Genealogy and History

Sheila O'Hare

“As the Internet continues to enable and encourage possibilities for professional-nonprofessional collaboration, the historian and genealogist may find that the gulf between them has been bridged–almost in spite of themselves.”

Part I The relationship between historians and genealogists has long been a troubled one. Each tends to regard the other with bemused contempt. To historians, genealogists are obsessive collectors of meaningless minutiae, enthusiastic but woefully untrained, churning out dubious family trees studded with even more dubious famous names. To genealogists, historians are utterly out-of-touch academics, obliviously offering one jargon-dripping tome after another to an uncaring and uncomprehending world. But while historians and genealogists might scowl at one another across reading tables in archives, they have begun to reach some common ground on the Internet. A look at genealogy and history Websites demonstrates the efforts of each group to adopt what is best about the other, if for no other reason than that the Web’s accessibility to the public means that the intended audience for the material is, de facto, much broader than either group has ever before considered. Unfortunately, this convergence seems more unconscious than planned; history and genealogy still seem unwilling to speak directly to one another or to acknowledge common goals and interests. But, almost in spite of this mutual disregard–and in some cases outright disdain–the Web is beginning to open up new lines of communication. As the Internet continues to enable and encourage possibilities for professional-nonprofessional collaboration, the historian and genealogist may find that the gulf between them has been bridged–almost in spite of themselves. Genealogy and History: From 1890s to 1990s The first surge of interest in genealogy can be traced to the 1890s, when the U.S. experienced a burgeoning of historical societies, pioneer associations, family reunions, and hereditary organizations (the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Society of Mayflower descendants were founded in that decade). Since then, interest in genealogy–or at least in genealogical publishing–has experienced occasional spikes: in the early twentieth century, in the 1930s, and in the 1970s, a thirty- to forty-year cycle that might be attributed to heritage as sustenance in times of change, generational curiosity, or periods of public concern about the function and future of the family as an institution.

Fig. 1 Call family reunion, March 19, 1901, Charlemont, Franklin County, Mass. One example of the "first wave" of genealogical interest. Author's collection.
Fig. 1 Call family reunion, March 19, 1901, Charlemont, Franklin County, Mass. One example of the “first wave” of genealogical interest. Author’s collection.

Around the same time, history as a discipline assumed a more overtly “professional” character. The American Historical Association was founded in 1884, and the influence of German historical scholarship and “scientific method” encouraged professional historians to distance themselves from amateurs. The change was one of style, from literary, adjectival, anecdotal narrative to austere, “objective,” and scientific discourse. It was also one of substance: history became a full-time occupation rather than an avocation, and with professionalization came the use of standardized techniques, emphasis on authoritative voice, and the production of work directed to colleagues rather than to the reading public. As historians defined their corporate identity, they also distanced themselves from nonhistorians. Journalists, genealogists, and other nonhistorians might try to write history, but professional historians considered their attempts fatally flawed as these amateurs lacked the training, analytical skills, and grounding in theory to produce valuable work. Genealogists came in for the lion’s share of professional historians’ abuse and condescension. In 1942, a peculiar article in the William & Mary Quarterly set out a case for genealogy as valuable source material for geneticists (to assess the correlations between cultural and psychological character and physical type, no less!), but still opened with the observation that, “[a]s a pleasant and harmless form of antiquarianism, the study of family history, biography, and the tracing of genealogy are tolerantly humored but certainly not seriously honored by historians and scientists.” By the 1940s, genealogy had settled into a fringe niche as innately trivial and unreliable, if not amusingly pathological (consider historian Lawrence Stone’s 1971 characterization of genealogy’s “anal-erotic” psychological motivation and David Lowenthal’s 1989 reference to the “nostalgic compulsion and self-protective amnesia” of nonhistorians). During the 1960s and 1970s, however, the “new social history” refocused the attention of some historians on the uses of genealogical and local history materials. In women’s history, family history, urban history, and ethnic history, sources previously viewed as primarily genealogical assumed a greater importance. For the first time in decades, historians became interested in mining the same sources that had long occupied genealogists: census data, shipping lists, and parish records provided valuable information for the study of social mobility, migration, mortality, marriage, occupational studies, and a variety of other topics of new interest to scholars interested in reconstructing the lives of ordinary people. In 1969, historian Edward Saveth addressed the need for research in the “neglected field of American Family History,” in part by referencing the work of genealogists and local (amateur) historians:

Genealogy, as Henry Adams said, has a strong element of personal interest lacking in History. The shelves of genealogical and local historical societies are filled with histories of families whose prominence is generally confined to the locality, written by people still less well known. Most of these are not much more than padded genealogies and are not likely to be useful to the historian. However, the bare genealogical record–births, deaths, lines of descent–can be helpful in the study of family mobility and “in the technique of family reconstruction,” which is one of the aims of historical demography in studying the early American family . . . Occasional papers urging cooperation by genealogists, historians and social scientists have gone for the most part unheeded.

