"Each has his own tree of ancestors, but at the top of all sits Probably Arboreal." - Robert Louis Stevenson

Monday, 6 February 2012

On family past, family present and family future

So, back to today's intended topic: What is family history?
It sounds like a bit of an unnecessary question. But, in fact, I suspect we all have a slightly different notion of it, with a lot of it coming down to our own specific motivations for doing the research (which I talked a little about in On getting hooked on genealogy). Here, I want to talk about some of the different things it means to me.
As I said last time, when I started out I think it was the thrill of success that defined it for me – the buzz I got from my powers of deduction allowing me to slowly start making connections. I always get the impression that this is the same for a lot of people, and even non-genealogists ‘get’ this. It’s why, whenever I say that I’m researching my family history, they always ask ‘how far back have you got?’ as if this is the only thing that matters.
Indeed it does matter. This aspect of genealogy is like doing a puzzle; it stretches me and gives me a sense of achievement. It still defines family history for me. Even after five years, I get that buzz every time I make a breakthrough, every time some conjecture I made to fill in a gap is confirmed by a new record found later.
But this alone doesn’t define family history for me. Another early factor was how much I learnt from it. So much new history to discover, so much knowledge about family history to absorb – where to go for information, which records are reliable, how a census actually works... As I was already a historian, it felt like a natural progression to want to learn all this. And the great thing is that you learn it by using it. You make a mistake, then later you realise you’ve made the mistake, you fix it and you learn from it.
As well as this, genealogy is a skill. More accurately, it is a collection of skills, and personal qualities: patience, sound research techniques, thoroughness, attention to detail, lateral thinking, historical knowledge, palaeography, map-reading, accurate record keeping... the list is endless! Although it sounds quite ‘touchy-feely’, I have no doubt that family history has helped me to ‘grow’. I would even argue that the skills I developed through this hobby have since helped me to pass my degree and get my job. So I suppose it is pretty much integral to my life, in that sense!
But family history isn’t just a mental exercise. It’s not just about getting as far back as possible – not anymore, anyway. I soon learnt that just a list of names and dates can be pretty meaningless. These are just the building blocks for something much richer. I touched on this a little in my second posting when I talked about building up a more detailed impression of what my ancestors’ lives might have been like. To me, family history is about putting my family tree in its historical context.
To take this a step further, it’s also about a good story. In most family histories, I reckon, there’s at least one good character, one scandal, one story just waiting to be told. It wasn’t until I started on my dad’s side of the family, a good couple of years into my research, that I really learnt this. I’m sure I’ll get round to telling you more about this later, but to put it very briefly, while my mum’s family all seem to have been good honest working class folk, a good few of my dad’s were music hall performers living scandalous and somewhat promiscuous lives. They definitely make for an interesting story!
Connected to this is the idea of knowing where you came from. Before I started on my dad’s family, in particular, he knew very little about his family’s history at all. In fact, I had several false starts, because the information that he and his siblings were able to give me (their parents both being dead) was vague to say the least – to put it simply, without spending a fortune I just couldn’t get anywhere with what little I knew. Eventually my dad came up with the great idea of asking a lady called Brenda, a close friend of his maternal grandmother, for help. She was able to clarify the info I already had and answer lots of questions, so that I could actually get going. It’s been so great to be able to tell my dad about where his family came from. I even managed to track down a long-lost relative (but more on that later...!)
Family history is about so much more than just knowing your great-great-great-grandmother’s birth year. It’s about understanding our origins, understanding how our ancestors fitted into their world, it’s about learning and developing ourselves... it’s about past, present and future all at the same time!
I’m sure I could go on forever on this topic. And of course I want to hear your take on it...
L x
Next time: Voices from beyond the grave...

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