling the issue of relevance. Love it or loathe it, public history – which includes family history – is here to stay, and is an important means by which the vital work of the academic historians, who provide analysis, commentary and narrative along with asking informed questions about society, can be translated into something that delivers practical benefit to a wider audience. Academic historians need public funds to support their institutions, so they are compelled to make their work relevant at a practical level as well as an esoteric one; and let’s not forget that inspiring new people to take an interest in the past, no matter how, will only help them sell more books and justify their existence. In this day and age, it is insidious to try to retreat to an ivory tower that encourages self-serving history – that way lies extinction.