Life stories and their Historians: Bridging a divide?

Most of us have at one time or another wondered about our ancestors. Even the historians whose bread and butter is the study of social, political, economic or cultural histories speculate about their own family’s part in the unfolding of the wider movements and economic changes down the ages. Many others have studied the genealogical websites, and laboured in the archives, simply to chart the family line further and further back until either reliable data or stamina are exhausted. New pieces of information that are discovered may offer a glimpse of a family ‘on the make’ or a family ‘on the slide’. Whatever the case, family history has become a persistent and compelling pastime enjoyed by millions of people.

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 08.16.37

(Image via RootsChat)

For those without an aristocratic pedigree to fall back on, family piety used to amount to little more than repeated anecdotes about half-remembered relatives.  Now that the internet has democratized information, anyone with a computer and a measure of determination can go much further.  Archives and public records and censuses are accessible to all, and there’s plenty of advice on how to make sense of them.  The viewing figures for the BBC’s series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ have held up for a decade, while  ‘Secrets From the Clink’, its lurid ITV cousin, adds a distinctively Dickensian preoccupation with forebears who served time. The investigation of family history has become the third most popular online activity, after shopping and pornography. Primary research is no longer exclusively a matter for academic historians, traditionally concerned with movements that shape national destinies – wars, politics, conquest, or trade.  Amateurs can share the buzz of a first-hand encounter with discovery, retrieving neglected documents and filling in the gaps in a family tree.  If you have ancestors and a search engine, you too can be a historian.

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 08.20.16

(Image via

Unsurprisingly, professionals in the business of history have mixed feelings about the swarm of explorers among the databases. Every historian sympathizes with the impulse to learn about the past.  But bare facts about long-buried members of a family can’t reveal much about the broader cultural and economic circumstances that defined their lives, and those who pursue them often do so in the context of their own interests and priorities. Objective analysis takes second place to the resurrected details (revealing self-made success, lost grandeur, anti-authoritarian spirit or helpless victimhood) that best confirm the values of the investigator. Trained historians observe, sometimes disdainfully, that such researchers are looking for archival comfort food. But in general family detectives are too busy digging for the next piece of evidence to take offence, while their denigrators are not seriously threatened by part-time rivals.  The two breeds of historians are more or less prepared to tolerate each other, though there isn’t much traffic between them.

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 08.10.44

(MEPO 6, 8 March 1907. Available at

Perhaps the Digital Panopticon can help to bridge the divide? The data provided is clearly of use and of interest to those researching their family history. Indeed the information that can be found in the prison records can reveal more about the character, physique, and exploits of forefathers than almost any other record. In this respect they are a boon to the genealogist, and a first-rate source of information. Each of the life stories revealed by the Panopticon is varied and interesting enough to be studied in its own right. However, when taken together they are invaluable to the social historians as a guide to (for example) the height and weight of the ordinary Londoner, the character of crime and punishment in the nineteenth century, and the long-term effects of transportation and imprisonment on generations of families living in Australia and in the United Kingdom. The next trick might be to persuade the two communities (genealogists and social historians) that they have something in common. They might even learn something by talking to each other, not least because descendants can provide valuable information to historians about the identities and experiences of their forebears. They can fill in the gaps and silences that punctuate the records. In return, historians can add context to family histories by revealing the social conditions in which our ancestors lived, loved, and laboured.


Professor Dinah Birch

Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange

University of Liverpool

2 thoughts on “Life stories and their Historians: Bridging a divide?

  1. Bob Shoemaker

    I agree that historians have often looked down their noses at genealogists, and that that is a pity, since each has something significant to offer the other. Clearly it is the interests of both to support one another. A major justification for funding the Old Bailey Online ( was the large audience of family historians who would (and did) use the site, and the website has facilitated significant amounts of both academic and family history. Indeed, we have some evidence that some family historians have expanded their research on the site to examine wider issues such as the nature of transportation as a punishment. We have everything to gain by working together, and to some extent are already doing so.

  2. Raymond H.

    I agree that there is a lot to be gained by both historians and genealogists in such collaborative working.
    At its most basic I see genealogists as grass-roots “historians”, who happily and freely provide their own time ferreting out all sorts of obscure details on ‘their’ ancestor. In this way genealogists can provide a lot of basic information which can build up in appropriate databases to form more fully-informed material for the trained historians to use in their own work.

    My personal experience is that most genealogists start out with very little broader historical knowledge, and whilst some will be quite content to stick with bare birth, death, marriage dates etc. as they push their genealogies further backwards in time; many others will slowly acquire a broadening historical knowledge and understanding, usually through the reading of a limited range of local or general or specialist histories and encyclopaedias.

    Historians can further this tendency by providing data analyses which will help the genealogists to see more clearly how their ancestors fitted into their society of the era.

    This can bring a wider readership to the works of historians, once published — online or in hard copy.

    One huge research difference, to my mind, between genealogists and historians, is that historians use academic-quality Journals to ground much of their research; whereas my belief is that most genealogists do not use these valuable sources. Their location online behind paywalls is a massive inhibiting factor in extending the use of such journals by genealogists.

    I believe that the way that Australia’s TROVE is using crowdsourcing so successfully, is an indication of the tremendous data input which ordinary genealogists can provide to assist historians, if treated with respect and appreciation.

    The digitalpanopticon is a great idea. Best wishes for successful projects ahead.

Leave a Reply