Saveth recommended that historians consider the occasionally valuable documents genealogists might contribute to archives but stopped short of suggesting more than this kind of “haphazard” historical-genealogical collaboration, even though the value of genealogists as collectors, compilers, and preservers of historical data was evident. Meanwhile, in the public arena, the immense popularity of the book and television miniseries Roots in the early 1970s led to a wave of interest in genealogy and family history. In fact, a 1978 American Quarterly review essay noted the post-Roots popularity of factual and fictional family sagas, genealogical how-to books, and ethnic community studies, and posited that the rising interest in family history, genealogy, and memoir represented a cultural shift from the ethos of the self-made man to the individual as product of family and ethnic group. The resonance of Roots, as David Chioni Moore reasoned, lay in the appeal of a recovered “rooted identity,” especially “when a major chunk of the tangle of one’s identity has been either erased or systematically denigrated, or, in the case of Haley and his primary intended readers, both.” As such, the tracing of that narrative root (or route), even if it was a narrow genealogical one, provided a historical bridge for the wider public. Subsequently, an academic backlash in the 1980s and 1990s–first against quantitative history as banal number crunching, then against social history subdisciplines as “particularist” threats to synthesis–made further contact between historians and genealogists unlikely. Most famously, Gertrude Himmelfarb used an unidentified graduate student’s claim that his small community study was “cutting edge” research as an example of misplaced academic energy: “Surely it is the grossest kind of hubris for the historian to be dismissive of great books and great thinkers, to think that reality is better reflected in second-rate and third-rate thinkers than in first-rate ones. And it is surely a peculiar sense of historical relevance to think that everything about a book is worth studying–the technology of printing, the economics of publishing, the means of distribution, the composition of the reading public–everything, that is, except the ideas in the book itself.” Coupled with William Bennett’s call for a return to “traditional history” and a reduction in funding for regional history projects, the motivation for historians to explicitly promote closer ties with genealogists was greatly diminished. Nonetheless, the turbulent years of the culture wars did produce a wider acceptance of nontraditional historical subject matter and source material. Moreover, the bare suggestion that previously underrepresented groups were worthy of historical study stimulated the interest and energies of nonprofessional researchers; so did methods closely associated with the new social history, like oral history and the study of ephemera. From the point of view of the genealogist, the tracing of lineage could be augmented by diaries, letters, photographs, memoirs, etc.–items that were now objects of legitimate interest, even if the subjects were not famous or influential.

Fig. 2. Framed "family tree" record in farmhouse near Epping, Williams County, N.D. (1937). Russell Lee, photographer. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection.
Fig. 2. Framed “family tree” record in farmhouse near Epping, Williams County, N.D. (1937). Russell Lee, photographer. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection.

On the other hand, two themes are present in much of the current writing on history as a profession and as a discipline: the fragmentation of the discipline, both in terms of self-contained areas of study (e.g., women’s history, African American history) and philosophical relativism; and the failure of professional historians to interest the nonacademic public in their work. Historians, then, are struggling with the purpose of history, and the nature of history in the public sphere. The Internet, as a sort of public sphere in miniature, is one place where the latter question is being worked out, and the results are surprising. Part II History, Genealogy, and the Web Social history’s influence is readily apparent in the new Web versions of traditional print titles. American National Biography (ANB), a print and online successor to the print-only Dictionary of American Biography(DAB, last supplemented in 1985), takes particular notice of the shift to social history and its sources in its Website preface:

[W]hile the value of a national biographical reference work has endured, the character of such an undertaking has changed considerably since the DAB was published . . . Virtually all aspects of the past are now seen from a different perspective. Today, historians do not regard the slave-plantation South with nostalgia or dismiss women’s participation in politics as quaint or deride the doctrinal views of small religious sects or deny the cultural importance of dolls or pop music. Nor do most historians assume a proprietary omniscience in regard to their subjects or believe that History is merely a collection of facts. Nearly all acknowledge that History consists of many different stories and interpretations.

