Dec 302008
[Originally posted on Familiar Strangers blog]

(Image from flickr)

In the last year of my genealogy work, I have come across a couple of stereotypes of genealogy work and genealogists which I would like to dispel.

First, I find that a lot of people assume that I am interested in tracing my family as far back as possible. While this is perhaps the goal of some genealogists, I am not really particularly interested in this. The reality is that once you get past the record-obsessed 19th century, you are swimming in murky waters as far as genealogy is concerned. In England, you can have some luck with parish and apprenticeship records before that time, but it is dicey. With common names, you have very little evidence that the William you found is actually the William you are looking for. It is highly circumstantial evidence, based on some educated guesses about birth dates and location and parental names. So while I do play around with these 18th century mysteries, I know that they are the most vulnerable entries in my trees. I treat them with emotional distance. I get far more passionate about the 19th century cohort, for whom records abound. For these people, I can actually piece together a fairly decent understanding of their lives and their families. The story becomes much more than something that can be captured on a genealogical pedigree chart.

The second common misconception I encounter is that I am interested in tracing my family back to royalty or some other significant person of fame. There are a few near-famous people on the tree, but what makes them interesting in my mind is that I can find out lots about them. Notoriety is a good way to ensure that you will be remembered well. These people provide the clearest window into a time and place because the time and place promoted them to a position worthy of writing about. I don’t find my self-concept particularly enhanced by the presence of these people in my family. I think, however, that many of the genealogists of the past were, in fact, interested primarily in making a connection to fame. In the time before computers and the Internet, a famous relative probably meant a mother lode of information about the family which was available in no other place. Now, however, with the mass digitization of vital records, information about our common ancestors is easily accessed. Databases are great equalizers.

Another common stereotype (held even by me) is that most genealogists are retired men and women who, facing the denouement of their lives, have taken to history for a little excitement. Since I am almost exclusively an internet genealogist, I don’t often meet in person the people with whom I correspond. My sense is, however, that given the current popularity of family history research, today’s genealogists have little in common with each other other than an interest in poking around in their family’s past. Again, I suspect that the old lady with the gum shoes stereotype derives from the pre-computer days when genealogy research required a serious time and money investment and retired people had significant quantities of both. Now a genealogist is simply someone with enough money for genealogy software and internet access and enough interest to type a forebearer’s name into Google.

So then if I am not interested in tracing my line back to Adam, finding famous people, or looking for a little historical context before I take the big snooze, why am I so bloody obsessed with genealogy? Well, I can’t quite say that this has nothing to do with my mortality. It has everything to do with placing my life within the rhythms of human history. This gives me a connection to the bigger picture of humanity and human foibles. Famous relatives aren’t a big draw because it is the complications of so-called normalcy which interest me. I recently discovered that my great-great-great-grandmother had an illegitimate daughter before she was married. Her name was Emma and when the family emigrated to Canada from Cornwall, her illegitimacy was obscured because she was passed off as the legitimate daughter of my g-g-g-grandparents. (The secrets of the past are easily revealed when birth, marriage, and death certificates are all searchable‚Ķ) Emma died young, only to be replaced in the family by the second illegitimate Emma, born to my great-great-grandaunt. Neither Emma shows up in family photos, although there are several which have survived from that time. To me, the story of the illegitimate Emmas is far more interesting than any knight, earl, or prince ancestor. Emma is important because she reminds me of permanent struggle of humanity: sometimes we don’t always do what our communities and families want us to do and sometimes we pay the price for these transgressions. Our lives are complex and genealogy reminds me that this complexity is nothing new. Tempted as we are to think that we are better or worse off than our ancestors, we are not. Some things have changed, but others are not and it is the constant redrawing of this line between what is different and what it the same which keeps me interested, addicted and obsessed.

Oct 122008
[Originally posted on Familiar Strangers blog]

Jessie Alexander (1864-1955)

Boiling it down, the basic premise for my project about internet genealogy will be a reflection on how the digitization of so many historical records affects our understanding about the past.

