History: Dry dates, dusty places

History: Dry dates, dusty places

Have you thought about the fact that while genealogists are historians — it is an integral element of our quest for knowledge — historians may not be genealogists?

How do genealogists gain understanding and perspective when dealing with history? History to a genealogist is not the dry historical happenings of a distant past but is often very personal history, events that our ancestors either lived through or died from as a result.

I was usually bored in my high school and college history classes, except for some specific topics, such as Sephardic history. Who cared about all those other dates and places? What did those events have to do with me?

My interest in history changed dramatically once I began working on my family’s history, and I began following my ancestors back over the centuries in Iran, Spain, Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Israel, and the US.

Suddenly, those dry boring dates and dusty forgotten places became important and personal, as I learned that my ancestors lived there or were eyewitnesses to, or participants in those same historical events.

Genealogy is more than just lists of names and dates, it is about our ancestors as people. How did they live? Where did they go and why? How did circumstances and historical events impact their lives? History becomes personal if there is a tie to specific times and places where our ancestors lived.

It was somewhat of a shock when I realized that if one of my direct ancestors had died — before producing children — as a result of an epidemic, a war or a sinking boat, then I would not be alive today. This realization hits every genealogist at some point, and it brings everything back to an extremely personal reality. When I taught genealogy to elementary and junior high students, I would discuss this very point and student reactions were interesting as they came to the same realization.

While researching an article on genealogy in New Mexico, I came across an article by Karen Stein Daniel, editor of the New Mexico Genealogist, published by the New Mexico Genealogical Society.

Note that, if you have roots in New Mexico going back to the 16th century — or at any time really — this journal is filled with fascinating articles. Published for some 40 years, a CD (for sale) contains all the issues. It is well worth it and I strongly recommend acquiring it. The society’s website offers some articles and resources online.

In Stein Daniel’s article, “Historiography for Genealogists: A Perspective in Understanding,” she offers the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1966 edition) definition of historiography:

the body of literature dealing with historical matters; the body of techniques, theories, and principles of historical research and presentation, and methods of historical scholarship; the narrative presentation of history based on a critical examination, evaluation, and selection of material from primary and secondary sources and subject to scholarly criteria.

Stein Daniel writes that this sounds like the application and methods that genealogists should be adhering to in research and writing, regardless of whether or not it is for publication.

In 1934, famous historian Charles A. Beard wrote: “…historians recognize … the obvious, long known … that any written history inevitably reflects the thought of the author in his time and cultural setting… Has it not been said for a century or more that each historian who writes history is a product of his age.”

Stein Daniel adds more of Beard’s comments, from an article in the American Historical Review XXXIX (January 1934), titled “Written History as an Act of Faith.”

[The historian’s] work reflects the spirit of the times, of a nation, race, group, class, or section … Every student of history knows that his colleagues have been influenced in their selection and ordering of materials by their biases, prejudices, beliefs, affections, general upbringing, and experience … the selection and arrangement of fact – a combined and complex intellectual operation – is an act of choice, conviction, and interpretation respecting values … an act of thought.

She stresses that genealogists are historians (even if historians are not all genealogists), and we need to understand how to relate to this history.

As genealogical researchers, we pull our clues, facts, and insights from an enormous variety of disciplines. Nothing is beyond our reach in the quest to prove that one bit of information correct or not, or to link one person to another. We make use of the work of earlier generations of genealogists, historians, anthropologists, geographers, and a host of other disciplines. We are not limited by time frame, national or international boundaries, or language barriers. We are a determined group, developing and honing the skills necessary to solve the problems that we find along the way, and consistently looking to meet the next challenge.

The idea of what is “politically correct” today can be quite different from that of long ago historians and we read their words through the prism of today’s cultural clues. Looking to the future, our descendants will read our words via their values which will likely be different than ours.

Do we blame historians of the past for what we might perceive as a backward attitude? Do we disregard their words because they don’t fit our concept of values? How will our own descendants look at our work in a century or two? Will they judge our words and values unfairly because they don’t understand our cultural values?

Stein Daniel quotes historian and Librarian of Congress Emeritus Daniel J. Boorstin who wrote:

… We are a people haunted by all past injustices and fears of future injustice. . . overwhelmed by issues of conscience … How can we … arouse public outrage to right ancient wrongs that violate our civic conscience … ” (“Our Conscience-Wracked Nation,” in “Cleopatra’s Nose: Essays on the Unexpected (Vintage Books, 1994).

How can we explain what we believe, why we believe it and why we wrote what we did, to our descendants 200 years in the future?

Food for thought.

Schelly Talalay Dardashti is the US Genealogy Advisor for MyHeritage.com