A few days ago I happened to tweet that someone had told me I looked “too young to be a genealogist”. It was perhaps originally a throwaway comment, but it got me thinking.
The response I had from people out there in twitter land was quite astonishing. It seems that I am by no means the only one that has been occasionally irritated by this generalisation and certainly not the only “young” family historian out there.
Yet, the stereotype exists. Is genealogy cool? Well, I think it could be. I think it ought to be. In these days of people moving to the other side of the world, travelling great distances just for a meeting and connecting to people across the oceans in a second on social media, I think it is perhaps more important than ever to understand where we come from and what our ancestors went through in order for us to be here at all.
Sadly, a straw poll amongst friends suggested that most of them were also of the opinion that family history is for old people. The phrases “blue rinse” and even “slightly dusty” were associated with people interested in the past. (I must note here that I also think you are never too old to be interested in genealogy and I have never met a ‘dusty’ researcher!)
Yet almost everybody I’ve spoken to wants to know about their heritage.
When questioned, very few even knew their grandparents’ names, and this appears to be common with people of all ages, not just younger people. Many are not interested in researching as far back as possible at all, but rather in finding out more about people who were with us in living memory. It is all too easy to think that our grandparents and great grandparents were never young.
Why then, if these people are so interested in finding out about their family’s past, have they not done anything about it? Because record offices are scary, researchers jealously guard their papers and because they can’t access information online? Well, while these ideas came up, it was often for more mundane reasons – not knowing where to start, thinking it would be too difficult and expensive and simply not having the time were far more common responses.
At this point I will be open and say “My name is Elizabeth. I am 26, and I love family and local history”. I will also come out and say that I do not have a history degree. My partner does, but what he knows about genealogy would fit on a postage stamp (“I know my mother’s maiden name!”) . I am actively pursuing an MSc in Genealogy however, and I do have a BSc (hons) and existing post graduate qualifications in other disciplines, some of which overlap, mostly in my favourite subject – maps!
Ever since I was a little girl I’ve been intrigued by family history. I have read books, joined societies, written histories, sat in record offices, contacted all sorts of people, travelled the length and breadth of my home counties (I now class both Norfolk and Suffolk as home) and further afield looking for places, people, folklore and things to photograph. I am embarking on my first book, combining my loves of photography and history and through Your Local History am aiming to inspire others to start researching themselves by giving them a helping hand with getting started and completing research locally.
I do not pretend to be a professional researcher with decades of experience, but I do try and open records to everybody, meet requests with enthusiasm and inspire confidence in people that have never set foot in a record office before. I am quite happy to show them how. Equally, I am quite happy to show them how to research records online and how to contact distant relatives and other interested parties through websites and forums.
What’s more, I am of course still learning every day and hope to carry on doing so for a long time to come. After all, I’d like to be an ‘old dude’ genealogist too, one day. Of course, by the time I’m 85 I’ll have been researching for 70 years and will hopefully be a ‘go to’ expert in an age where cars fly, the Vulcans have made first contact and people are looking at ‘print systems analyst’ and ‘west area travel plan officer’ on old records (probably not the census, although I hope to see myself on one eventually) and looking them up in a 3D virtual representation of library.
I am aware that there will be those that argue that there is much more to family history. I do not disagree. I will cite sources and interpret manorial records quite happily. However, what I really want to do is help others satisfy their curiosity and ask questions of themselves, their relatives and their history – and if they can write their own book to pass down to future generations, with their own experiences in life, so much the better...
This has been a somewhat unusual blog post for me and I am sure that it will raise some debate as to what makes a ‘genealogist’ (which I think can be quite different to a ‘family historian’) and the merits of experience vs enthusiasm and qualifications. I hope that it will go some way to eliminating the stereotypes that exist – after all, librarians up and down the country are sporting “shhhh” tattoos on their fingers and seem to have eliminated something of their old fashioned image. It’s high time genealogy did the same!
So, as I pursue my career, I will not just be visiting archives, but geotagging photographs, embracing the ancestry iPhone app (which is a boon in graveyards) and keeping an eye out for developments in DNA research.
What I hope to inspire in people is that anyone can be a family historian, regardless of age, occupation and circumstances.
Just start asking questions!