Going public (again!) – family history, genealogy & more

Regular readers of this blog & our Twitter feed (@RWLDproject) will know we’re always keen to take the project out to as many people as possible. So when a couple of chances came up to connect with family historians & genealogists, we leapt at the chance! This post collects together a few thoughts about two events – the London Family History Show last month and the Register of Qualified Genealogists inaugural conference, held in York last Saturday.

First up, September’s Family History Show. This was the first time we’ve done a big family history event, so it was a step into the unknown. We wanted to take the project along to let people see the range of resources on offer and to find out how we could help family historians more (especially as we extend our coverage – see this blog post). We weren’t quite sure what to expect, so it was good to arrive and find by chance our stand was next to that of our long-term supporters, the Guild of One-Name Studies! As we were setting up they helped show us the ropes, plus it was an opportunity to catch up with some friends made at the Abberley seminar earlier this year (more on that here). As well as handing out the project information sheet and data visualisation (which attracted lots of attention), we were premiering our new pop-up banners, which gave people plenty to see and went down well. In addition, we had some computers along to show off the website, the database & – thanks to the BFI – a montage of film footage of railway work and railway accidents.

Our stand at the Show – couldn’t get a photo when people were in as it was too busy!

We seemed to spend the whole day on our feet, talking to people – very tiring! But very positive, and a demonstration of the interest in the area amongst family historians. No doubt this is because of the sheer number of people with railway ancestors. We had some great tips and pointers which we’re trying to make use of, though sometimes people were after more general railway staff records which we don’t have. And the number one thing we were telling people?

Yes, we’re free to use!


Then on Saturday we were speaking at the first Register of Qualified Genealogists (RQG) conference, coincidentally held at our project partner, the National Railway Museum. Again, we had one of the pop-up banners, plus the various information sheets, as well as Peter and Mike making a presentation. It was an interesting event and it was nice to see some old friends and meet new people. There were some general themes which emerged during the conference, often tying in with similar aspects we’ve been considering and discussing at other events like this.

Firstly, the importance of data analysis – and particularly in relation to digital sources, the sophistication and possibilities offered by computational techniques and programmes. This was often quite specialist, but we could see ways in which the methods might be applied to our data to improve the links and make it more useable. That’s something we’re talking about, but will need professional input.

Related, the sheer range of sources that genealogists and family historians are using and have the command of at their fingertips: very impressive! At the same time, it was pleasing to hear how critical researchers were being about those sources, including treating the sources with great caution. One discussion centred around how far we might trust the official record, including thinking about responses given to questions/ investigation which fed the officials what they were either expecting or wanting to hear. Occasionally we’ve seen  this explicitly in relation to the accident reports, when the inspectors note that they have reason to doubt the accuracy of statements they were given by workers. We also need to be aware of how data was constructed and collected as it was created (and whose questions/ purposes it was serving) and then how that same data has been digitised.

Often it’s necessary to get at topics ‘around the edges’, where direct sources don’t survive. For that, as well as sensitive (but critical) reading of the sources, it remains important to view the original if possible. Some of the limitations of digitisation came into play here, not least of which being there are huge bodies of records not yet digitised, including those our project uses. This was something discussed by several speakers, ourselves included, but excellently explored by Jane Barton in relation to immigration records for people entering the USA from the Isle of Man: the number of variations and challenges in the original and in digital incarnations was astounding! Going over material yourself can yield valuable context and detail otherwise hidden in the process of digitisation – humans remain adept, in ways machines and programmes aren’t, at picking out links and identifying dubious looking datapoints that require more attention.

Given the interest many genealogists and family historians have in individuals and their stories, this chimes with notions of ‘history from below’ and exploring the everyday lives that are often obscured in research. This might be because sources are hard to come by, of course, but we shouldn’t stop trying. As our project has found, there can be tremendously revealing material in what might – like the worker accident reports – otherwise be viewed as unpromising. The interest not just in the specific details of an individual’s life (like birth, marriage and death) but the wider context in which individuals lived was really pleasing to see. This is what academics would understand as social history, via microhistorical case studies, but as Laura King of the ‘Living with Dying’ project and one of the keynote speakers pointed out, it’s the sort of thing that genealogists and family historians are doing as an integral part of their research.

At the same, we all have differing types of expertise, so recognising and respecting that is important. Whilst there may once have been a rigid divide between genealogy & family history and academic history, that barrier is dissolving (as it is in other areas) as we see increasingly see the value in what we are all able to contribute. Unsurprisingly, then, ideas about co-production and collaboration came up repeatedly (not least in our presentation, given our project is working on these things). It was great to hear about the benefits to all parties – again, which we’ve very much seen in our work. We’ve been able to provide genealogists and family historians with a new free resource and easy access to details they wouldn’t otherwise have had, enabling them to find out more about the moment of the railway worker accident. The flow extends the other way, as we’ve had people coming forward to volunteer details of the worker accidents in their families’ pasts, including greater personal context about the individual involved and the impact of the accident on their family. Indeed, these have formed the basis of several guest blogs, such as this one, with more to come in the coming months!

There are, of course, lots of practical issues to consider to make sure collaboration is effective and mutually beneficial, as well as plenty of challenges. One way we’ve tried to make sure we can have these conversations – and something else that came out of Laura King’s keynote address – has been participating in events and activities organised by and aimed at all of our stakeholders, like the Family History Show and the RQG conference. All parties being open to this, and having frank discussions about how we are all approaching topics of mutual interest, will help to build connections – but we also need to find a way to continue those conversations outside the events.

Finally, a number of presentations and discussions touched upon difficult pasts and the ethics and sensitivities of working on personal records. As well as our project, this involved the Holocaust and illegitimacy in family pasts; all very different precise topics, but with the potential to upset and affect people. This is something we’re acutely aware of, and have ensured we’ve had favourable ethical opinion before we’ve started work.

York station October 2018

All in all, it was an engaging and productive day (full Twitter thread from the day here), which I thought was done when the conference ended. However, writing this on the train on the way home (after the hen party heading for Sheffield got off and made conversation possible!), I had an enjoyable discussion with one of the genealogists who’d attended the conference. No such thing as being off-duty, it seems, but more food for thought about making data accessible and ensuring it is useful for everyone. I was greatly reassured from the chat that what we’ve been doing is valuable and meets the standards expected for it to be useful to genealogists. So – plenty to think about as we move on to the next stages of the project.

On which note … whilst up in York, we squeezed in a project meeting, including some exciting discussion with a potential external partner, about how we can take things forward and make the work even bigger and better. Plenty to do off the back of that conversation, and it’ll take time (as it involves applying for funding), but watch this space!

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