Ancestry.com as Vernacular Digital History

Since its founding in 1996, Ancestry.com has become nearly synonymous with online genealogy. For my print project, I propose analyzing the ways that this website encourages users to conduct a form of vernacular social history. How does the site display and prompt users to interact with historical documents? What is the purpose of its collaborative features (such as message boards, public member trees, etc.) and how do they serve to build community on the site?

A look at the company’s evolution provides an interesting window into the development of the digital humanities field. From its beginning as a family history publishing company to software innovation to the launch of the site, Ancestry.com claims to be at the forefront of digital genealogy. What characteristics has the site retained from traditional genealogy and, perhaps more importantly, what innovations has the move to digital methods created? The launch of an app and autosomal DNA testing service are only a few of the developments the company cites on its timeline of achievements. The website’s situation at the intersection of these two fields gives plenty of potential historiography to explore as needed.

Because the premise of the site began with and rests on the digitalization of historical documents, this will be my main focus. How does the site display and contextualize primarily census records, but also military records, wills, and other documents for researchers to use? How does its search function operate, and what are the consequences of using this method to discover information? What are the implications of digitizing materials outside of the context of their original repositories and in what ways is Ancestry.com expanding beyond mere digitization? How does the site treat data records (census information) differently from items originally from manuscript collections? Essentially, these questions probe at the ways in which Ancestry.com replicates the practices of traditional archival repositories and how it diverges from them to do digital history.

Ultimately, my goal is to understand the purpose of Ancestry.com and the methods it employs to facilitate user-created vernacular histories. An understanding of how this site works and combines both traditional and digital genealogy will help to illuminate the distinctions of digital history generally; in other words, how digital history scholarship is not merely the result of putting traditional scholarship online. An investigation of the digital history methods this site employs in pursuit of creating a user-driven experience will illustrate many of the themes of this class, and shed light on one of the most popular digital history tools of the present day.

2 Replies to “Ancestry.com as Vernacular Digital History”

  1. Kimberly,

    As someone who has used Ancestry a lot in past research, I love the idea of this project! One thing your proposal prompted me to wonder is whether or not the types of materials compiled and made available via Ancestry has changed over time? If not (or even if so), this prompts further questions about what other types of data and materials could the site incorporate in its offerings? I will be super interested to see how this project develops and your findings, if you choose to pursue it.

  2. The impact of Ancestry.com on the historical record and on the every day experiences of people and history is hard to overstate. Doing a detailed study on their platform is a great idea.

    If you did go ahead and do this, I would also note that it would be great to situate the development of the platform in the context of the history of the company. I think it would be really fascinating to look at responses to Ancestry over time as it launched its platform and grew.

    Their work with DNA tests also get into some areas to consider and explore issues relating to notions around race, heritage, and surveillance and how people mobilize this kind of data to tell stories about their histories.

    As one relevant point, there is some good research (like https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/handle/2027.42/111584 ) that has explored the effects of the public private partnerships that happen around digitization efforts lead by Ancestry. It’s also good to situate this in the context that the National Archives has identified genealogists as one if it’s primary stakeholders and that as a result there is a lot of important connections between their work and Ancestry.

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