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.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Genealogy and Archives

Any counting of researchers in most archives will result in the inescapable conclusion that genealogists outnumber all other categories of researchers. Yet, the number of essays in the professional archival literature that give any substantial nod to the importance of genealogists is small. Granted, we are beginning to see some research on genealogists and their work in archives – and it is long overdue.

Archivists will want to read an interesting new study on genealogy, Donald Harman Akenson’s Some Family: The Mormons and How Humanity Keeps Track of Itself (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007). Akenson’s goal is to understand a Mormon mission, namely “to create an accurate and comprehensive genealogical tree of the entire human race” (p. 7) and, obviously, such an objective must involve the use of a lot of archival records. Akenson reports that they have compiled about two billion names in their quest to redeem the dead, a missionary zeal that many genealogists bring to their work, and reflected by the Church’s establishment in 1927 of its Temple Records Index Bureau, the forerunner of all of it’s systematic gathering of genealogical data. This is a task that is all the more amazing because it has been a massive voluntary effort.

Some Family provides a lot of information about various methods to compile genealogists. Akenson examines various methods of compiling genealogical data and the problems that adoptions, foster children, gay or lesbian relationships, and other such factors can afflict on tracing and recording family lineages. Most interesting is Akenson’s depiction of genealogical work as producing both a kind of historical narrative and being placed into the prevailing narratives in society. Akenson also considers, in great detail, the weaknesses of how Mormons maintain and organize their records, documented by the observations of genealogists and other researchers using the Mormons databases.

As one would expect, Akenson also provides observations about the nature of documentary materials available for genealogical research. Akenson states, we “need to exclude any genealogical statement that claims to be before, roughly, the year 100 CE. That is the farthest conceivable stretch backwards that can be made from the present day, for that is when the earliest run of independent records is found, and even then the reliability of the material is very dicey” (p. 191). This is an interesting reading for any interested in genealogy, its history, the motivations supporting it, and its dependence on recordkeeping.