Friday, 4 September 2009

Genealogy or Family History?

What’s the difference between genealogy and family history?

They’re the same thing in many respects: both concern the tracing of ancestors. For many the terms are interchangeable.

But for me there is a big difference, and one which put me off the whole business for years.

Way back, in the days before computers, I decided to try to trace my ancestors. I was full of enthusiasm, but short on knowledge.

I wrote to dozens of people who shared my surname, finding their names and addresses in the phone book.

I got some interesting replies, and several suggestions to contact a man who had done a lot of work tracing the family through records of births, marriages and deaths.

So I wrote to him, and received in reply a pack of information. I was thrilled, but less excited when I examined it more closely. There were names, and more names, and dates and so on. Sheets and sheets of them.

And there were requests for information from me, written in the language of genealogy: asking for me to fill in my ‘segment’, etc.

It was a roll call of people with my surname, but they were stick figures in ink, generational markers with no substance, background or lives.

They had no occupations, and they existed as markers on a page without context: lacking information about the places they came from, or the history they lived through.

Years later, when I returned to the subject, I was eternally grateful to this distant relative, because his hard work gave me a spring-board with which to jump back in time more quickly.

I used his information to search the archives, finding documentary treasures which threw light on the lives of the people he had traced.

But his approach was, to my mind, the essence of pure genealogy: a dry exercise which ultimately results in the ability to spout a list of names.

Family history, on the other hand, is about taking those names and trying to turn them into people.


  1. I stumbled upon your blog a while a go and I could not stop reading! Looking forward to your other posts.

  2. Thanks Daniel. I really should make more time to add to it, it's been sadly neglected this year!