And, of course, many of these stories have made their way to the Internet. Both genealogists and historians have brought a wealth of primary source data to the Web. In fact, the Web may serve its most significant role in providing a gateway to local and geographically isolated historical collections, many of which may not be in institutional hands at all and hence difficult to access and largely unprotected. As Patterson Toby Graham points out in a recent article in the Journal of the Association for History and Computing, few researchers, relative to the number who visit it electronically, will visit his institution’s archives on race relations in Hattiesburg, Mississippi (the University of Southern Mississippi’s Civil Rights in Mississippi Digital Archive. “Fifteen to thirty researchers visit the Special Collections reading room each day, a few hundred a month. In the same month, however, there are easily eight thousand hits on just one of the Special Collections Department’s three Web sites. That tells me that my job and my audience are changing.” So what kinds of issues still remain for historians and genealogists? Roy Rosenzweig has examined the state of American history on the Web in two articles for the Journal of American History (1997 and 2001). In the 1997 article, Rosenzweig and co-author Michael O’Malley depicted the dichotomy posed by the Web’s failure to “privilege” certain sources: conservative critics (including Himmelfarb) viewing “Web” and “scholarship” as a contradiction in terms, and “techno-enthusiasts” embracing the possibilities of a hierarchy-free democratized information forum. While noting the possibilities and limitations for American history in the realm of the Web, the authors were nonetheless “impressed–even astonished–by what already exists there for historians.” Four years later, Rosenzweig again referred to the proliferation of primary and secondary sources on the Internet, including grassroots projects by academics, teachers, Civil War enthusiasts, and, yes, genealogists. While he acknowledged that the amateur sites might perpetuate debunked theories or editing and transcription errors, his overall view of the “free and public” character of history on the Web was markedly positive. However, his approbation was tempered by the potential for the loss of this free and public character as more and more of the richest historical material was being co-opted by the “Private History Web”: high-priced library-based subscriptions and/or advertising-based commercial sites. Rosenzweig concluded with a call to action: “we [historians] need to put our energies into maintaining and enlarging the astonishingly rich public historical web that has emerged in the last five years . . . Academics and enthusiasts created the Web; we should not quickly or quietly cede it to giant corporations.” The Web-related issues facing genealogists and historians are both procedural (access-driven) and methodological. From a procedural standpoint, there is a good deal of uniformity–both groups want free public access to as wide a range of hard-to-obtain primary documents as possible. The methodological issue is a thornier one in theory, but the Websites in practice illustrate a growing uniformity of purpose and presentation–and possibilities for developing a true “public history” with roles for genealogist and historian alike. Part III The Websites: Joint Projects, Data Archives, and Paid Subscriptions Some of the best historical sites on the Web are the result of the direct collaboration of professional historians and local historical organizations (a traditional bastion of genealogy). The Ohio, New York, and Eastern Washington State Historical Societies, for example, are contributors to The American Memory project from the Library of Congress and its over one hundred thematic historical collections. Other sites like Historic Pittsburghare university-historical society joint projects. Still others make extensive use of sources collected or compiled by local historians. What these sites acknowledge, openly or tacitly, is that the primary sources they present will be used for multiple purposes by historians and nonhistorians (particularly teachers and students). As a result, these Websites minimize the role of scholarly interpretation, choosing in some cases to present an assortment of documents–an evidence file or dossier, so to speak–to encourage the user to follow his own path through the material. The result is somewhat analogous to documentary films that eschew the “voice-of-God” narration,” and it presents some of the same issues and opportunities (see Jay Ruby’s article in Visual Anthropology Review). Three highly acclaimed Websites in the academic or professional history category illustrate the history-as-dossier model–the phrase is a useful oversimplification–to different degrees. Do History (“[a] site that shows you how to piece together the past from the fragments that have survived”) is an interactive case study based on eighteenth-century midwife Martha Ballard’s diary and the research that went into Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York, 1990) and the film based upon it. The site was developed by Harvard University’s Film Study Center, with an advisory board of historians. According to the site’s authors, “Although Do History is centered on the life of Martha Ballard, you can learn basic skills and techniques for interpreting fragments that survive from any period in History. We hope that many people will be inspired by Martha Ballard’s story to do original research on other ‘ordinary’ people from the past.” In keeping with this philosophy, the site includes a how-to section on transcription and a “History Toolkit” of research tips and forms–familiar items on genealogy pages, but something rarely seen on a history site. All of Ballard’s diary entries are included on the site, both in transcribed and image file formats; the reader has the choice of browsing the journal or of selecting one of a number of stories and themes to follow. (Ballard’s daily diary entries were brief and mundane enough for previous historians to dismiss them as inconsequential, but as Ulrich noted, “the trivia that so annoyed earlier readers provide a consistent, daily record of the operation of a female-managed economy.”) The award-winning Dramas of Haymarket, created by the Chicago Historical Society and the trustees of Northwestern University, has been recognized for its accessibility, excellent content, well-written text and engaging arrangement. Moreover, the Haymarket site actually serves a twofold purpose. The Dramas of Haymarket is linked with The Haymarket Digital