As someone who has often considered taking on the informal role of family historian, the resources I have found in my preliminary searches offer little in the way of guidance for aspiring family historians, especially those lacking formal academic training. Web services often prize genealogical research as the only form of family history, and seem more interested in selling DNA testing kits than teaching. While some of these sites offer access to digital records and some assistance in performing genealogical research, they are almost universally silent on the subject of conducting oral interviews with living family members, on creating ethical oral histories, and on the actual writing and structuring of a historical project.
As mentioned above, the primary audience for this project is aspiring family historians with or without academic training. While I lack any real hard data about the size of such an audience there are a few indicators which suggest that people remain interested in learning and telling the stories of themselves and their families. Though the study itself is perhaps a bit dated in 2019, Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen summed up their statistical findings in Presence of the Past as such: “Almost every American deeply engages with the past, and the past that engages them most deeply is that of their family.” Putting aside for a moment debates surrounding the ethics of commercial DNA testing and the fact that not every search or subscription to Ancestry.com leads to a detailed family history project, the level of interest expressed by internet users in such sites alone is equally telling.
The State of Digital Family History Tools
There are currently a number of websites and apps which market themselves as family-history tools, though what “family-history tool” means in practical terms is often record-searching platforms. Ancestry.com is perhaps the largest of such websites though competitors exist in familysearch.org, myheritage.com, and usa.gov. Two of these sites, Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com, are primarily geared towards building family trees rather than writing a history, and place an additional emphasis on their DNA testing services. USA.gov provides numerous helpful links to the government’s online resources for finding records and data, but is devoid of any helpful content on the actual performance of research and writing. From what I have gathered so far, none of these present any alternative paths to family history than traditional genealogical research which given their nature as businesses, is not necessarily surprising.
Currently the closest project I can find to that which I envision is familyhistorydaily.com. Family History Daily offers its users Beginner Guides to Genealogy, Tips and Tricks, and numerous articles regarding issues that family historians may encounter, online record resources they may not be aware of, and evaluations of existing resources like Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com. Though I have not had time to read through each and every post, I have been unable to find practical tutorials or guides regarding oral history, and I have only found a few that deal with writing history and organizing research.
As I lack the technical skill to build a webpage from the ground up, this project would take the form of a webpage built through a service like Word Press. While I am still in the process of determining exactly what content would be most important to include on such a webpage I do have some ideas. One of the glaring issues present in existing tools is their insistence that genealogy is the only form of family history. As such, providing content regarding the nature and practice of Oral History would be crucial to helping address that gap. This content could take the form of blog posts about method and video tutorials on the various types of equipment used by oral historians. In the vein of David Kyvig and Myron Marty’s Nearby History posts about performing primary source research and the many ways that family and local history can be approached would be equally beneficial.
Aside from building a social media presence for the project I am not really sure how to go about outreach. Using WordPress’ own tagging system is the most direct form of outreach, but establishing a presence on Twitter (particularly within the colloquial “HistoryTwitter” or under #Twitterstorians) would be an additional step. On a more hypothetical level, reaching out to established professional associations within history and public history might be a fruitful way to spread awareness of the project, though I have my doubts about how far posts made by professional associations go into the non-academic side of social media. Hosting in-person workshops at public libraries could be another way to drum up interest in the project while also working towards its overarching mission. This is all assuming that I could get the project established to an extent that they would be willing to work with me.
In an abstract sense, success for this project would be if people could visit and feel empowered to approach family history beyond building a family tree and away from bogus DNA testing kits. In a hypothetical world where I could actually build a sustainable online organization that had clout with real institutions, an Oral History or Family History workshop with more than 0 attendees would be an additional success.
In terms of what I could reasonably accomplish for this project by the end of the semester, I would say constructing a web-platform through WordPress, a handful of social media accounts, and some written content are the most realistic outcomes. I do not own any recording equipment so video tutorials on the practice of oral history are for the moment beyond my capacity.
On a more personal level, if this project could be the impetus I need to finally get around to starting my own family history efforts, I would count that as a success of its own kind.
One Reply to “Digital Project Proposal: Family History Beyond For-Profit Genealogical Records Platforms”
Working up a resource to help people produce and publish their own family/local histories on the web is a great idea. The tools and systems are there and you rightly note that the current offerings skew toward projects and products that are largely focused on getting people to pay for subscription services and to add value to corpuses of genealogical data.
IMLS gave the Center for History and New Media a grant to do some training for librarians on using free and open source tools to support local history projects out of public libraries a few years ago. It would be great to look that up, as I think some of their resources could be useful for your project.
A potentially useful first step on this project might be to try and identify a few potential users. This could be people you know, or you could put out a call for friends of friends, or some other networks. Try and find some potential users who might be interested in using such a guide/resource and use that as a basis to try and get a sense of the kinds of things that would make this useful and useable for them. That would also give you a built in set of stakeholders that you could go back to for input on the results of your work.
It sounds like you’ve got a reasonable set of expectations for what the scope of the project could be for the remainder of the course. So That is great.
Looking forward to seeing how this comes together!