I’ve been sitting through the America250 prep for my state. As a genealogist, I’ve seen a well meaning – but somewhat disconcerting – attitude appear through the entire process. Suggestions made by genealogists are acknowledged but rarely incorporated. There’s often an implied suggestion that the work being done by those genealogists is somehow separate from the work of doing “accurate history” being done by historians during the celebration.
The approach contains multiple incorrect assumptions. First and foremost, it assumes that genealogists aren’t historians. That’s true in some cases. Genealogy is a second, third, or fourth career in many cases. Genealogists tend to come from a number of different fields, including IT, accounting and more. Some – including me – come from the field of history. My education is in academic history; my internships were in public history. My trajectory is actually fairly common among “first career” genealogists. The genealogist you’re speaking to may actually be trained as a historian. Second, it assumes methodology.
Genealogy, in its current state, is complicated. There’s a widely held image of genealogy as someone staked out in the archives looking for names and dates simply so they can trace their family as far back as possible. Today’s genealogy is more diverse: looking for missing heirs of the deceased; identifying unidentified military remains; tracing family histories so that individuals can learn the stories of their ancestors; public history; and more.
And yes, you read correctly – public history. Genealogists have begun applying their research techniques to what has been called microhistory. Because their research focuses on the individual, they can tell the story of history from the bottom up in a way that the few of the more traditional techniques offer. The depth and detail of those stories can be an effective way to personalize the history for the public exploring it. They’re not visiting an old house but someone’s home.
Examples of this process include:
Dr. Hilary Green’s Hollowed Grounds Project
In preparing for America250, I would challenge historical organizations to work to overcome the historian-genealogist divide. Learn from your community’s professional genealogists. Explore how their research techniques can give you much more than names and dates but can help you tell the story of the veteran of color who enlisted in 1778, the women of the community, and more.