I guess that the hidden assumption here is that communication media are as important to an interpretation of the past as the content of that media. The availability of historical records online has radically changed the practice of genealogy. Even as little as ten years ago, anyone who wanted to seriously pursue genealogy or family history had to spend a lot of time doing grueling searches on microfilm in deathly quiet archives. While this is sometimes still necessary (a lot still has yet to be digitized), there is plenty available online to keep a researcher going. And it grows everyday. What is available online is usually both indexed and searchable. Some genealogy websites even search automatically for records relating to individuals on your trees. A lot of the basic research becomes effortless.

I think that the immediacy of these historical documents has done two things to my perception of the past. First, it has forced me to seriously question my assumptions about the past, particularly assumptions about the roles that women played in society. I think that is a rather common assumption that before the mid-twentieth century, women stayed at home and looked after children and the household. Of course, this is mostly true, but not totally correct, particularly in Victorian England. I cannot tell you how many examples I have come across of women who were masters accepting apprentices, women who worked in factories, women who worked at home, and women who had non-traditional occupations such as “warehouse manager”. Similarly, I have found plenty of evidence that women had sex before marriage (the records don’t lie), that they married younger men ALL the time, and that they sent their children to “daycare”(i.e., old women in the neighbourhood looking to support themselves). The past was not as simple as we want it to be. I have thought a lot about why we have such monolithic ideas about what previous generations have done. For one, I think we are restricted by living memory. The past is only what is accessible through our parents and, to a certain degree, through our grandparents. Living memory can, at the most, only account for about 100 years. More importantly, however, I realized that the past is a critical tool for understanding the present and it works best when it is either something that should be emulated or something that should never be repeated. We need the rhetorical “other” of the past to understand ourselves. I can only understand myself as a working mother in contrast to my mother and my grandmother who were stay-at-home mothers. A great-grandmother or great-great-grandmother who took over the family factory when her husband died gets lost in the need for a stronger, more diametric rhetorical need to position the present as “new and different”. Through my ability to access historical documents online, however, these assumptions have started to break down for me, and break down further the more research that I do and the more mistakes that I make based on faulty assumptions. For me, this is an enjoyable part of the process — it is like travelling without leaving the living room. I’m constantly setting myself aside and trying to reposition myself in that culture so that I can understand.

The second change that I have noticed in my conception in my past has to do with my understanding of “lifetime”. One day, I busily clicking on buttons to automatically fill in my tree with new, distant cousins, I realized that I was filling in a hundred years of history in less than five minutes. I was skipping over generous lifetimes in a mere second. When I realized this, I thought about my own lifetime and how intractable and whole it seems to me, and how I too will at one point become a set of dates on someone tree, the whole of my lifetime boiled down into dates. It shocked me and made me feel callous — surely these people deserve more of my time than a click of the button allows. It made me think of the Star Trek episode where Captain Picard experiences a lifetime virtually in a physically small span of time, the difference being, of course, that my virtual experience was NOT providing me with the true essence of this lifetime. The human details get easily lost in the big picture.

I’m not sure where I am going with this, but ideas are welcome!

About the photo:

Jessie Alexander was my great-great-great-aunt. Or something like this. She led an unusual life for a woman of that time. She was a well-known elocutionist in Canada who travelled throughout the country giving performances in the late 19th and early 20th century. She married her elocution professor later in life and had one child. She wrote two books with her elocution sketches. If I ever write a biography on one of my relatives, she’s going to be the one!

May 062008
[Originally posted on Familiar Strangers blog]

Brian mentioned in class that he was thinking about looking at ambient intimacy in his project. His basic idea was that the minutia that gets shared on Facebook creates an effortless, ambient intimacy with people in our networks. For instance, I know that Brian had a sports blog, went to Vegas, etc., only from the fact that he is one of my Facebook friends. I haven’t spoken to him in a year. We then went on to talk about the fact that intimacy is, in fact, based on knowing the minutia of someone’s life. Big details are for acquaintances. Small details are for friends. (Look at it this way: Facebook allows you to post status updates, LinkedIn (the businessperson’s social networking site) doesn’t.)