Collection, a collection of key documents and artifacts. The Dramas of Haymarket presents primary sources, but they are accompanied by an interpretive text designed to explain the sources from the viewpoint of scholarship. The Digital Collection, on the other hand, explicitly disavows an interpretive purpose: “The digital collection presents images of key documents and artifacts in their historical context with a minimum of interpretive information. Much like the witness testimony and exhibits introduced during the Haymarket trial, these primary sources are pieces of evidence which enable the user to reconstruct and interpret the historical events to which they relate.” The documents are posted as transcribed and as image files, allowing the reader to assess the accuracy of the transcription. Lastly, The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, co-authored by Edward L. Ayers and Anne S. Rubin, is an “invented archive” or cross-repository collection drawn together specifically to create an online resource. Valley of the Shadow takes two communities, one Northern and one Southern, through the American Civil War via an archive of sources: newspapers, letters, diaries, photographs, maps, church records, population census, agricultural census, and military records. As the site’s introductory text states, “Students can explore every dimension of the conflict and write their own histories, reconstructing the life stories of women, African Americans, farmers, politicians, soldiers, and families.” The prize-winning site was the focus of a New York Times article entitled “An Historian presents the Civil War, Online and Unfiltered by Historians” (June 29, 2000), and it is designed to operate as a do-it-yourself history kit, allowing users to track ordinary individuals from diary entries to newspaper articles to census records, without the mediation or structure imposed by an historian. The process encourages amateur research, and it creates the same sense of uneasiness in academicians (per Gary J. Kornblith’s review of the site in the Journal of American History): “in practice there is a thin line between destabilizing received narratives and promoting a nihilistic view that the historical record is so fragmented and complex that it makes no sense at all.” Thus the method of presentation of primary source material on the Web gives rise to some of the old history-genealogy issues. Should the historian’s role as scholarly interpreter be altered to take advantage of the Web’s possibilities for hands-on, user-driven research? If the Web is best suited to serve as an historical archive, should the historian’s role be that of the less obtrusive presenter or facilitator instead? Indeed, the characterization of Websites as “genealogist-sponsored” or “historian-sponsored” falls apart entirely when the user encounters some collaborative sites. One such example is The Canadian Letters & Images ProjectCanadian Letters, run under the auspices of the history department at Malaspina University College, is an online archive of the wartime experiences of “ordinary” Canadians. On the site’s “About the Project” page, the authors (who appear to be members of the history faculty) note that “[w]e do not edit correspondence or select portions of collections, but include if at all possible all materials submitted to us.  Our place is not to judge the historic merit of one person’s experiences over those of another; we instead let those voices and images from the past tell their own story . . . We believe it is important to collect and recreate the personal side of the wartime experience as soon as possible, before such materials are forever lost or destroyed.” Thus the site includes both pages on “How to Contribute” to the site and “Saving Family Heirlooms,” a set of links to preservation and conservation tips. Though less explicitly, other digital historical collections partner with individuals as well as institutions (one example is the University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections). Other sites are less openly enthusiastic about outside contributions; as stated on its FAQ Web page, the Library of Congress’s National Digital Library Program does not solicit scanned material from individuals, though potential donors are referred to the library’s acquisitions department. On the genealogy side, the trend is in the other direction: from the stand-alone family tree to the rest of the world. Genealogy Websites have also created cross-repository collections of difficult-to-obtain primary sources: census data, manuscript census images, pension records, out-of-print biographical and local history material, and source materials in private hands, via images or transcriptions. These sources have always provided important corroborating evidence of historical accuracy, and this role continues in the electronic environment. Mary Beth Norton provided a good recent example (1998) in her study of a fraudulent seventeenth-century diary purportedly authored by “Hetty Shepard” in 1675-77. As Norton notes, “[I]n the last few years, excerpts from three nineteenth-century fakes have been reprinted as genuine, even though two of them already have been exposed as fraudulent.” Genealogical sources either contradicted or failed to confirm the Shepard account (which also contains multiple anachronisms). Norton concludes that reputable scholars placing credence in the Shepard diary have been misled by bibliographic guides to published women’s writings, which tend to be picked up, errors and all, by later compilers. Norton’s point is well made: currently, Shepard’s diary is reproduced in the academic database North American Women’s Letters and Diaries (offered by Accessible Archives/Alexander Street Press), with absolutely no mention of its questionable authenticity. So what do genealogy Websites offer? Genealogists, because of their strong volunteer ethos, were among the first Internet users to make public data available free of charge on the Web. One example is the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), a searchable database of over fifty million records created from SSA payment records, provided free of charge by two genealogy Websites, Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. The database contains names, social security numbers, dates of birth, dates of death, and last residences when available; in late 2001, the database included information through the end of September of that year. The SSDI has also been available via the Web in the 1990s on various private investigative or public records sites, but only on a paid subscription basis; the genealogy sites have long been the