- · vol. 2 · no. 3 · April 2002

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.



"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
Sheila O'Hare

Part I | II | III | IV

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.

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.

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.

next this issue home

Copyright © 2002 Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, Inc., all rights reserved