Genealogy as Graffiti

Thought provoking: Genealogical Graffiti and the Personalization of History, on the blog Drawing Parallels, written by a student of public history named Kris. It’s a surprising meditation on the nature of graffiti (art done outside the “mainstream” and outside “established channels”) and genealogy, which is, I guess, looked at askance by public historians.

When I asked a few friends where they saw history in their everyday lives, most responded with the same answers: Museums, monuments, old buildings, television. When I asked these same questions to family, I received another answer that has come up several times in Donald Spanner’s Archives class – Genealogy.

To me, genealogy seems like a natural corollary of social history. At its outset, social history sought to tell the historical narrative of those who had not previously been included. Genealogy seems much the same, as family members seek to understand their own history. In less than one hundred years, we have gone from a bottom-down approach of history, to a bottom-up one, and finally to a personalized approach.

Kris continues with the mention of how genealogy is, well, kind of outside the historical mainstream and yet plays an extremely important role:

Last week in our Archives class, Professor Spanner talked about the (somewhat regrettable) view that archivists have of Genealogists. Genealogists are rarely interested in wider historical events, unless it involves their family and their sheer numbers can make their requests very time consuming. However, he also mentioned that Genealogists make up the majority of archival users (over 75% in some cases!). If it were not for their patronage, many archives may not be available for the 25% of us doing ‘scholarly’ research.

The post compares bottom-up and top-down approaches, Recent trends in history have been far more bottom-up: “I’m researching my family’s history.” And yet once all those individual endeavors are put togeher, there’s a far more significant body of work. When a large number of individuals each trace the history of a limited number of people going back in time, the massed accumulation of all those findings does paint a historical picture with a very wide brushstroke. 

I’ve come into my interest of genealogy only peripherally. I’m fortunate to have benefited from the work of people on both sides of the family in tracing ancestors. So I feel that the work (for the most part) has been done. What interests me about all this family history stuff? The stories. Finding them out, capturing them, and preserving them. The discovery and capturing and preserving are all servants to the stories themselves.

I’m dazzled by the way in which a story can be told that places you within historical events and thereby get more of an understanding of history than some dry recitation of who did what. (most recent cinematic example: Goodbye, Lenin. a story of what the fall of Berlin Wall and reunification of East and West Germany was like for East Germans, as traced—comedically—in the story of one family). Memoir, Biography, Historical Fiction all bring some other time period alive.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on December 29, 2006 in • GenealogyHistoryPersonal History
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