In any case, I have been thinking about this idea of digital intimacy with respect to notions of relatedness promoted by the mass digitization of bureaucratic records and the development of social media-ish tools for the practice of genealogy. While I don’t think that there is necessarily an “ambient” nature to the intimacy that you form with your ancestor, there is suddenly an abundance of minute details which you can learn about their lives. Finding this amount of detail is predicated wholly on the digitization and searchability of old documents.

I have found this to be particularly the case with my ancestors who lived in Ontario in the 19th century. Both of the major newspapers from that time are digitized and searchable. I have turned up a wide variety of interesting tidbits about my ancestors, particularly those who were either wealthy or prominent. For instance, I learned that one of my great-grandfathers was involved in a ship wreck. He survived, but that story didn’t survive in the oral traditions of our family. From name searches, I have learned that my great-grandmother gave flowers to a Canadian Prime Minister, that my great-great-grandfather had stomach problems and endorsed a stomach tonic, that another relative from Montreal stayed a Toronto hotel ever once in a while (yes, this was recorded in 19th century newspapers)…

It is clear to me that the internet allows us to connect to our families and distant relatives in ways that were impossible before. I have read some (albeit non-scientific) articles which suggest that North Americans in particular are, for the most part, unable to name their great-grandparents. Some of this has to do with the mobility of our population, I’m sure. After all, it is a lot easier to remember your ancestors if you live in their house, own some of their belongings etc. The internet flattens this effect of mobility though — we can now locate and connect to as many of our distant relations as we dare to.

Through the discussion of intimacy, I realized that the internet not only flattens the effect of distance on families, it also flattens (to some extent) the effects of time on families. Information about some areas of the past are just as available to me as information about the present. The Globe and Mail from 1890 is just as searchable to me as the Globe and Mail from 1990. In fact, I have more information from 19th century sources about my relatives than I do from the 20th century sources. The 20th century sources are either protected by privacy laws or, in the case of newspapers, were no longer a repository for local information.

The internet also makes our memories collectively accessible as opposed to individually accessible. While one person in the family may have been the family archivist in the past, this information is being increasingly digitized and posted on the net. The death of the family historian will no longer mean the death of the family histories. These stories will have a longevity previously unknown. It is not hard to imagine, for instance, that my grandchildren will be able to access and read this blog. Their process of family storytelling and research will involve distilling TOO MUCH information as opposed to our current process of putting together the little pieces…

May 042008
[Originally posted on Familiar Stranger blog]

Derek passed on a provocative article to me. Frank Furedi argues that the recent spate of “false” autobiographies is a reflection of our therapy culture which both promotes the stories of victims and encourages a rewriting of the past as a mode of identity construction in the present. Interesting idea although I don’t agree with the basic premise of the article — that “real” history is being corrupted by our love of Dr Phil and Oprah. After all, I think that the writing of history is ALWAYS mitigated by the present in which it is written, whether it be a therapy-oriented culture or not, a point to which the author of the article concedes but doesn’t apply to his own example.

A drawing of the Wartburg castle by Goethe

Let me use an analogy: history is a castle which we continually renovate to suit our present needs, even if our present needs involve rethinking the past. To illustrate my analogy, I will use the example of the Wartburg castle near Eisennach, Germany. This is an extremely important place in Germany history — Martin Luther found refuge there, Goethe visited, and it is credited as the birth place of a modern united Germany. When I visited there in 1995, the thing that impressed me the most was that the castle had been renovated and redecorated several times and each renovation was a rewriting and new representation of the history of the castle. The East German government, for instance, renovated the castle in the 1950s. It is hard to imagine that this renovation didn’t involve a discussion which explored what the castle SHOULD look like from the socialist perspective. Most striking to me on my visit, though, was the hall that had been redone in 1838 in the style of the Middle Ages. It was very clearly a Romantic vision of that time period with very little interest in historical accuracy. Did it bother me that there is no way that this could be an accurate vision? Hell no! To me, how we construct the past is far more interesting than what the past actually was.

