Historians who teach in academia and professional genealogists have had, at best, a peripheral and tenuous relationship. For much of the last half century, academics have viewed genealogists as amateurs whose work is provincial, at best. They viewed with derision the activities of earlier generations of genealogists whose interest in historical research was almost solely geared toward gaining admittance into hereditary societies. They also faulted genealogists for being so focused on specific families that they failed to place them into historical contexts and thereby give their work deeper meaning and relevance. This disdain continued into the 1970s, when many academics began to focus their own work on specific communities, using them as microcosms for understanding larger historical trends or the social and cultural dynamics of families. Works such as Kenneth Lockridge’s A New England Town: The First Hundred Years, Dedham, Massachusetts
and John Demos’s A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony
broke new ground for their use of local records (the same used by genealogists), but these and other studies did little to bridge the gulf between the two disciplines.
For its part, the field of genealogy underwent a major metamorphosis during the same period, becoming more professionalized and increasing the scope of what genealogists researched. All families, regardless of race, ethnicity, and social status, became subjects of scholarly interest, leaving the old stereotypes of WASP-ish exclusivism in the dust. While plenty of newcomers continued to produce work that lacked documentation, a new wave of genealogical scholars, both professional and amateur, began to apply new standards of documentation to their work. The Board for Certification of Genealogists
established a means for granting professional credentials, and through its promotion of the Genealogical Proof Standard
, it provided new benchmarks for evaluating genealogical evidence.
This evolution became evident in a variety of publications. Journals such as The American Genealogist
, the National Genealogical Society Quarterly
, the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record
, The Genealogist
, and the New England Historical and Genealogical Register
began to publish articles that embodied high standards of documentation and deductive reasoning. Robert Charles Anderson and a team of other researchers produced the highly-acclaimed Great Migration series
that raised the bar for all newly-published genealogical books. His accompanying Great Migration Newsletter
offered advanced discussions of how to evaluate evidence at the New England town level, and in doing so he offered new insight about the process of English immigration that extended well beyond what had appeared in academic works.
The publication of Anderson’s first installment, The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England, 1620-1633
, proved to be a seminal event in getting academics to take notice of a professional genealogist’s work. The noted Puritan historian Roger Thompson of the University of East Anglia
, hailed it as “invaluable to future researchers in many specialisms” and a “marvel of the age” for the new century; see Roger Thompson, review of The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England, 1620-1633, by Robert Charles Anderson et al, Journal of American Studies 30 (August 1996): 298-300, specifically 300. Gloria L. Main of the University of Colorado at Boulder
echoed the praise, recognizing Anderson’s high evidentiary standards for his work. “Although anyone can practice genealogy, just as anyone can practice history, professional genealogists hew to stricter rules of evidence and more rigorous citation practices than even professional historians… As a consequence of the rigor and discipline that have come to mark professional genealogists’ efforts, their work furnishes excellent material for social historians, although they may not condone the ways historians use it;” see Gloria L. Main, review of The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England, 1620-1633, by Robert Charles Anderson et al, William and Mary Quarterly
LIV (October 1997): 857-861, specifically 856.
While this recognition marks significant progress, a gulf endures between genealogists and academic historians. Some genealogists, while appreciating the macro-research of academics, have faulted some assessments of micro-evidence, alleging that some community studies have fallen into the trap of “same name, same person.” By failing to follow the Genealogical Proof Standard
or accepting as evidence secondary works now considered of dubious value, these university-press studies have failed to meet professional genealogical standards. Many professional historians, while accepting the value of such works as the Great Migration, also admit that they do not read genealogical journals.
Other attempts at bridging the continuing divide have had only limited success. Conferences featuring both academic historians and professional genealogists as speakers have led to some conversations but have not paved the way for many interdisciplinary projects. If the gulf has begun to narrow, it remains a slow process. In a recent blog post, genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills, who has also written academic works, discusses the progress of the dialogue in an insightful article: Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 18: Genealogy? In the Academic World? Seriously?” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage
( posted 9 January 2014).
What may bring the groups even closer together is the prospect of joint advocacy for record preservation and digitization. The rise of such websites such as Ancestry
, and FamilySearch
, and the plethora of digitized records contained in them, while geared for genealogists, has also proven of value to academic historians. Many smaller websites with localized focuses have followed suit.
As proof of this trend, one might consider an article by Loren Schweninger, a professor emeritus in History at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro
, appearing recently in the William and Mary Quarterly
, volume 71, no. 1 (January 2014): 35-62. Titled “Freedom Suits, African American Women and the Genealogy of Slavery,” the article explores how mixed-race descendants of free white women used the courts to win their freedom in antebellum Maryland. Significantly, Schweninger uses a number of sources found on websites traditionally associated with genealogists to develop his thesis, and the result is a well-researched study that could have found a home just as easily in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly
Historians and genealogists can join forces by demanding that historical records be made more publicly accessible without restrictions and supporting efforts to make more documents available digitally. Indeed, records once stored behind archival walls and under the exclusive purview of academics are increasingly finding wider audiences through digitization, which can only help the research interests of both groups.
Libraries like The Genealogy Center
at the ACPL
can also play a role in bridging the divide by collecting the publications of both academic historians and genealogists and providing access to historical and genealogical websites. Both are fundamental components of our collection-development policy, and we encourage both historians and genealogists to use our resources.
The two groups have far to go to achieve full cooperation and mutual respect. But the gulf is not insurmountable. More articles like Schweninger’s will bode well for the future.