Thursday, June 23, 2011

21st century genealogists: are we becoming better historians?

There is good reason to consider Elizabeth Shown Mills' Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian and Evidence Explained:Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace 2nd Edition over say, The Chicago Manual of Style, (also on my bookshelf), as the latter does not consider sources genealogists typically run across in our research. Elizabeth's influence certainly has pushed genealogy from a quick-fix "hobby" to a "family historian" pursuit (with the emphasis on history). 

  • Historians use surviving documents and then write their view of an historical event.
  • Genealogists use surviving documents and then write their view of kinship and community. 
  • Both are limited by their ability to remain objective. 
  • Both must take care to cite sources so others can follow the line of thinking.
Of the two, historians consider themselves more studious, and in fact have looked down on genealogists for not being meticulous in source citation and analysis.

Our study of Elizabeth Shown Mills' evidence and citation work has gone a long way to overcoming the image that genealogists are nothing more than "genealogy buffs" who think climbing a family tree is just a mouse-click away. 

Mark D. Tucker compiled a Genealogy Research Process Map, having consulted with Elizabeth, that guides us from research goals, to considering a variety of sources, citations, processing of information found in those sources, evaluation of evidence to the development of a "proof argument". Such arguments are essential when you don't find 2-5 original, primary sources stating a definitive family relationship between individuals among people with such unique names that there is no possibility of confusing them with anyone else in the community for a 150 year time period. 99% of my research is in that category, and requires "inferential genealogy" reasoning as Tom Jones calls it.

Hopefully we are becoming more like historians in our approach to citation and analysis. 

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt     :)
Your friend in genealogy.


  1. One way that genealogists can become better historians is to actually write local history. As I've been researching my family tree, I've discovered the rich history of my home town. Much of that history has not been written down, so I've taken upon myself to write it down. Much of New Mexico's history has been written by amateur historians, and many professional historians in our state have embraced amateur historians as legitimate.

  2. History and genealogy are so intertwined that each helps the other. Historians are getting into genealogical aspects of the histories they write. There is emphasis on community studies, kinship studies, local history, social history -- all aspects of history that genealogists have been concerned with for a long time. As a history major at the University of North Florida, I have discussed with my professors the genealogical approach to research and source citation. I am currently engaged in independent undergraduate research on the family structure of St. Augustine, Florida, 1784-1821, under a small grant from the university, using tools of both genealogy and history. We're all headed in the same direction. One of these days, genealogy will take its rightful place among the social sciences as an academic discipline.