Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Bad Genealogy

Archivists, at least those servicing research rooms, spend a considerable portion of their careers working with genealogical researchers. Often archivists complaint about being inundated with genealogists when they hope to work with serious scholars, whining that often ignores the importance genealogy provides in our society as a legitimate pastime and quest for personal meaning and identity. Eric Enrenreich, in his The Nazi Ancestral Proof: Genealogy, Racial Science, and the Final Solution (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), provides a glimpse into this relationship between archivist and genealogy, although his focus is not on this relationship but on an explanation for why the German public seemed to accept the Nazi cause for the eradication of what was perceived to be an inferior portion of the population, when there was a legitimate reason for complaint.

Enrenreich considers the legitimatization of racial science in Germany, the creation of a vast array of laws and bureaucratic structures for developing proof of racial ancestry (a system involving over 60 million individuals), the use of documentation – such as birth, baptismal, and marriage certificates in creating such proofs, the publishing of genealogical manuals, and the growth of the profession of state-licensed kinship researchers. The author does not often comment directly on the role of the archivist in all this, but there are plenty of implications about this with the rich detail on the development of recordkeeping systems. Near the beginning of the study, Enrenreich enumerates those involved in supporting this genealogical enterprise: “People involved directly or tangentially in the administration of the ancestral proof . . . received many economic and social rewards. Amateur and professional genealogists, racial scientists, and those who controlled genealogical information, such as church officials, civil registrars, and archivists, gained increased funding and prestige” (p. xiv). So, here is a place and time when the status of archivists was high, but there is nothing in this that present-day archivists will want to applaud (although they should read this study to gain an idea of this aspect of the history of their profession).