Academic versus Family History

I was having lunch with a friend today who classes herself as a ‘family historian.’  However, we both agreed that was an inefficient description of who she was and her interests.  As a Masters student – half way through my degree – I’ve read some scholarly debates from academics and commentators who still consider that family history is still the domain of amateurs and thus, is hardly worth a second glance.

That view has some validity and could be applied to family historians who are only intent on adding as many names as they possibly can to their family tree.  However, in parallel with better access to primary resources, family history has developed immeasurably and many family  historians now realise their ancestors were once flesh and blood.  They are interested  in where they were born, where they worked and where they were laid to rest.  Albeit on a different rung of the social ladder from the rich, the great and the famous who traditionally grace our history books.

A recent research project – still in progress – has illustrated that often the lives of others closely parallel social indicators of the time.  Primary documents (like census records) can demonstrate things like occupation, change of geographical location, family make-up and social mobility, while a document like a marriage certificate can unearth important details like the name and occupation of the parents.   Newspaper resources like TROVE (National Archives of Australia) are also invaluable sources of information for both the academic and family historian.  Even photographs and other resources, like the the mail-order catalogue above, can explain much.

Lets face it, without people there would be no history.

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