only free online source for the database. FamilySearch.org, authored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (AKA the Mormon Church), is an especially valuable tool for biographers and historians as well as genealogists. It provides free access to the church-compiled International Genealogical Index (IGI), an index by surname of births, baptisms and marriages from the sixteenth to the late nineteenth centuries. The online version includes source information (batch and serial sheet number for microfilm or fiche) for most records, thus providing a means of verification. (The site also makes available two other databases, Ancestral File and Pedigree Resource File, which display lineage-linked records with submitter information when available.) The Mormon Church has made other historical data available via CD-ROM, including records from the post-Civil War era Freedman’s Bank. The records include detailed biographical information about the account holder, including names of family members, the birthplace of parents, military history, employment, the names of plantations and former slave owners, and, in some cases, even brief oral histories. The records represent 484,083 people from three to four generations of African Americans. The church obviously recognized that interest in the product extended beyond the genealogy community, and in fact the low-priced CD is widely held by academic libraries. The USGenWeb Project is a volunteer-run, noncommercial operation designed to provide Websites for genealogical research for every county of every state of the United States. The GenWeb state and county sites vary in quality, but most contain transcribed records and documents, scanned out-of-print books, digital maps, and photographic archives. They are often good sources for information about industries, occupations, or activity patterns. The project also includes a national-level Archives Project, which was developed to present transcriptions of public domain records on the Internet; the Website states that file submitters (all volunteers) encompass genealogical societies, departments of the United States government, and local and county offices, as well as individuals. Even as some genealogy sites build free online archives, the “Private Web” noted by Rosenzweig in the history context is part of the genealogy realm as well. Ancestry.com is a commercial site owned by MyFamily.com, Inc. Ancestry.com delivers an impressive amount of information, but access to most of it requires a paid subscription ($69.95 per year without census images, $99.90 with census images, and $129.95 with census images and the UK/Ireland collection). These charges are admittedly small when compared to the several-thousand-dollar price tag for a comparable academic database; nonetheless, the genealogy community has been somewhat nonplussed by MyFamily.com, Inc.’s unabashed commercialism. In a controversial move, MyFamily.com acquired the RootsWeb site, one of the earliest and most extensive of the Web’s free genealogy sites; the RootsWeb data was incorporated into the Ancestry.com collection–to the horror of some of the genealogists who had researched and assembled the information at their own expense and were now unwitting contributors to a paid-subscription database. A subscription to Ancestry.com includes access to many bibliographic sources held by academic libraries in CD-ROM format: most notably, the Periodicals Source Index (PERSI), a comprehensive subject index to genealogy and local history periodical articles since 1800; the Genealogical Library Master Catalog (GLMC), a sort of WorldCat equivalent for genealogists, with bibliographic references to over two hundred thousand family histories, genealogies, town and county histories; and the Biography & Genealogy Master Index (BGMI), a Gale Research Company product, which indexes numerous collective biographical sources from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries including the ubiquitous Who’s Who series. The Website’s Census Collection includes complete image files for the 1790 through 1920 manuscript federal censuses, viewable county by county, accompanied by searchable indexes of the heads of household (a project still in progress). Two other databases, Newspaper Obituaries, provided by Bell and Howell, and the Civil War Research Database, compiled by Historic Data Systems, are also excellent resources for historian and genealogist alike. Today Genealogy sites are filled with bibliographic, public record, and private material; they are no longer solely family-tree driven. In fact, one of the foundations of traditional genealogy, the Genealogical Date Communication (GEDCOM) used in lineage-linked databases, may be on its way out (see an article in Genealogical Computing, an Ancestry.com publication, entitled “Is GEDCOM Dead?”). The reason for GEDCOM’s rumored demise? Many genealogists want to use image, audio, and video files in the Web environment, and GEDCOM’s name/date/place tags are simply too limited. Part IV The Websites: Joint Projects, Data Archives, and Paid Subscriptions Some of the best historical sites on the Web are the result of the direct collaboration of professional historians and local historical organizations (a traditional bastion of genealogy). The Ohio, New York, and Eastern Washington State Historical Societies, for example, are contributors to The American Memory project from the Library of Congress and its over one hundred thematic historical collections. Other sites like Historic Pittsburghare university-historical society joint projects. Still others make extensive use of sources collected or compiled by local historians. What these sites acknowledge, openly or tacitly, is that the primary sources they present will be used for multiple purposes by historians and nonhistorians (particularly teachers and students). As a result, these Websites minimize the role of scholarly interpretation, choosing in some cases to present an assortment of documents–an evidence file or dossier, so to speak–to encourage the user to follow his own path through the material. The result is somewhat analogous to documentary films that eschew the “voice-of-God” narration,” and it presents some of the same issues and opportunities (see Jay Ruby’s article in Visual Anthropology Review). Three highly acclaimed Websites in the academic or professional history category illustrate the history-as-dossier model–the phrase is a useful oversimplification–to different degrees. Do History (“[a] site that shows you how to piece together the past from the fragments that have survived”) is an interactive case study based on eighteenth-century midwife