Reflections on genealogy (1)

I call it “long range genealogy” – the collection and inspection – often the prolonged inspection – of many genealogies … for historical purposes, not for purposes of decorating anyone’s family history. Certainly not in any regard of my own family history.

One of my general questions is: is history for genealogy, or is genealogy for history? Should the two go together or not? The two have gone together in the past with historians’ studies of royal and/or aristocratic dynasties, but less so, I think, has genealogy been applied to history-from-below, or to Economic History, two types of history of which I am fond. And from such historical and genealogical delvings, I think that the Marxist interpretations of and claims about class are incorrect – not that I want just to shoot my opinions off here; these reflections are for your use, for your information, so I hope you use them.

(1) Historians should use genealogy more often, as to do so can be instructive, but a good deal depends on (2) the genealogical software one uses. This seems to be something that very few people think seriously about, as over the years I have had an enormous amount of email from family historians, and seldom if ever does anyone mention what sort of computer systems or software they use, or apply. Why people do not mention it I do not know, but they don’t mention it, which is why I conclude they think little about it. (3) But then, I use genealogy for many purposes – albeit, mostly from the English-speaking world.

I collect genealogies, using British Imperial History as the hub, in order to see who was related to who that historians either miss, don’t know or otherwise fail to talk about. (The borders of the British Empire changed between what are called, its first and second foundings, the first founding ending with the American victory of the American War of Independence, the second founding beginning in 1783, with the end of the American War of Independence and Britain’s acceptance of the loss of its 13 American colonies. I have to go along with these changing borders as I might have to explain sometimes, why part of family, maybe why an entire family, might have emigrated or moved.)

(3a) By 2018 I have a very good collection of what can only be termed, historical genealogies. For England itself, including aristocracy and royalty. Scotland is a little separate, Ireland even more so. For colonial America, and/or what became Canada. For some Caribbean islands (but not including Cuba, which was a Spanish possession). For British India. For Australasia, which became Australia (I am a New South Welshman in Australia) and New Zealand.

(2a) Most of the time, I’ve used London as a hub for research activities, though sometimes New York, or Bombay in India. Or Sydney in Australia. Hubs can move about. I grew up in Tamworth, NSW, Australia and from time to time I use my own hometown as a hub (eg, when things do become more personal than not)

(3) I also think, if some tensions exist between the findings of history proper, and the findings of genealogy, while there may be some problems with some family histories (genealogy is an uncertain art at the best of times), there will almost certainly be a problem of an historical nature. What to do? But then, I regard “history” not as a set of findings, which is how most people seem to regard it, I regard “history” as an activity, and this activity can be fraught with any sort of problems – lacks of information, gaps in records, errors arising from misapprehensions, ordinary mistakes or ill-chosen ideologies. It’s often said, “History is written by the victors”, which is true enough, for certain kinds of history, but sometimes I try to see things from the loser’s point of view, if only to see if the victor’s record has all the facts in the right place. But back to (2).

Why on earth don’t people discuss what system, what software they use, for genealogical studies? I don’t know the answer, all I know is that people won’t discuss it. And I also know, that there are technical risks afoot. I’m in the middle of some technical changes right now, getting used to some new software, and not doing very well it at all. I used to use PAF5 (Personal Ancestral File) as distributed by the Mormon Church in Utah USA (and at one period they were very good with answering email queries).

This is marvellous software I’ve been using since about 1993, it’s the only software I’d not complain about, it’s the only software I haven’t had a problem with in 25 years. And why use PAF? It’s big capacity (in theory one million entries), and can easily handle 33-generations of any family, which is more than enough for historical work back to say, 1600, when the English East India Company had just started its operations. (Or for Virginia in America, the foundational years are about 1607-1608, and Pocahontas the Indian princess had descendants which MUST be gotten right for ethnographic reasons if no other!) PAF is reliable, it used to be well-supported. It’s easy to operate, can handle notes well, it’s easy to back-up or to copy, and can do gedcom work with ease. It’s easy to change, correct or update, easy to slip data in or out of, it can manage multi-media, give good print-outs, some in the form of website-mountable multi-generational readouts. (Which in turn, copyable, have become very popular on my various websites, which in turn is very gratifying.) I’m going to miss it enormously when I stop using it.

Why stop using it? Well, the distributors no longer support PAF, in fact they no longer even distribute it, so the software, good as it is, becomes too risky to continue to use. But have I transitioned successfully to the use of replacement software? Well no, not yet. So it’s an ongoing saga. (Ends)

Author: Dan Byrnes

Dan Byrnes is an Australian poet, writer, historian, a one-time journalist in Tamworth NSW Australia (or, Country Music Capital, Australia). Born in Sydney in 1948, meaning in late 2018 he is aged 70! He is deeply interested in modern Australian history (since 1788), literature, poetry and music. He had a normal high school education plus several stints at university, ending with a double major in History/Psychology, then with an Honours degree in History. Of late, and as he gets older - in 2019 he will be 71 - he spends time compiling and recompiling old work, adding to this blog, and wondering deeply with the history of Australia since 1788, a relatively new country, which received up to 162,000 convicts from Britain, why there is such apathy to maritime history in general and in particular, such apathy to the question: who owned/insured the convict ships?

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