Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Micro-history for Genealogists

Micro-history is a term growing in its usage, but what is it? Why is it important to genealogists and family historians?

According to Wikipedia, Micro-history is the intensive historical study of a well-defined smaller unit of research. However, this is a little vague and betrays the fact that it is hard to pin down with any consensus. An un-credited[1] page at the University of Victoria (Canada) Web site, entitled What is Micro-history?, researches the history and various interpretations of the term, and goes on to suggests that micro-history focuses on the marginalised individuals, isolated localities, and locally-significant events.

In previous posts, I have lumped a number of fringe topics loosely associated with genealogy and family history under the micro-history umbrella, including One-Place Studies, One-Name Studies, house histories, personal histories, and organisational histories. This is largely based on the dictionary definition which is not unlike the Wikipedia one above.

More than anything, though, in its current usage micro-history is by people – ordinary people – rather than necessarily about people. We all have a story to tell, and we all have knowledge that we want to pass on. It doesn’t matter whether it is tales of your local area, the place you were raised, your family, or your friends. People’s history, if you like. This has the capability to uncover a real-life that traditional history is likely to miss, and is more likely to engage ordinary people in the appreciation of history generally.

But isn’t it the same as local history? According to the dictionary then this is probably true. However, local history tends to be perceived as more about politics, industry, geology, geography, development, religion, etc. This is typified by the British Association for Local History (BALH) whose Web site states ‘Our purpose is to encourage and assist the study of Local History as an academic discipline…’. Local history is rarely about the lives of ordinary people. This has to come from people themselves, either those directly involved, or their descendants, friends, acquaintances, etc.

We may be forgiven for thinking that TV producers can only think of celebrity genealogy. However, the BBC has some genuinely good history programs which fall totally into this discussion of micro-history.

  • Secret History of Our Streets. Six ordinary streets, each telling us about how life in London has changed in 150 years. Involves both past and present residents.
  • Reel History of Britain. A social history of 20th Century Britain showing how people worked and lived using viewers' personal memories and rare archive newsreel footage.

It may be hard to see how the specific subject in each programme could achieve mass appeal but it does. Many viewers feel a connection between their own history and the people being interviewed.

There are many micro-history Web sites being created as independent projects, not affiliated to any guiding organisation or society, and involving public collaboration. Subjects include houses, streets, old photographs, villages, oral history and storytelling, pubs, schools, and organisations. Would it be na├»ve to at least expect them to have some central listing, just as UK local history groups are currently listed at Local History Groups? There is a Microhistory Network which was ‘created as a loose group in January 2007 to bring together historians interested in the theory and practice of microhistory’. It has members from around the world but it appears to have a more scholarly approach compared to those public collaborations.

At the time of writing, the UK Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) uses money raised via the National Lottery to give grants to help share and preserve our heritage in communities across the UK. A new funding programme, called Sharing Heritage, aims to help people towards this goal.

So are these public contributions significant to genealogists and family historians? Absolute yes! Although we may have direct evidence for discrete events from so-called reliable sources, there is little chance of interpolating without public contributions. Genealogy wants so much to be acknowledged as an historical discipline by scholarly historians (see Are Genealogists Historians Too?) that we risk falling into the same trap as them: not being able to see the whole forest for all the trees. A serious issue posed to diligent genealogists is how to deal with such subjective and hard-to-substantiate evidence. This is where attribution rather than citation is important. Attribution (in the journalistic sense) gives credit to the individual providing information or evidence. All those public contributions should, in principle, have clearly visible attribution. Anyone hiding behind a username such as MickeyMouse1066 would be simply diluting their own contribution.

I’m certainly not the only person to suggest that micro-history is important to genealogists and family historians[2] but I would further like to suggest that micro-history is the continuation of an ancient tradition of oral family-lore and folklore, and so is essential for the preservation of our histories. When this tradition is continued into our modern electronic world, and especially the Internet, then it results in contributions that interlock and partially substantiate each other, as well as providing a very important social connection.

Currently in the UK, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is reviewing the needs for the national census beyond 2011, and how those needs might best be met. It is not unexpected that genealogical research is way down the list of needs, although it is there. Detailed UK census data is closed for 100 years, which is interesting since retaining information such as individual personal names cannot be justified for statistical research alone. Hence, some type of historical research must be anticipated, be it genealogy, micro-history or otherwise. It may be impractical but I feel it would be a beautiful idea to allow online respondents to leave a time capsule for their descendants – a short paragraph about themselves that they would wish to tell if they could. A picture would be nice, too, but it would probably take too much space. As the old saying almost goes: a picture is bigger than a thousand words.

[1] Although the article is un-credited, it appears under the Victoria Brewing Company pages created by Sarah Alford, Heather Fyfe, and Liam Haggarty.
[2] Anne Patterson Rodda, Trespassers in Time: Genealogists and Microhistorians (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, July 2012).