Martha Ballard’s diary and the research that went into Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York, 1990) and the film based upon it. The site was developed by Harvard University’s Film Study Center, with an advisory board of historians. According to the site’s authors, “Although Do History is centered on the life of Martha Ballard, you can learn basic skills and techniques for interpreting fragments that survive from any period in History. We hope that many people will be inspired by Martha Ballard’s story to do original research on other ‘ordinary’ people from the past.” In keeping with this philosophy, the site includes a how-to section on transcription and a “History Toolkit” of research tips and forms–familiar items on genealogy pages, but something rarely seen on a history site. All of Ballard’s diary entries are included on the site, both in transcribed and image file formats; the reader has the choice of browsing the journal or of selecting one of a number of stories and themes to follow. (Ballard’s daily diary entries were brief and mundane enough for previous historians to dismiss them as inconsequential, but as Ulrich noted, “the trivia that so annoyed earlier readers provide a consistent, daily record of the operation of a female-managed economy.”) The award-winning Dramas of Haymarket, created by the Chicago Historical Society and the trustees of Northwestern University, has been recognized for its accessibility, excellent content, well-written text and engaging arrangement. Moreover, the Haymarket site actually serves a twofold purpose. The Dramas of Haymarket is linked with The Haymarket Digital Collection, a collection of key documents and artifacts. The Dramas of Haymarket presents primary sources, but they are accompanied by an interpretive text designed to explain the sources from the viewpoint of scholarship. The Digital Collection, on the other hand, explicitly disavows an interpretive purpose: “The digital collection presents images of key documents and artifacts in their historical context with a minimum of interpretive information. Much like the witness testimony and exhibits introduced during the Haymarket trial, these primary sources are pieces of evidence which enable the user to reconstruct and interpret the historical events to which they relate.” The documents are posted as transcribed and as image files, allowing the reader to assess the accuracy of the transcription. Lastly, The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, co-authored by Edward L. Ayers and Anne S. Rubin, is an “invented archive” or cross-repository collection drawn together specifically to create an online resource. Valley of the Shadow takes two communities, one Northern and one Southern, through the American Civil War via an archive of sources: newspapers, letters, diaries, photographs, maps, church records, population census, agricultural census, and military records. As the site’s introductory text states, “Students can explore every dimension of the conflict and write their own histories, reconstructing the life stories of women, African Americans, farmers, politicians, soldiers, and families.” The prize-winning site was the focus of a New York Times article entitled “An Historian presents the Civil War, Online and Unfiltered by Historians” (June 29, 2000), and it is designed to operate as a do-it-yourself history kit, allowing users to track ordinary individuals from diary entries to newspaper articles to census records, without the mediation or structure imposed by an historian. The process encourages amateur research, and it creates the same sense of uneasiness in academicians (per Gary J. Kornblith’s review of the site in the Journal of American History): “in practice there is a thin line between destabilizing received narratives and promoting a nihilistic view that the historical record is so fragmented and complex that it makes no sense at all.” Thus the method of presentation of primary source material on the Web gives rise to some of the old history-genealogy issues. Should the historian’s role as scholarly interpreter be altered to take advantage of the Web’s possibilities for hands-on, user-driven research? If the Web is best suited to serve as an historical archive, should the historian’s role be that of the less obtrusive presenter or facilitator instead? Indeed, the characterization of Websites as “genealogist-sponsored” or “historian-sponsored” falls apart entirely when the user encounters some collaborative sites. One such example is The Canadian Letters & Images ProjectCanadian Letters, run under the auspices of the history department at Malaspina University College, is an online archive of the wartime experiences of “ordinary” Canadians. On the site’s “About the Project” page, the authors (who appear to be members of the history faculty) note that “[w]e do not edit correspondence or select portions of collections, but include if at all possible all materials submitted to us.  Our place is not to judge the historic merit of one person’s experiences over those of another; we instead let those voices and images from the past tell their own story . . . We believe it is important to collect and recreate the personal side of the wartime experience as soon as possible, before such materials are forever lost or destroyed.” Thus the site includes both pages on “How to Contribute” to the site and “Saving Family Heirlooms,” a set of links to preservation and conservation tips. Though less explicitly, other digital historical collections partner with individuals as well as institutions (one example is the University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections). Other sites are less openly enthusiastic about outside contributions; as stated on its FAQ Web page, the Library of Congress’s National Digital Library Program does not solicit scanned material from individuals, though potential donors are referred to the library’s acquisitions department. On the genealogy side, the trend is in the other direction: from the stand-alone family tree to the rest of the world. Genealogy Websites have also created cross-repository collections of difficult-to-obtain primary sources: census data, manuscript census images, pension records, out-of-print biographical and local history material, and source materials in private hands, via images or transcriptions. These sources have always provided important corroborating evidence of historical accuracy, and this role continues in the electronic environment. Mary Beth Norton provided a good recent example (1998) in her study of a fraudulent seventeenth-century diary purportedly authored by “Hetty