Last Saturday, as I arrived home from the U3A Family History Conference, I spotted a discussion on Twitter that was sad to read. Else Churchill, genealogist at the Society of Genealogists, had been at a different conference. Whereas my experience was very positive – as an academic I’d been warmly welcomed and enjoyed engaging with the audience, and was there partly to try to spread the word about better collaboration – Else’s experience was tainted by a comment (probably off-hand, certainly ill-considered) from an archivist, to the effect that “of course you wouldn’t want every family historian doing their family history touching these documents but if it’s for an academic project …”. (See her Tweet and the comments it provoked here.)
It obviously struck a chord with Else’s followers and others. Most were, like me, saddened; many were outraged. A few were militant. And as Else herself pointed out, it appeared to say ‘so much for Historians Collaborate’, the movement she, I and plenty of others have been involved in to try to open up a space where researchers of different backgrounds and inclinations might be able to benefit from one another. For some the focus shifted from the archivist to the academics, too, reflecting some wider concerns.
Being charitable to the archivist, perhaps they were worried about lots of people wanting to handle documents and the preservation issues that might present (albeit expressing this in an unfortunate way). To my mind it reflects a view of 20 years ago, and utterly fails to recognise some of the advantages that come into play through wider access to original sources (not least the benefits to the individuals touching the ‘real thing’).
The more I thought about it, and the more responses to Else’s tweet that I read, the more I’m convinced that whilst these attitudes are increasingly unacceptable, and getting smaller in number, they still linger – whether directly experienced by researchers beyond academic institutions, or as a perception. If the latter, the fact the perception remains is important and needs to be addressed. Some of the responses did try to put the positive case, including from other archivists who were disappointed to see the comment expressed, noting that this wasn’t something that users would encounter at their archive: bravo.
Understandably a lot of the responses were defensive in nature, almost trying to justify family historians and genealogists’ access to public archives – though of course, why should they have to justify this? Thankfully, that was something that more people pointed out.
Perhaps a better thing to focus on would be ‘how are we going to change things?’
As it happens, at roughly the same time Else was having her negative experience, I was conducting a straw poll of the 200 or so delegates at the U3A Family History Conference. I’d asked if they felt that academics looked down on what they were doing (yes, I know, a leading question!). The answer was a majority of people felt they did – again, sad to hear after all this time (and hopefully reflecting old encounters with academics or generalised perceptions inherited from old ideas, rather than the current situation).
What did I do as a result? I tried to stress that – in my experience – I’d seen family historians doing excellent research, with a great handle on sources and digging away at their research questions until they either found answers or had to admit defeat. That we might approach the same topics with different questions – but that we could learn from each and really benefit from collaboration. That there were academics, and plenty of us, who don’t view family historians as intruders or as doing ‘light’ research. That we have respect for the research they were doing. It was evidently a welcome idea – to my eye the body postures changed and people were engaged with the idea.
So where do we go from here?
Well, ‘Historians Collaborate’ (search for #HistoriansCollaborate on Twitter) is trying to break down those barriers to cooperation. It’s a developing movement, but will hopefully be able to help encourage collaboration and make people better aware of each other’s research. The diverse mix of people steering it (academics, archivists, family historians, genealogists, local historians) and the input we’re receiving from others is important in setting up a means for different types of researcher to meet and figure the others out.
But – all of the problems that seem to have been highlighted in Else’s experience, and to a lesser extent my own, I think stem from a lack of understand about exactly what it is that the ‘other person’ actually does in their research. I can speak from an academic perspective, but until I’d actually started engaging with the family history and genealogy communities a few years ago, I’d had in my mind’s eye that it was simply all about names and dates on a family tree, with an obsessive focus on lineage. (And I speak as someone with a strong sense of the important of family history, given my unusual surname!) However, I’d not appreciated the richness of the work of family historians, the familiarity with a range of sources, the rigour of the research, and the fact that many are simply interested in the very narrow lines but want to know more about the wider social context of their ancestors’ lives and times. In short, these are the sorts of things that academic historians do, albeit in a different context and often with different research questions in mind.
I can say that from working with family historians on the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project over the past 4 years or so, I’ve benefitted tremendously – and I’d like to thank them. We’ve been able to share and exchange information – we have more detail that they’d previously been able to access about railway ancestors and their conditions of work (and, sometimes, their accidents); they have more detail about the wider impacts of accidents on particular families (sometimes with truly tragic consequences). Coming together we’ve all gained – and I know that’s been the experience of my academic colleagues who’ve worked with family historians and more (like Laura King, Julia Laite, Tanya Evans and Nick Barratt). It’s also been great to see funded projects coming on that are designed to bring together academic and family historians – the research bodies can clearly see the importance of working across supposed gaps.
So it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a case of ‘us vs them’. Contact between researchers with different approaches – talking, even! – is surely key to making this happen.
How do we do that, when everyone is so busy? Changing minds isn’t easy at the best of times, and if we can’t get people together in a room to talk with each other, how can we start to collaborate?
One barrier might actually be our gatherings. They’re great, of course, as we can get together with like-minded people, discuss latest findings and ideas, have a catch up and meet new people, generally in a supportive environment (sometimes even somewhere new or exciting as a location, too). But … we’re talking to each other, to the converted. Perhaps we need spaces which consciously seek to gather people who don’t research (or even think) in the same ways. We can find out how and why ‘the other half’ do what they do. Once we’ve got that in mind we can start to make links with what we do – and those links are definitely there.
Some form of cross-discipline gathering depends upon people having an open mind and actively coming together, which might still be a tough ask. So we need to find a means to reach people without asking them to come to us. Quite how we do that, I’m not yet sure – but I’m keen to keep exploring the possibilities.
I rather grandly titled this ‘start of a manifesto’ – though importantly, with a question mark. Perhaps it is – though it’s rather ill-formed now. At the same time, it’s not the work of one person to do that – I couldn’t, alone, as I can’t speak for everyone interested in researching the past. But it is something that the Historians Collaborate movement can do – and is trying. We need to find out how prevalent these sorts of negative attitudes remain, and invite discussion about how we might combat them – and then get on with putting some of those ideas in place. So, here’s my first ‘manifesto’ point:
- Let’s talk to each other more, and better: about what we’re looking at, why we’re asking those questions, and how we’re doing it.
Beyond that, it’s all up for grabs … and comments are very welcome!
With grateful thanks to Else Churchill and Jackie Depelle for their reassuring eyes-over!