Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Why do family history?

First up we need to agree on what family history is. Is it the same as genealogy?

A useful distinction to make is that a genealogist aims to put the names and dates on an ancestry chart. Family history adds life to them by telling their stories. Before we can tell the story well, we need to get the basic facts in place. Genealogy is part of the background to telling the story.

It’s the stories we find most satisfying if they have meaning to us.

I once worked with a fellow who claimed to have been infected by the ‘family history bug’. For him, it was a kind of compulsion which his family could see no rhyme or reason to. Try as he might, he could not infect his family with the bug nor explain to their satisfaction where the desire for it came from. Nonetheless, they were happy that the illness got him out of the house and off to the library. Now, of course, you can do much of it from your desktop.

I am a fellow-sufferer. In trying to ‘sell’ the idea there are several ‘benefits’ which I used to feel may be convincing to others. These are:

Family medical history could prove useful in identifying the likelihood of contracting some illness. In fact, most people either know of major family illnesses or only research them after someone has been diagnosed.

Get to know ‘where you came from’. Well, I knew my parents and some of my grandparents and those who came before them were dead and buried long before I came along. If you don’t have an identity crisis, this is also not a great motivation. For some people, such as those adopted at birth with no knowledge of their natural parents it can be a motivator.

Discover family you never knew you had. If you don’t know them why go looking for them? If you find a cousin on the other side of the world, are you likely to become good friends?

Resolve old family mysteries. That’s if you have any. Could be you know nothing of your great grandparents and don’t have any odd stories. There is no reason to imagine that their lives had any meaningful impact on yours.

Something to share with family. Stories about what you did or what your personal memories are of your childhood probably have a more lasting impact on family members than reciting what you found on your favourite family history site.

It’s problem-solving!  Great for staving off Alzheimer’s – but why not do Sudoku?

You may find a famous ancestor! Does that impact on who you are? Probably not, and the ‘infamous’ ones may be more interesting. If we’re after famous connections, think about this: statistically, everyone with European ancestry is descended from Emperor Charlemagne (who was crowned only 1200 years ago)!

OK, so I haven’t yet convinced anyone. The question should probably be, ‘Why am I doing it?’

Benefit and real reason
There’s a difference between possible benefits and your reason for doing something. Realising this flicked a switch in my mind. I don’t need to convince others that it’s a good idea in order to give myself permission to enjoy it. While I do have some family history mysteries to solve, my reason for doing it is bigger. I do enjoy problem-solving, understanding different periods of history and writing up some of the things that I find. I do have some interesting stories to tell if the subject comes up but if not I am still enjoying the journey.

So why do I research family history?

It’s therapeutic. Like a good film or pottering in the garden: it takes my mind away. It’s relaxing. Time stands still. 

It’s probably also good for my mental and physical health but that’s another benefit, not a reason.