What Kind of an Historian Are You?

As you may know I am coming off an intensive month of conference planning for the 2014 OGSA (Ostfriesen Genealogical Society of America) Family Reunion.  The conference culminates in a banquet where we honor our attendees and volunteers for the year.  This year I volunteered to present some thoughts to the group as a whole.  They are presented here in almost the way it was presented.

Comments to the 2014 Ostfriesen Genealogical Society Annual Conference Banquet

Delivered 6 August 2014;  based on the book The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide by Conal Furay and Michael J. Salevouris.


 

What kind of historian are you?

What is your reason for being at this conference? …to have access to the Ostfriesen Library collection? …to meet with Ostfriesen friends? …to learn something new about Ostfriesen culture or genealogy? Each of us attended this conference for different but similar reasons–but ultimately to deepen our understanding of our ancestors and their Ostfriesen culture and customs.

The ties that bring us together every two years are strong as we make new and renew friendships. I hope that you have met some new Ostfriesens these past few days–I know I have, but what ties us together in-between conferences is our common love, some times obsessive passion for, the deeper understanding of our ancestors. It is our sense of that historical string that ties us, not in a genetic sense although that is real, to those who came before us.  And like us our descendents will continue the connection. It is by understanding the customs and traditions of the past that we understand better the discussions of today.

This makes us not just genealogists but historians.

But, what kind of historian are you?

Remember when you were in high school and you took history tests? My goal was to memorize the dates and places and be able to give a sentence (at most) about why that event was important. But the “whys” were just another fact to memorize. I did history because I had to.

Think of that as a Stage 1 Historian. Is that you today? A genealogist at this Stage would gather the dates and places to fill out the pedigree chart and be done.

Or, are you a Stage 2 Historian–one who sees that history of your ancestors, and of the events that shaped their lives, as a sequence of events over time. You are beginning to see how your ancestors might have been influenced by history. But, ultimately you wish the historians would just decide on what happened when and tell us! I mean, certainly there is only one version of history and they should just teach it. And can’t it all be reduced to a tidy timeline?

The genealogist at this stage will record the facts but also realizes that other documents may be of interest and seeks them out. They are interested in those court cases where one brother sued another or what the experience was as a Civil War soldier. but interpretation of those events is seen as just too much speculation and not worthy of deep thought. A genealogist sees that they have information that conflicts but doesn’t quite know what to do with it.

A Stage 3 Historian instead sees history as a complex conglomeration of events and is so complex that you cannot see where to begin to make sense of it. At Stage 3, we now understand that history can be taught with an economic overlay, or focused on religion or on the societal impacts–and they all may be right–and all different. History certainly isn’t like the mathematics or chemistry where there are theorems and those theorems are not broken.

This stage is interesting because we, as genealogists, are more confused and feel like we lack more knowledge than we did in the previous two stages. In other words–we now know what we don’t know–and it’s intimidating. But, we also now are starting to understand how macro history issues can directly influence the decision making of our ancestors–or our personal microhistory.

We see that there are different points of view and each historian is conveying a unique point of view. We are starting to be critical thinkers and have what I call, the ability to do “mindful analysis.” We start to unravel and re-assemble those conflicts and see that we can identify errors in documents and understand why they may have been made.

But, there is a Stage 4, — where we start to see that the historian is interpreting history in their own writings. The writer-historian picks some things to write about and discards others; sees that some events are more meaningful than others. He then interprets those events into the context of the time and the decision making of people of long ago.

At this conference, we have had the luxury of hearing about the fate of the poor, and the Dutch emigrants of the 16th century while sitting in the comfort of a nice hotel in Minnesota—will that 16th century perspective change how we feel now about the poor and the immigrants of the 21st? Should it? Will we read our newspapers with a question that asks—”I wonder what the writer is not telling us?”—as we now know that this question is just as important as reading what he IS telling us.

Our understanding of our ancestors and the events that shaped the decisions they made is deepened by the swirl of historic events around them just as we, too are being shaped by the events which swirl around us.

This year I challenge you to write some portion of your personal story or to write about your ancestors. There is no single act you can do that will influence your microhistory for your descendants than that simple act. In the process, I guarantee, you will move from one stage to the next on your own genealogical, –and yes, your personal historical journey.

The question really is not “What kind of an historian you are?” but rather “What kind of an historian do you want to become?”

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3 comments on “What Kind of an Historian Are You?

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