Shepard” in 1675-77. As Norton notes, “[I]n the last few years, excerpts from three nineteenth-century fakes have been reprinted as genuine, even though two of them already have been exposed as fraudulent.” Genealogical sources either contradicted or failed to confirm the Shepard account (which also contains multiple anachronisms). Norton concludes that reputable scholars placing credence in the Shepard diary have been misled by bibliographic guides to published women’s writings, which tend to be picked up, errors and all, by later compilers. Norton’s point is well made: currently, Shepard’s diary is reproduced in the academic database North American Women’s Letters and Diaries (offered by Accessible Archives/Alexander Street Press), with absolutely no mention of its questionable authenticity. So what do genealogy Websites offer? Genealogists, because of their strong volunteer ethos, were among the first Internet users to make public data available free of charge on the Web. One example is the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), a searchable database of over fifty million records created from SSA payment records, provided free of charge by two genealogy Websites, Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. The database contains names, social security numbers, dates of birth, dates of death, and last residences when available; in late 2001, the database included information through the end of September of that year. The SSDI has also been available via the Web in the 1990s on various private investigative or public records sites, but only on a paid subscription basis; the genealogy sites have long been the only free online source for the database. FamilySearch.org, authored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (AKA the Mormon Church), is an especially valuable tool for biographers and historians as well as genealogists. It provides free access to the church-compiled International Genealogical Index (IGI), an index by surname of births, baptisms and marriages from the sixteenth to the late nineteenth centuries. The online version includes source information (batch and serial sheet number for microfilm or fiche) for most records, thus providing a means of verification. (The site also makes available two other databases, Ancestral File and Pedigree Resource File, which display lineage-linked records with submitter information when available.) The Mormon Church has made other historical data available via CD-ROM, including records from the post-Civil War era Freedman’s Bank. The records include detailed biographical information about the account holder, including names of family members, the birthplace of parents, military history, employment, the names of plantations and former slave owners, and, in some cases, even brief oral histories. The records represent 484,083 people from three to four generations of African Americans. The church obviously recognized that interest in the product extended beyond the genealogy community, and in fact the low-priced CD is widely held by academic libraries. The USGenWeb Project is a volunteer-run, noncommercial operation designed to provide Websites for genealogical research for every county of every state of the United States. The GenWeb state and county sites vary in quality, but most contain transcribed records and documents, scanned out-of-print books, digital maps, and photographic archives. They are often good sources for information about industries, occupations, or activity patterns. The project also includes a national-level Archives Project, which was developed to present transcriptions of public domain records on the Internet; the Website states that file submitters (all volunteers) encompass genealogical societies, departments of the United States government, and local and county offices, as well as individuals. Even as some genealogy sites build free online archives, the “Private Web” noted by Rosenzweig in the history context is part of the genealogy realm as well. Ancestry.com is a commercial site owned by MyFamily.com, Inc. Ancestry.com delivers an impressive amount of information, but access to most of it requires a paid subscription ($69.95 per year without census images, $99.90 with census images, and $129.95 with census images and the UK/Ireland collection). These charges are admittedly small when compared to the several-thousand-dollar price tag for a comparable academic database; nonetheless, the genealogy community has been somewhat nonplussed by MyFamily.com, Inc.’s unabashed commercialism. In a controversial move, MyFamily.com acquired the RootsWeb site, one of the earliest and most extensive of the Web’s free genealogy sites; the RootsWeb data was incorporated into the Ancestry.com collection–to the horror of some of the genealogists who had researched and assembled the information at their own expense and were now unwitting contributors to a paid-subscription database. A subscription to Ancestry.com includes access to many bibliographic sources held by academic libraries in CD-ROM format: most notably, the Periodicals Source Index (PERSI), a comprehensive subject index to genealogy and local history periodical articles since 1800; the Genealogical Library Master Catalog (GLMC), a sort of WorldCat equivalent for genealogists, with bibliographic references to over two hundred thousand family histories, genealogies, town and county histories; and the Biography & Genealogy Master Index (BGMI), a Gale Research Company product, which indexes numerous collective biographical sources from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries including the ubiquitous Who’s Who series. The Website’s Census Collection includes complete image files for the 1790 through 1920 manuscript federal censuses, viewable county by county, accompanied by searchable indexes of the heads of household (a project still in progress). Two other databases, Newspaper Obituaries, provided by Bell and Howell, and the Civil War Research Database, compiled by Historic Data Systems, are also excellent resources for historian and genealogist alike. Today Genealogy sites are filled with bibliographic, public record, and private material; they are no longer solely family-tree driven. In fact, one of the foundations of traditional genealogy, the Genealogical Date Communication (GEDCOM) used in lineage-linked databases, may be on its way out (see an article in Genealogical Computing, an Ancestry.com publication, entitled “Is GEDCOM Dead?”). The reason for GEDCOM’s rumored demise? Many genealogists want to use image, audio, and video files in the Web environment, and GEDCOM’s name/date/place tags are simply too limited.

