Apr 202008
[Originally published on Familiar Strangers blog]

Like my fellow MACTers, I have been struggling with my abstract, trying to wrestle a jumble of unrelated thoughts into something somewhat intelligent. To be honest, I find this process disappointing. My ideas always FEEL better than they sound. Still, deadlines must be met, so here it is:

Editable memories: writing and rewriting personal histories on the internet

The recent explosion of collaborative tools on the internet has enabled a large community of amateur genealogists and local historians to connect to each other and share their research which, for the most part, narrates the lives of their own ancestors. The world’s largest genealogy wiki, www.werelate.org, contains over 2 million pages which are devoted to the life of one individual and which can be collaboratively edited by anyone. As editable spaces, wikis are a unique medium in which to record personal history. In my study, I would like to examine how choice of media influences our constructions of our recorded past. Does this process of writing and rewriting our pasts on a wiki mimic oral traditions? Do textual conventions of story ownership interfere with this collective process of remembering? This will be a qualitative study drawing from three sources: 1) my own experiences as a participant in the community, 2) available documentation at the web site, and 3) semi-structured interviews with other genealogists.

I think that my hesitation comes from the fact that I am also really drawn towards studying e-democracy and Government 2.0, topics which really inspire me and which have a practical application. Rationalization: looking a Web 2.0 applications in a different context can help you to contextual them in the government setting. OK, my internal devil’s advocate voice is buying this rationalization for the moment.

Although maybe I am just struggling because it is April 20, and there is a snow storm raging outside my window.

Apr 092008
[Originally posted on Familiar Strangers blog]

I think a lot about McLuhan’s claim that media are extensions of ourselves. Here is my latest insight: hypertextuality is extension of our essentially non-linear thinking patterns. Linear text in type can only go so far. Genealogy is a good example. A genealogical narrative is by no means linear. First, you have two parents, and they have two parents etc. OK, maybe that is still linear in a way. But then you add in elements of place, relationship to historical events, interfamilial marriages, non-familial connections, the connection of two people to one document… You get my point.

I also think a lot about how happy I am to live in the age of the internet. This makes me truly geeky, right. No, seriously, I am happy to live in age where every day someone thinks of a new tool to put on the internet to help me extend or reflect my mind. And just to prove my point, here is my latest find: www.mind42.com. I have mapped out my project with this tool and it was shockingly refreshing to be freed from a Microsoft Word outline template. You can see a bigger version of this here.

Click here to see a larger version of the map.

Apr 062008
[Originally published on Familiar Strangers blog]

Surprising, I can find a meditative place while endlessly searching Google and databases for the names of my ancestors. And in this place, I have thought a lot about the traces that we leave behind from our lives. The traces aren’t what you would expect and they aren’t something that we necessarily have control over, at least something that the normal mortals among us have control over.

Often, our families carve a stone in our honour when we are gone. But the stones get worn and eventually become illegible. Below is the stone of the infant son of Richard Metcalf who was born and died on the same day in 1885. Soon the carving on the stone will be gone and the one concrete trace of this little life will be erased.

Baby Metcalf’s headstone

(I should mention that getting to rest in your final place for eternity is a luxury afforded to North Americans. In Germany, for instance, you rent your grave for 50 years and after that your bones are disenterred and someone else gets your plot.)

Baby Metcalf didn’t encounter the other most likely place to leave a trace behind: in the thousands of vital statistics documents generated by the Canadian bureaucracy. As we became better at regulating ourselves and our lives we also became better at leaving traces behind. These traces are finding new life as records are digitized, indexed and made available on the web.

No such luck for Baby Metcalf though. He may have been too young to warrant bureaucratic attention or his parents simply didn’t feel that involvement of officials was necessary. I think that at that time the wilderness was still a stronger force in Canada than the bureaucracy.

Birth record for Baby Metcalf’s cousin

Baby Metcalf has a new chance, however, to leave a lasting trace on this world. Genealogy societies in Ontario have been busy transcribing cemeteries for years. Now these genealogists are photographing the headstones and posting the photos online. They are also creating elaborate family trees (hypertextuality reaches it full potential in a genealogist’s hands) and posting them online for other to find and copy. A photo of Baby Metcalf’s headstone, the small (and deteriorating) trace of his life, has been added to the collection of information readily findable with the help of a search engine. It will be copied and reproduced and recirculated. Baby Metcalf now even has a wiki web page all to his own. Baby Metcalf, it seems, got lucky and has been recorded and remembered.

I have to admit that I find this comforting. Why I don’t know. Mid-life, motherhood, natural inclination? Whatever it is, I take comfort in the fact that he somehow made it onto the list of things worth digitizing.

Incidentally, Baby Metcalf’s parents had no other children. However, they did raise two of Baby Metcalf’s cousins whose mother had died at the age of 34 after giving birth to her tenth child. (See the record of his birth below. His brother was required to formally claim witness to the dual events of his mother’s death and brother’s birth. “I have a distinct recollection of these facts,” he claims).

It’s hard not to appreciate both the powers of nature and the bureaucracy, isn’t it.

Apr 012008
[Originally posted on Familiar Strangers blog]

In this blog, I hope to keep a record/journal of my research for my final project for the Masters of Communication and Technology program at the University of Alberta.

At this point in time, my ideas for this project remain somewhat vague and mushy, but I know that I would like to look at the some of following areas:
– internet genealogy
– family and local history keeping on the internet
– the effects of technology on our ideas of relateness and place
– qualitative methodologies, including radical ones like self-questioning
– ideas of narrative
– orality and literacy and the internet

Too big an area? Ya, I know, but over the next few months, I should be able to whittle this down satisfactorily, I hope.

Of course, the subject of my project is not completely unfamiliar to me (thanks Olga for reminding me of this pun). While I was on maternity leave last year, I discovered how the world of genealogy had been changed by the internet. My grandmother died last March and in her honour I wanted to create a photo album of family photos. I was missing some vital dates for some of her ancestors, however. What started with typing names into Google has ended in a quite serious pursuit of family and local history. The photo album never got finished, but in its place I have been working hard at recording our family history online. I think my grandmother (and the potential recipients of the photo album) would understand.

I don’t think that it was an accident that I became so interested in family history shortly after I started my own family. The standard plotlines in genealogical research (birth, death, marriage) are real, oh-so-real, to me now. Who can understand, for instance, the tragedy of lost children better than a new mother? Navel-gazer that I am, I started to think seriously about how we record our lives, who records our lives (mostly the bureaucracy), and how we can remember those gone before us. The internet, our tool of the future, is, it turns out, quite a good place to record the past. I can use blogs to tell my family about my research. I can use Google maps to map out the original homestead of a family member. I can look at the digital collections at Libraries and Archives Canada and find out that my great-grandfather almost died of enteric fever during the Boer War. This list is endless and this flurry of information, historical minutae, is all made possible thanks to our friend, the internet. How can this not help but change how we understand ourselves and our place in the world?

When I returned to work in September, I suddenly had much less time to pursue my twin hobbies of genealogy and internet exploration. When I started the MACT program, I vowed to write a final that would be immensely USEFUL. (There’s some history here). But faced with the possibility of getting to spend more time playing in the internet sandbox, doing more genealogy, and THINKING about it all at a completely theoretical level was impossible to resist.