People are always eager to learn more about their past, and with many spending extended periods at home during the pandemic during 2020 and 2021, the hobby of 'genealogical research' has boomed. Hobbyists look into their ancestry for all kinds of reasons: from basic curiosity and a desire to learn more, all the way through to tracking down lost relatives, or learning more about hereditary conditions and quirks that run through their family's DNA. Many, however, still don't necessarily understand why family history is important, especially if they don't feel as connected to their immediate or extended family.
While there are loads of tools and sites to help you along the way - and we have a guide to the best genealogy sites when you're ready to continue your journey - you need to know what you're trying to achieve with them, and why recording family history matters.
To help explain why genealogy is important, and help anyone curious about family history make a start in it, we chatted to Barrett Brynestad, Creative Director at Artifact Uprising, to get his take on why people look into their past, why it's vital that we preserve knowledge, and how anyone interested in genealogy can begin their journey.
Why is family history important?
"The most interesting part of documenting your family’s history is learning about the stories, people and moments that you had no idea existed," explains Brynestad. "There’s so much you can learn in the process of uncovering untold stories. Past trips, family friends and distant relatives all come into focus though the process of piecing your family history together. In our increasingly digitized world, the photos that are so important in telling each of our stories often don’t make it past the screen. While it can feel like every minute detail of our lives is shared on social media, when you think about future generations wading through that endless online 'identity', it sounds overwhelming. There’s something truly beautiful and impactful about creating a legacy and having tangible photos and stories that can be physically passed down from generation to generation."
Preserving a snapshot of your family history, in something like a high quality photo book, can really benefit yourself, and future generations. And that's the point here: it isn't just about you learning more about past generations, but about providing a sense of place and belonging for younger family members, or family that's yet to come.
"I think the earlier you involve your children in your family’s history - telling stories, encouraging them to ask questions of older generations, going through photo albums or making new ones together - the more connected they will feel to your history," says Brynestad. "I recently put together a memoriam book to celebrate the life of my grandmother and, in the process of creating the album, I realized there were so many faces, places and stories previously unknown to me. You hear certain stories or see a select few photos of your elders when you’re growing up, but until you take the time to learn more about the small details of their lives, you only have a cursory knowledge of their experience."
What is the most effective way to record family information?
If you're now getting a better idea of why family history is important, you probably want to know how to get started, and what to look for first. Brynestad explains: "In a perfect world, we would be able to sit down and record interviews with every member of our family and have one giant, organized folder in the cloud with all those recordings, along with every photo and video taken, newspaper clipped, or quote written down. In reality, most of us don’t have the time or bandwidth to take on a project like that, so it’s important to create defined guardrails of what exactly your goal is for a family history project. For example, you might hone in on a specific person’s life, or a period of time, or potentially one family member’s achievements. Creating a roadmap will help the task not spiral into a larger, more daunting task."
We asked Brynestad what that kind of roadmap might look like, and he added a checklist of tips, to help people get started:
- It’s helpful to start with an outline of the time period and narrative you want to record - begin with the key moments or known memories that you want to document and then you can fill in from there as you start to collect and request memories, photos and other visuals. This will give you a guide, so the project doesn’t feel overwhelming. Doing it this way provides the ability to elaborate in the future.
- Creating a shared folder online gives family members the ability to upload photos – be specific in exactly what you are looking for (e.g. time periods, specific occasions, or people etc.), so that you can fill in any gaps you may have. Even when you’re specific, you’ll still uncover so many gems.
- Send a list of the same questions to each family member to answer. You can ask questions about their lives, or what they know about previous generations, or even specific questions about photos you want to include. This will help provide genuine color and personality to your album.
- Part of documenting your family history also means being a good editor. It’s impossible to reflect an entire family history in one photo book. Choosing the photos and visuals that stir a feeling and including a little bit of everything - the momentous and the mundane, the sentimental and silly - will help create a more dynamic and interesting album.
- It’s helpful to give yourself guardrails of what you want, and what feels like too much information to document. It’s impossible to capture your family’s entire history in one book, so put yourself in the shoes of the future reader and try to view an album through the eyes of someone seeing it for the first time.
Hopefully, this gives you a good idea of where to start. However, it can still seem daunting to just throw yourself into family history research. While sites like Ancestry.com have a free trial period, you can still be overwhelmed by the information on offer, and the task at hand. Plus, you may need extra tech to help you gather everything, together, like slide to digital image converters. So what is the very first move you should make?
If you're an absolute beginner, Brynestad has advice on the first thing you should do. "The first step is to call for relatives to round up as many photos, negatives and digital slides as possible. Finding these takes time, so asking up front gives family members time to unbox, organize and hand them off," he says. "While photos are being collected, talk to as many of your older living relatives as you can while they are around. It’s one thing to record historical family names on a piece of paper or digital ancestry site, but to have the context and lively stories about those individuals is what makes a family tree come to life. Even if it’s just a snippet of information, or unique personality trait - 'Uncle Phil would swim one mile in the ocean every morning' - it can make a family tree that much more engaging and create connections for generations to come".
How important is historical context?
When you're researching your family history, and eventually using a family tree maker to visualize it, you also become something of a general historian. You learn more about the places your ancestors lived in, and the conditions and context they existed within too.
"Historical context is crucial to accurately documenting your family history. Being able to paint a vivid picture of the world these people lived in helps tell a 360 degree story of who these people were and what their life experience was like. The beauty of documenting genealogy is comparing and contrasting how different their life was to yours.
"We have seen many customers [at Artifact Uprising] who’ve created family heritage albums scan in newspaper stories, or hand-written letters, that reveal more details around the news and goings-on of the day. It provides an outside perspective, setting the stage for the photos you include, and on the flip side, can fill in the gaps where you might not have an abundance of photos".
And it seems that family history, and the context within which we document it, is especially prescient right now. As much as we've sacrificed and been forced to endure it, 2020 and the pandemic will mark a significant event in world history, on both a global and local scale. This inevitably impacts family history, and the way we document and research it.
"This year we have had customers make 2020 year-in-review photo books where they include screenshots of funny internet memes that help tell the monotonous story of social distancing alongside photos of quarantine hobbies, backyard gatherings, etc," explains Brynestad. "These inclusions will help later generations understand the mood and the emotions of this time period".
If ever you needed a reason why family history is so important - remember that we're living our own history right now, and it's crucial that later generations understand as much of this as possible, so they can see how we lived, what we lived through, and hopefully learn some lessons along the way.