Saturday, October 19, 2013

The present and the past

In studying several historiographies on the South, particularly Virginia, it occurred to me that we as genealogists have a huge responsibility to the future. All of these scholars, writing these monumental works analyzing the past, are making conclusions based on massive amounts of records. These records include court documents, diaries, letters, newspaper articles, ads, etc. These are the same things genealogists analyze. But what occurred to me is that the records all these scholars are analyzing are the same. They are all being accessed from the same repositories. They are the same diaries from the same elite, white planter families that they are each analyzing. For example, William Byrd II of Westover kept a multitude of diaries about daily life, his family, his plantation, his business and the like. He is referenced in all of the 8 books I just read about Virginia. Now, I understand completely that historians are bound by the records that are extant. But this is where genealogy (and I suppose, digital humanities) becomes important. How many people out there have diaries and Bible records and maybe even books that their ancestors wrote and handed down in the family? How would these stories and records reshape the ideas scholars have about life in, say, Virginia in the 18th century? There's probably something to be said about the literacy rate, and that then reduces the probability of there being "tons" more diaries having been kept at all, and then you have to factor in the passage of time and the likelihood that family members destroyed some of these artifacts. But still, with the advent of the digital age, more genealogists need to get their family mementos "out there" - by blog, or digitize them and get them to a family history center, or museum, or library, whatever - just get them out there in cyberspace so they can be discovered! The more records there are, the better we can understand the past from a wider perspective than just the William Byrds of the day.