Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Readers Advisory

We learn by doing, but we also learn by observing, and studying. That’s why it is so useful to read periodicals such as the scholarly National Genealogical Society Quarterly, the newsy Eastman’s Online Genealogical Magazine (EOGM), and the popular Family Tree Magazine.

Now and then articles surface in the general press, too, which enlighten us family historians. I am thinking of recent newspaper articles on the preservation of local cemeteries, the gathering of General Vallejo’s descendants to implement correction of a tombstone date here in Sonoma, and the nation-wide efforts by genealogists to help find next of kin for coroners’ cases via that ubiquitous Internet site, Facebook.

Then just this week I got around to reading a recent issue of The New Yorker and found a piece by the African-American historian, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “Family matters” delves into his search for family history -- not just names and dates, he emphasizes, but the stories behind these ancestors and relatives. He faced the usual obstacles of taciturn relatives, lost documents, ironclad family myths, and more, compounded by the special difficulties of searching for individuals who were counted as property rather than persons before the 1870 census.

Some accounts of other people’s genealogical research can be brain-numbing and hard to follow without strict attention to every word. I must admit my eyes glaze over sometimes, hearing or reading disjointed (or even precise) accounts of someone’s else’s cousins, in-laws and assorted great-greats. But historian Gates’ illustrated article is sparked with intriguing anecdotes and observations. He has had to deal with legends that turned out to be wildly overblown, and, when he turned to DNA testing, he came up against strong familial beliefs that would not be swayed by scientific evidence. In the way all good genealogial research does, his efforts shed light on local history and customs as well.

If you have a chance, get a copy of the December 1, 2008 issue of The New Yorker. To read it in full online, you need to subscribe, alas, but most libraries carry one or more copies of each issue.

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