Understanding the Impact of Commercial Genealogy on Academic History. Leah Marks Print Proposal.

For my print project, I propose researching the state of digital genealogy tools.  I am interested in if these companies present an accurate historical narrative while tailoring the experiences to each user.  Do sites like Ancestry and MyHeritage purposely omit the darker parts of the human past to maintain the appearance of genealogy as a fun hobby? Furthermore, can these websites be used by professional historians in any sort of productive manner?

            Throughout this project, I will cover three main topics. Firstly, I will look at what user needs these genealogy websites attempt to fill.  The three primary needs I will focus on are; creating family trees, DNA testing, and academic uses. Secondly, I will access how accessible these tools are to both the general public and academic historians. And thirdly I will analyze the accuracy of the historical narrative these websites present.  

            As I mentioned previously, users of genealogy websites have a wide variety of needs and goals.  The primary goal of most users is to learn more about their ancestry and create an extensive family tree.  Websites like Ancestry facilitate this by providing access to a wide array of documents such as military, immigration, and census records.  As part of my research, I will look at how these websites provide access to these documents.  Are the digitized versions of these records as easy to understand as print versions? What gets lost in translation when digitizing these records? Additionally, are the fees users pay to access these documents digitally worth it in comparison to visiting local and state archives in person?

            The core of my research will focus on how accurate the historical narrative the websites provide is.  I will mainly focus on which documentation has been digitized and which has been left out.  Specifically, I will look at which pieces of documentation these websites choose to include and which they purposely omit.  One example of this is slave records, which are scarce on online genealogy websites.  Are these websites purposely leaving this part of history out, or are these records simply harder to digitize?

            As American’s become increasingly interested in their unique family background more and more amateur genealogists of turning to online tools such as Ancestry to fill out their family trees.  In my research, I hope to uncover to pros and cons of bringing genealogy into the digital sphere.  Do these websites paint an accurate picture of American history? Or do they purposely abridge America’s past to make finding one’s family and profitable venture?

One Reply to “Understanding the Impact of Commercial Genealogy on Academic History. Leah Marks Print Proposal.”

  1. Hi Leah,

    This is a great idea and a timely topic. Platforms like Ancestry are playing a huge role in shaping the way that all kinds of people engage with memory and the past and getting into analysis of them is very relevant to understanding digital history/public memory.

    It’s great that you have been so clear on your research questions upfront, looking at those questions, I have a few suggestions for you to consider if you went with this as your full project. You have two questions, “Do sites like Ancestry and MyHeritage purposely omit the darker parts of the human past to maintain the appearance of genealogy as a fun hobby? Furthermore, can these websites be used by professional historians in any sort of productive manner?” I would suggest dropping the second question, I think the thing that is particularly interesting in this case is studying the sites for their own sake as opposed to what potential they might have for professional historians. Looking at the first question, I think the “darker” history point is particular interesting. In that context, I think it would likely be particularly interesting to look at issues with how the platforms fail to grapple with issues around black history and slavery. There has been some press coverage on this that might be useful in shaping the project https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/05/31/how-ancestrycom-has-failed-african-american-customers/ along with that, there are resources that Ancestry has put out that you could do analysis of https://support.ancestry.com/s/article/Researching-African-American-Ancestors?language=en_US There are similarly problematic issues that come up with how Ancestry does or doesn’t work for indigenous peoples (for example, here are resources they provide related to that https://support.ancestry.com/s/article/Indigenous-Americas-Region?language=en_US )

    It’s not directly related, but it’s worth noting that Ancestry has become a really powerful force in shaping what gets digitized from public records. Adam Kriesberg wrote a really good dissertation on this that would likely be relevant to look into too for some more context on studying/analyzing the organization and it’s site https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/handle/2027.42/111584

    Overall, I think the most interesting parts of this are likely not going to be about historical accuracy, but instead will be about how the site frames the activity of doing this kind of research and who it imagines it’s users to be.

    Altogether, I think this is a really promising area of research.

    Best, Trevor

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