Fig. 3. Holograph family tree by James Madison, prepared between 1813-1819, included on the American Memory Website. Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
Fig. 3. Holograph family tree by James Madison, prepared between 1813-1819, included on the American Memory Website. Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The Web both reflects areas of convergence and presents possibilities for the engagement of large numbers of nonacademic parties in the preserving, creating, and presenting of historical material. Some of the best historical Websites are the results of those collaborations. However, even as historians and genealogists find common ground, the traditionally dismissive attitudes die hard. Thus while historians are highly motivated to engage K-12 and college students in the practice of history–in working with documents and engaging in interpretation–their level of interest in building ties with genealogists, local historians, and other nonprofessional groups is difficult to discern. It is almost as if there were a tacit assumption that well-instructed college students will either move on to graduate programs in history or simply become a discerning audience for the professional historian. However, the non- or postcollegiate individual with a keen interest in historical research does not appear to be content with mere spectatorship; that is why genealogical research is thriving and “amateur” historical Websites continue to flourish. Similarly, genealogists have been happy to ignore developments in the history camp, though the Web seems to have partially bridged the gap (e.g., the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society’s training classes in the use of American Memory, the University of Michigan and Cornell University’s Making of Americasite, and other large historical sites, accompanied by criteria for judging the credibility and completeness of information on the Web). The true potential for history-genealogy (or professional-nonprofessional) collaboration, with the common goal of a wider audience and new ways of presenting research, is already emerging on the Web. If the end result is that exciting new source materials can be combined with contextual analysis and shared with a wider audience, all students of history will be grateful to both groups. Further reading: On history and the Web, see Roy Rosenzweig, “The Road to Xanadu: Public and Private Pathways on the History Web,” Journal of American History (September 2001): 548-79; Michael O’Malley and Roy Rosenzweig, “Brave New World or Blind Alley? American History on the World Wide Web,” Journal of American History (June 1997): 132-55; Patterson Toby Graham, “Researching American History Primary Sources Online: A Librarian’s Perspective,” Journal of the Association for History and Computing 3(2) (August 2000); Gary J. Kornblith, “Venturing into the Civil War, Virtually,” Journal of American History (June 2001): 145-51. On genealogy and its uses, see Robert M. Taylor, “Summoning the Wandering Tribes: Genealogy and Family Reunions in American History,” Journal of Social History 16(2) (1982): 21-37; Mary Beth Norton, “Getting to the Source–Hetty Shepard, Dorothy Dudley, and Other Fictional Colonial Women I Have Come to Know Altogether Too Well,” Journal of Women’s History 10(3) (Autumn 1998): 141-54. On the new social history and historiography: Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, 1988); Gertrude Himmelfarb, The New History and the Old(Cambridge, Mass., 1987); Edward N. Saveth, “The Problem of American Family History,” American Quarterly 21(2), (Supplement, Summer 1969): 311-29. On public interest in history and genealogy, see David Lowenthal, “The Timeless Past: Anglo-American Historical Preconceptions,” Journal of American History75(4) (March 1989), 1263-280; John R. Gillis, “Heritage and History: Twins Separated at Birth,” Reviews in American History 25(3) (1997), 375-78; David Chioni Moore, “Routes: Alex Haley’s Roots and the Rhetoric of Genealogy,” Transition 64 (1994), 4-21; James A. Hijiya, “Roots: Family and Ethnicity in the 1970s,” American Quarterly 30(4) (Autumn 1978), 548-56. On comparative methodology, particularly the use of an authoritative voice in presentation, see Jay Ruby, “Speaking For, Speaking About, Speaking With, or Speaking Alongside–An Anthropological and Documentary Dilemma,” Visual Anthropology Review7(2) (Fall 1991), 50-67.  

About Sheila O'Hare

Sheila O’Hare is social sciences bibliographer at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds advanced degrees in history, law, and library and information science.

Chicago Citation

O'Hare, Sheila. "Genealogy and History." Common-place.org. (April 2002). http://common-place.org/book/genealogy-and-history/

Topic Tags: Material Culture Theory and Practice in Early American Scholarship Visual Culture