Family Histories / Genealogy / Reading

Reading Records (Reading Family History 4)

The history of recordation is fascinating, and a developing feature of how we understand not only history across fields of speciality, but family history. Perhaps not surprisingly because I’ve emphasized it in my own research and writing about the history of genealogy and genealogical practice, and in the other histories of record types that I’ve written about (from commonplace books to tax records), I find this to be an incredibly important aspect of how we contextualize and situate family histories. And if you observe my Instagram account you’ll know that I am often featuring different types of records that display genealogy and family history.

While any one might appreciate the records they peruse at a library or archive or online, it’s equally important to understand how those records were created, for what purpose, and how they came to be available to your research. Not every historical period or place has produced the kinds of records we have become accustomed to, or the access to those materials that has transformed historical research, including family history as a field and genealogy for individual researchers. For one thing, the written record itself as a priority is not universal, not are the resources of all kinds necessary to produce and keep them.

Scholars have been writing about the history of historical records in the era I’m most attentive to, early modern Europe and early America, in two registers that are relevant for the later period, too: the history of specific types of records, and the history of the institutions and groups that generate and collect them. Both specific record types and those institutional and group efforts have their own histories. I’ll mention a few important works in each category that have influenced and enriched my own understanding.

A clutch of work starting with Ann Laura Stoler’s Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (2008), Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (2010), and a more recent collection of essays edited by Liesbeth Corens, Kate Peters, and Alexandra Walsham, Archives and Information in the Early Modern World (2018) addressed how the newish profusion of written materials were instigated and then organized in the early modern colonial world both in the imperial centers and in colonies. The former are part of a wave of work looking at how institutional archival practices developed in response to economic and social imperatives; Stoler, for example, shows how the Dutch state created archival practices that suppressed (by actually dividing the records) knowledge of how central families including multiracial families were to their colonial power. Essays in the latter address subjects such as the “Material Culture of Record-Keeping in Early Modern England,” by Heather Wolfe and Peter Stallybrass. In the context of the profession of paper in the period, they illuminate the various methods of filing, bundling, and boxing these materials. And they have something to say about family records, though this is primarily a point relevant to families that would have produced extensive or at the very least moderate volumes of material– noting that at least some of the original boxes and chests of the period where such materials would have been stored have been preserved to show us the contemporary archiving practice. (p. 200)

Dr. Imogen Peck at the University of Birmingham has been leading a project as well as her own research on Family Archives, including a May 2023 conference on Family Archives and their Afterlives (which I participated in). I also highly recommend her recent article in Cultural and Social History, “‘Of No Sort of Use?’: Manuscripts, Memory, and the Family Archive in Eighteenth-Century England.” Related and interesting work by Markus Friedrich on “Genealogy as Archive-Driven Research in Early Modern Europe” in Osiris looks at actual early modern research practice, pointing to how those materials were put to use.

Another way to look at the history of recordation is to look at the specific types of records. I’ll mention just four works here as examples. For early modern England, Alexandra Shepherd (Accounting for Oneself: Worth, Status, and the Social Order in Early Modern England, 2015) and Amanda Vickery (“A Self off the Shelf: The Rise of the Pocket Diary in 18th Century England,” Eighteenth-century Studies, 2021) have each written about how specific written forms –in the former case, the ways that court cases reflected new language about the credit economy that shaped how people described themselves and others, and in the latter the use of pocket diaries as timekeeping and keepsake devices–emerged and became pervasive. In a very different but related vein, Jennifer Morgan has written (Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic, 2021) about the rise of accounting and how it facilitated and pervaded the logic of enslavement –and the attempted severing of kin. Others have written important work about the records of enslavement, but I am here sticking to Morgan’s recent, prize-winning book because of the direct connection to family history. Susan Pearson’s The Birth Certificate:  An American History (2021), along with the work of Shane Landrum (“From Family Bibles to Birth Certificates: Young People, Proof of Age, and American Political Cultures, 1820-1915”) tackles the history of something the modern world considers essential and yet is not only a relatively recent development but more particularly a relatively recent responsibility of governments rather than religious institutions.

This quick sketch includes just some of the scholarship I’ve found useful to suggest how the history of records and family history intertwine, and I’ll be updating it when I can. Also, here I’ve emphasized one sort of writing about records. I’ve written elsewhere and will write more here shortly about the issues of archival absences, about how these records and the collections of archives are structured to advance some histories and make others challenging if not impossible. But suffice to note for the moment that the scholarship on the culture and politics of records and institutions is critical.

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