I have written and re-written this so many times, and then chickened out and not done anything with it. But it is a subject that has been bothering me for quite some time now – so here goes.
It has made me incredibly sad over the past year or so, to see a constant stream of letters to the ed, facebook posts, and instagram comments where ones complain that their ‘tree’ has been stolen, or people have incorrect information and have not changed it when told, or moaned about obviously incorrect information on online trees. As a result, many no longer share their family tree on the various websites or DNA. That makes me incredibly sad and upset – much more so than someone having a distant (or near) relatives details wrong on their tree!
And I do completely understand why incorrect information makes some upset. Those of us who have been doing this for a long time, have spent a lot of time and money and emotional energy in this. We are personally invested in our Ancestors lives. But can I say that, whatever we may think, we don’t ‘own’ them. The information we have used is available to others. We have not created these stories for ourselves – they were stories made a long time ago by our ancestors and we are simply here following the breadcrumbs.
I firmly believe that family history is at a cross roads though. Not too many years ago, this was a hobby for the older generations. They had the time and means to spend hours in dusty archive rooms looking at microfiche screens just to find one census record. Or to go trawling through old ledgers to find a possible ancestor in a workhouse. Although that kind of research is still needed sometimes, those days are really well and truly gone. Online resources, and DNA of course, have changed the game in a massive way.
The impact of that sudden shift in the technology we now use and the increase in the volume of data available for this hobby is simply phenomenal. But it is somewhat surpassed by the dramatic shift in the demographic who are interested in the topic. I have a 15 year old friend who is interested in her family history. Most of my 20 something year old work colleagues are keen to know more. They have either taken, or would like to take a DNA test and want to know what it is all about. This is no longer the hobby of retirees – this is a hobby you can do sitting up in bed with a glass of red. And right or wrong, these are not usually the type of people you will find at the SoG on a Saturday afternoon, or interested enough to sign up to local history talk, and will probably read the WDYTYA blog before they read the magazine.
The diametric shift in this hobby has been like going from riding a horse to driving a Ferrari. You would struggle with the speed of change if you went from a horse to a Ferrari overnight. Equally though, a 15 year old behind the wheels of a Ferarri is bound to do some damage. But with time, the horse riders would get used to the wind in their hair, and after a little tuition the 15 year olds would grow up to be expert drivers. It would be silly to say “This is too much trouble. Let’s keep the Ferrari in the garage!”.
But this is where we’re at with family history. The older generation are perhaps a little unsure and intimidated of the technology. The files and downloading and blogs and vlogs and Instagram and DNA and .jpg files and Google and Facebook and…… It’s too fast and they’re packing up and parking the Ferrari in the garage.
Meanwhile the new generation are used to this technology and having information at their fingertips and hastags and 280 characters in a tweet and clicking on to the new thing and rush, rush, rush. They have not yet learnt to be patient, enjoy the ride, look at the detail, think about the dates. To ponder. That is not the world that they have grown up in. They’re crunching the gears and damaging the paintwork on that beautiful car.
But remember – it’s the new generation that are helping to fund the records and companies in many instances. Like it or not they are here to stay and in every sense, are the new generation. If you want to go back to your horse days, then fair play to you. But I urge you to put on your seat-belt and embrace a ride in the Ferrari with the rest of us.
And I also implore you to not ‘hide your toys from the kids’. Share your trees please – but share judiciously. I don’t have every last scrap of detail on my tree. I have the bare bones – things that are already accessible through Ancestry etc. But safely stored on my laptop and separate to any fee paying website, all my research is saved away. If someone thinks we’re related and wants to know more I am more than happy to share. I’m overjoyed. But it is on my terms and in the spirit of sharing and learning.
Remember the first time you went into that dusty archives room? You were so nervous but some kind person showed you how to load the film? Remember that kind librarian who explained to you the difference between a baptism record and birth certificate? What about that person who gave you a clue on an ancestors occupation and you smashed a brick wall? Collaboration and learning is what this is all about. If you don’t share, then all your hard work will be wasted and, I hate to say, die with you.
Equally, I view other peoples trees as nothing but a resource – for this is what it is. If you think it is gospel then think back to all the variations in spelling you have for that frustrating surname in your family. Some poor illiterate ancestor moved in from the countryside and had no idea how to spell Smith. Well today it’s a different sort of illiteracy – anyone can write anything on the internet. And right or wrong, this is the culture that these newer ones have come from. How many times have we looked at a census and used logic to work out it is not our ancestor. The same applies to online family trees. They are a fantastic resource and should simply be viewed as such.
Please also show some patience with some who may not change the information on their tree too. Perhaps they are a working mum who joined up on a free promotion for a subscription website. Or maybe they got a DNA test for their birthday. Perhaps they have a million emails in their inbox and the last one they have time to read about, is a hobby they started on their summer holidays. An ancestry forum user recently pointed out that there are many reasons a person may not change their tree – they have passed away, someone else asked them to do a DNA test, they don’t have email notifications turned on, the emails go to spam, they don’t know anything about their family, your email is a surprise and they don’t know what to do next, or quite simply there are other things going on in their life and they don’t have time to deal with the birth date of a distant great aunt who died in 1873.
I would go one step further and suggest Ancestry etc. make it possible to ‘flag’ errors on trees or note trees / people that were copied entirely from someone else’s tree. This straight away tells any user to be cautious – new or experienced researcher. I also use my tree to test theories (who doesn’t love exploring those shaking leaves…). But it would be helpful if we ourselves could identify hunches and theories to alert others that we are unsure of our facts.
And finally, I recently read a letter to the editor, where they were shocked that people don’t know things such as where English counties are. A slightly snobby comment, but fair enough – we can just look it up online after all. But sometimes it’s simply not that easy. Funnily enough though, the English seemed to go conquering foreign lands quite a bit back in the day. And now their descendants from all corners of the globe want to know about the motherland! Most did not do English history at school and I can tell you that not everyone knows how to say ‘Southwark’ like a local, or knows the difference between Devon and Plymouth, or even where all the English Counties are (and why that is even important!).
The same would apply the other way – how many people know which part of Australia was colonised first, or that you had to change trains at the border when travelling between Melbourne and Sydney – or even that many traveled by ship between Australian cities (hence shipping records are vital). If I got upset every time I saw someone assume that Ballarat was just over the hill from Melbourne then I too would be mad.
It’s all about perspective. Please everyone – relax. It’s a hobby. Strap in and enjoy your ride in the Ferrari.