Saturday, June 9, 2012

Why Just Genealogical Research Is Not Enough

You’ve spent months, years, maybe even decades researching – diving into archives and gathering all those tidbits about our ancestors. You’ve made a timeline, filled in some missing pieces with some more genealogical research, organized everything, and now you’re finally ready to start writing you family history! Right?

Well, not so much, as I’ve discovered. I’ve done the research on Lodewijk Wesselo, organized it, have a nice timeline, and even an outline of the biography that I want to write about him. In fact, I’ve started writing already. But despite all the careful research, there are evidently still some tiny facts that I either missed during my research (like a conflicting date, which will hopefully be resolved at the end of this month), or a fact that didn’t seem important before but turns out to be important after all now that I’ve started writing (like information on where exactly the house he built was situated exactly). But those things still fall under the genealogical research header and are merely plugging little holes in my research I’ve discovered by writing Lodewijk’s story.

But even with those tiny bits of added research, I discovered I still didn’t have all the material I needed to write this biography. So what was I missing? It turned out to be some key historical facts. For instance, there was a rather puzzling remark made by Lodewijk Wesselo in one of his letters about the success of his story in relation to World War One. Another puzzling remark was about a switch in churches. Researching the economic situation in the Netherlands during and right after World War One and the history of the specific religious denomination he mentioned gave me the background to understand what he meant. Researching two major historical events that he encountered up close and personal gave me a general sense of time that I also needed for this biography.

All in all, I’ve concluded that you cannot stop with just genealogical research if you want to write a family history story. You always need historical background information, either to understand something your ancestors did, or to place them within their specific time during your narrative. So before I can finish Lodewijk Wesselo’s biography, it’s back to the history books for me.

5 comments:

  1. So true, I am writing about my grandparents generation that saw the entire world change after WWI and the social political landscape they where part of. Understanding history really helps to understand the people I am writing about.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. History is always important when writing our ancestor's stories, but when they lived during times of great change I think it's even more important. They based their descisions on what was happening around them - how can we ever understand them without understanding their time?

      Delete
  2. One of my biggest frustrations with genealogy is that though I know 'when' someone was I rarely know 'who' someone was. Even some of my very well documented ancestors leave me dissatisfied. I search and search for that next piece of informtion that might reveal some insight beyond the facts. Letters are a godsend but rare to non-existant.

    Trying to understand the historical and geographical context of an ancestor's time is often the only lens though which we can try to understand their movements and life choices.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Letters or other documents written by our ancestors are rare indeed. Yet I've also found that even local histories are often so clinically written that at the end you still only know about events surrounding an ancestor and not so much of the 'why'. A nice solution to this is to read documents like letters and diaries from that time period, written by people in the same social and economical position, preferably living in the same region. This gives an insight into how people 'like' an ancestor thought - it's the closest thing we'll often get to how an ancestor thought.

      Delete
    2. J.M., reading the accounts of a contemporary to our ancestors is a wonderful suggestion. I agree that some historical works are less than illuminating. I have been fortunate in that at least a couple of my ancestors have had words “in their own voice” printed in newspapers or the congressional record. I am always on the hunt for new ways to find insight. Thank you very much.

      Delete