Remember when the guy who wrote A Million Little Pieces was discovered to have made up significant portions of his so-called autobiography? People were really, really angry at this man, and the publisher even had to offer refunds to those people who had bought the book. This really surprised me. After all, aren’t all memories a construction, an idealization of our pasts? My parents would write my biography much differently than I would write my own. Who’s to stay which is more accurate? I find surprising is that there is very little problematization of ideas of “historical accuracy,” “truth,” and “honesty” in popular culture.

I guess that the problem with the author of “A Million Little Pieces” is that readers felt that he had deliberately embellished his autobiography and therefore deliberately lied to them. It had gone beyond merely small variances in memory. He had broken an implicit contract between author and reader and he was therefore called back to Oprah’s show to explain himself. But aren’t we being rather unfair here? Aren’t all of our life histories a mingling of memories and plots which are deliberately crafted to be found interesting by others? Why are we so absolutely stuck on the notion of a singular truth?

Furedi quotes psychiatrist Derek Summerfield:

Any act of remembering is interpretative, driven by the concerns or ideas of the present. What a war survivor remembers will not represent a single, definitive narrative, will skip between victim and protagonist modes, will be shaped by the context in which the telling takes place and the purpose to which it is to be put.

Exactly. We are always, in some way, writing and rewriting our pasts to suit ourselves and our listeners at the time of the telling.

I suspect that our ideas of truth are strongly tied to the media on which we record our lives – stone (headstones), paper (Family bibles, typed accounts, bureaucratic records). Any genealogist will tell you to view all records with caution, even the carefully carved tombstone has been known to have errors or to reflect the survivors view of the dead person’s life. Carving it in stone does give your message some longevity, but it doesn’t necessary make your message “accurate”. Maybe we have been confusing physical longevity of the message with the “truth”. I suspect there is a much lower “truth threshold” for the stories we tell while sitting around with friends and exchanging anecdotes of our lives, anecdotes which are fleeting because the words spoken out loud disappear as soon as they are heard.

I just finished reading a book about the Mormons and the history of their interest in genealogy. The author basically deconstructs any possibility of genealogical accuracy. Whether it be from inextricable inaccuracy in the major genealogy database, the interference of social norms with ideas of biological parentage, or some other unmentionable nasties like incest or false paternity, any claims to genealogical truth are pretty flimsy. To give you an example, the author reckons that even using conservative estimates of false paternity there would be an 80% change of one line being biologically inaccurate in a tree which goes back 4 generations on both paternal and maternal sides. Of course, my reaction to this is “cool” and “god, I wish I could find out which one and hear that story”! (Mind you, I might be a little less enthusiastic if the error turned out to be with my own direct parentage!) Despite the obvious pointless of the search for genealogy truth, there is a strong commitment in genealogical circles to ideas of “accuracy”, even when the fact at stake is a year or two difference in someone’s birth date.

So I guess I’m wondering how our ideas of historical genealogy accuracy (and personal life story telling) are going to play out on a medium like the internet with its qualities of “secondary orality.” Words have some longevity, but the publication of these words is not mitigated by authority or ideas of privileged voices. Anyone can tell their story and find readers. Hello cacophony of human memory! Moreover, stories on the internet are built in hypertext which allow readers to choose their own path through the narrative (1) (Hey, do remember the Choose Your Own Adventure series? Was this the beginning of hypertext?). The internet way of storytelling is a retrieval of the oral way of storytelling – stories are never exactly replicated but are adapted for the context of the storytelling. The difference here is that it is the reader who choses his path through the story. It is not the oral storyteller who makes these judgments on behalf of the reader.

How are we going to stick to stubborn ideas of singular truth (both personal and social) in the context of a hyperlinked, polyphonous world? Hopefully, we are not. Wouldn’t the world be a much nicer place without the need to argue for the supremacy of one account over another?

(1) I got this idea from Stefik’s Internet Dreams. Page 13.