In days gone by, if you wanted to research your family tree, it meant traipsing around to churches and archives in far off lands. It meant hours upon hours of scanning birth and marriage registers, only to find out that you found the right name but the wrong person. It was a tedious process that would take a lifetime. It was definitely not for everyone. Then along comes the internet, archives begin scanning vital records registers, and companies like Ancestry discover there is money to be made. Let’s get this out of the way up front. Of course, like every archivist, I struggle with the concept of placing a for-profit paywall around archival records. The reason we preserve them is to make them accessible, not just to those who can afford to pay a premium. However, the records that are made available through these genealogy companies are freely available through the various repositories that house them. What the companies are offering is essentially a research service, and I don’t have an issue with research as a for-profit model. They allow for this research to be done in the comfort of your own home. They have actually somewhat democratized access by eliminating the need to travel around the world to find your great-great uncle twice removed.
Genealogical research should totally have been my idea of a good time, but I have to admit that it never appealed to me. Strange, right? I am an archivist, I should LOVE that stuff! I don’t know why it took me so long to come around to the idea. I suppose that making the professional switch to a municipal archives from a national one started me on the journey into genealogy. I learned about vital statistics and how these records could help my patrons with their own searches. But for some reason, it never occurred to me to try it out for my own family. I always figured it would be too difficult to trace my family because I knew very little about them to start with and I wouldn’t quite know where to begin.
That all changed one afternoon when my Grandfather presented me with a seemingly innocuous cigarette tin. What I found inside started me on a quest to know my past and I am now a total convert! What I found was that genealogical research is everything I love about archives. It’s the thrill of the chase, the sense of overwhelming accomplishment when you find what you are looking for, and its the tangible connection to the past that is made so personal when the people you find share your blood.
The photographs in that cigarette tin opened up a whole world for me, which started with helping my Grandfather to self-publish his war memoirs (Untold Tales) and his life story (The Lonie Saga). I will forever cherish the experience of putting those books together with him. They brought me closer to him and closer to my past, and for that I am infinitely grateful.
Inspired by working on the books, I decided to see what I could find on Ancestry. I have now managed to trace both sides of my family to the 17th century. I have learned that my maternal Great-Great-Grandfather was called Bold – coolest name ever!
I have learned that my paternal Great-Great-Uncle was a doctor who served as a medical missionary in Nigeria, and eventually died in Australia. I now want to know everything about his life! Perhaps I will never be able to answer the questions I have about him but knowing he is a part of my extended story, fascinates me!
The documentary legacy we leave
What’s frustrating about genealogy is that the intersection of life and documentation is often limited to births, marriages, and deaths. Now that I have managed to identify these people from my past, I want to know more about them. But unfortunately, this may not be impossible. It makes me think about the kind of documentary legacy I will leave behind. Likely a photograph of me without any front teeth, some bad poetry from when I was a teenager, and then a black hole of nothingness that represents my digital footprint (or lack thereof)…but wait…of course we are going to solve this whole digital preservation thing! I remain cautiously optimistic. Oh crap, I am supposed to be one of the people solving that. Moving right along…
Why genealogy is important
In these trying political times, when immigrants are blamed for everything, I think genealogy is more important than ever.
It sounds a tad cliché, but I think we need to be reminded that we are all descendants of immigrants at some point in time. It just depends on how far back you go. Obviously this is more the case for those of us in North America, but it’s important for everyone to recognize that humans migrate, they seek new opportunities, and they often cherish their new homes and work to make them better. Learning about what an ancestor’s life was like, what prompted them to relocate or emigrate, what historical forces were at play in their lives – all contribute to a deeper understanding of who they were and who we are.
Several factors contributed to me being Canadian. It seems that the Lonie clan was intent on a life of international travel. My Great-Grandfather made his way to the United States in the early part of the 20th century. The details are hazy but he eventually made it north to Calgary where he went for lunch at Rochon’s where a woman named Isabella served him. The two were married and gave birth to their first child, Thomas in 1912. As the family story goes, soon Isabella longed for Scotland and the young family returned for a visit, only to be caught up in the First World War, unable to return to Canada. My Grandfather grew up in Glasgow hearing tales of Canada, so when forces conspired in his life, he sought passage to the country that became his home. All of these pieces of a story that stretches back in time have resulted in who I am today.
Revenue and relatives
I am really excited for this year’s ACA Conference coming up in a few weeks! Building on the theme of Archives Disrupted, the opening plenary session will feature a panel of filmmakers who use archival material in their work. I am most anticipating the presentation from filmmaker Julia Creet, whose film Data Mining the Deceased: Ancestry and the Business of Family explores the big business behind our need to know ourselves. I am interested to hear her take on the business of genealogy. Here’s a sneak peak:
Embrace your inner narcissist
Genealogy feeds our inner narcissism and our desire to know ourselves, to understand where we came from and who we are as a result. We have an innate need to belong, to understand where we fit in the world. Genealogy helps to piece the story together, for better or worse. It took me a while to get here, but I am so excited about where this genealogical journey might take me!
Care to have a go?
Obviously there are a few big players in the genealogy research market (Ancestry, Family Search, MyHeritage, FindMyPast, which are all reviewed here). If you’re keen to get started and want to chat with some like-minded people in Canada, check out the various genealogical societies across the country.
Société généalogique du Nord-Ouest (French only)
Fédération québécoise des sociétés de généalogie (French only)
Société de généalogie de Québec (French only)
Société généalogique canadienne-française (French only)
Family photograph with three generations of Lonie men:
Thomas Christie Lonie, my Great-Uncle (child)
Andrew Lonie, my Great-Grandfather (top middle)
Thomas Christie Lonie, my Great-Great Uncle (right)
Andrew Lonie, my Great-Great-Grandfather (left)