Genealogy & Public History

A few days ago I wrote about public history (Defining Public History, May 22, 2020). Now I’m thinking about the relationship between genealogy and public history.

Remember, public history is typically defined as history work prepared for a non-professional audience. It’s implied that the public historian is a professional, applying professional standards.

So, what about genealogists? Notice how the language herds our thoughts away from seeing genealogists as historians. We have an image of genealogists as old, retired people, often women, often White, puttering around with women’s clubs like Mayflower Descendants and Daughters of the American Revolution. We don’t accord them the status of historians, because historians do real work.

I did some poking around to see if someone has a response, here. I didn’t find an answer but I did find a discussion at National Council on Public History. Perfect. a discussion can be more interesting than an answer.

Here’s the set up.

Jerome de Groot gave the plenary address at a conference of International Federation for Public History in October 2014. He raised the issue (Jerome de Groot. “On Genealogy.” The Public Historian (2015) 37 (3):102–127).

“This article argues for the importance of genealogy and family history to contemporary understanding and experience of the past. Through looking at various ways that genealogy might be undertaken and imagined, the article argues that this important area needs to be further conceptualized and studied by public historians. The article looks at the implications inherent in the broad shift to global online genealogy and family history. The argument is interrogative and assertive in order to provoke debate amongst public historians about how we might investigate, theorize, and interrogate genealogy and family history further in the future.”

"In 'On Genealogy,' a revision of the plenary address delivered in October 2014 at the International Federation for Public History’s conference in Amsterdam, Jerome de Groot argues that widespread popular interest in genealogy, and the availability of massive amounts of information online, challenge established historiography and public history practice. He invites other public historians to contribute to a debate about how we might 'investigate, theorize, and interrogate' the implications of this explosion of interest in genealogy. We invited four scholars to contribute to this discussion."

So here are the four scholars. (Note, they are scholars. The agenda here is for public history to extend its dominion over genealogy, not for genealogists to lay claim to being public historians. Not criticizing. They all seem to be aware, Knevel perhaps more explicitly than the others.) We’ll do just the first paragraph of each. Click through if you want to see how each writer develops their response to de Groot’s challenge.

First, Sara Trevisan, “History and tradition: Genealogical practice before 1700” (Aug. 7, 2015).

"In today’s genealogical search, lack of evidence on a family ancestor signifies the impossibility to assess any further their role within the structure of our genealogical tree. Genealogy is to us 'a gesture to completeness that is continually thwarted by the limitations of the archive,' and thus shows us that knowledge can have an end. The search for family origins is therefore destined to remain ever unfulfilled and frustrated due to the epistemology of 'historical truth' by which it is ultimately guided. Yet, until the second part of the seventeenth century–when the principles of historical method still had not fully taken hold–the 'mythical' aspect of family origins was an integral part of genealogical reconstruction. This was especially true for monarchs and noble families."

Second, Paul Knevel, “Genealogy from below” (Aug. 14, 2015).

"As could be expected by the author of the broad and lucid Consuming History, Jerome de Groot demonstrates in his article in The Public Historian an amazing ability to discuss thoroughly topics and themes that would for others take book-length or even career-length considerations. 'Genealogy and Public History' thus not only deals with the various ways that genealogy and family history could be undertaken and imagined by various people and groups but also with such large and profound issues as the impact and construction of 'knowledge infrastructures' in a digital age, the silencing character of the archive, the ethical sides of dealing with the dead, the neo-liberalisation of public space generated by commercial websites, 'digital labour,' and many other themes and ideas. The result is a clever, multi-layered, insightful, and thought-provoking essay that challenges public historians to rethink today’s digital historical culture and practices, their own role, and the activities of millions of people (see the stunning figures mentioned by De Groot) who are doing genealogy and family history and thus trying to connect themselves with the past. Consequently, it is impossible to address in this short reaction all the topics and themes raised in De Groot’s article."

Third, Regina Poertner, “Genealogy, public history, and cyber kinship” (Aug. 21, 2015).

"To date, historians’ debates on the impact of new technologies have focused primarily on the challenges to the academic profession, raising important questions about, for example, the future tools and methods of professional historical research, the visualisation and archiving of data, sharing of digital resources and research outputs, and more generally the ways in which the current digital revolution is changing our perception of who we are and what we do. The article by Jerome De Groot broadens this debate to encompass the public as the consumer and producer of a new brand of public history in the making: digital genealogical research has become a lucrative commercial venture–significantly, without clearly demarcated national borders–and is becoming the remit of the amateur historian who simultaneously is the object and author of the 'curated self.'"

Fourth, Carolina Jonsson Malm, “Genealogy and the problem of biological essentialism” (Sept. 10, 2015).

"There are many possible explanations as to why genealogy has become one of the most popular hobbies in our time. The last decades’ growing interest in local history and life stories could be one. The increasing public awareness of genetics and the potential of genetic engineering another. People’s sense of rootlessness and lack of social relations in a rapidly changing world yet another. Whatever the reason, it is undeniable that genealogy has become almost a social movement, involving millions of people around the world. In his article, 'On Genealogy,' Jerome de Groot suggests that genealogy in many ways can be described as 'a democratization of access to the past.' As a result of the new digital technology and the improved accessibility of public records, anyone with time and inclination can search for their ancestors in databases and online. People whose lives and fates are not part of the traditional academic historiography are uncovered. Everyone gets their fifteen minutes–at least in the family historian’s genealogical tree."

Interesting articles, all. But they aren’t answering the question I’m asking. They are looking at what it means that there are people doing genealogy. I would like to have found discussions about how public historians are or could be working to normalize genealogy as routine public history.

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