As both a historian and a genealogist, I sometimes find myself caught between what feels like two very different worlds. I find myself defending historian’s views and methods to genealogists, defending genealogist’s methods and views to historians, and shaking my head at the misplaced bias that can be found on either side. It is a shame there is a divide because in my opinion each side has much to learn from one another…more on that later. For now, I have a few basic tips for genealogists who are conducting research in order to add historical context to their ancestors’ lives.
1) Do not limit yourself to just one book about your topic of inquiry. Each book is written by an individual with their unique interpretation of the facts who may approach the topic from say an economic perspective whereas another historian may counter the author’s arguments or focus on the social or political aspects. The more books and articles you read, the better informed you will be. There is a temptation to focus on social histories because it is felt that is what most impacted our ancestors’ lives. However, if you leave out other histories such as political and economic ones, then you are leaving out a part of the bigger picture. If you are really up for learning something new and expanding your horizons, try attending a history conference.
2) Be weary of book sale deals. I love a good deal. My local library frequently sells their old books for just a couple bucks or for as little as 50 cents. I’m not saying do not buy books from sales like these. Just keep in mind that these are old books after all. That book you are reading may contain outdated interpretations and information. It may still be worth your time in that it can help you understand the development of the way history looks at a particular topic. Make sure to read it with a grain of salt and keep in mind how the cultural attitudes of the time in which it was written may have affected the content.
3) Question where the information came from. Check the notes and bibliography section of the book you are interested in. If there is no bibliography or notes, be highly skeptical. When it comes to dealing with people….whether you are talking to someone who is a self-proclaimed expert or someone who has M.A. or Ph.D. behind their name, ask them about what they’ve studied. Historians are a lot like genealogists- we like to talk about our research and where we find our information. At the MVHC last week, many fellow historians approached me about my steamboat captain research wanting to know what records I used and for recommended books/articles. Just don’t be impetuous when you asking your questions. I realize this may seem like an odd tip to some, but, I just hate it when I see someone unwittingly being fed misinformation either by a less than reputable book or person.