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Genealogy to family history: the value of adding context

Genealogy to family history: the value of adding context
So we’re going to look at moving from genealogy to what’s called more along the lines of a family history. And looking specifically at adding context to your family stories and adding some depth and richness to your family stories. So considering genealogy itself. This term is, perhaps, more strictly around the retrieval of vital and familial data from records– and the records that we’ve been talking about of various types. And the ordering of that information into family trees and relationship patterns. I’ll show you an example of what I’m talking about here. The thought of family history goes further into integrating this type of birth, marriage, death data into historical context.
So giving an idea of why somebody might have moved from one country to the other. Why someone might have taken a specific job instead of another job. Which helps you create a context and a narrative, or a story. And, hopefully, will bring more interest and depth to the research that you’re doing. So, this is an example of some more straightforward genealogy reporting, if you like. So this is a descendant chart. So, starting from one couple and showing their descendants– very straightforward birth, marriage, and death information. So you can see there’s not a lot of richness here but you’re getting places, and dates, and names which lays the foundation for other work that you can do.
So, there’s different ways of showing this type of information. So this is a chart, as I’ve said. And then you can also show things in report form. This is the same type of information but shown in a word format instead of a more visual format. And it shows the generations flowing from one generation down, in this case, to three generations with the children of the second generation showing up. We’re going to talk more about reports and charts further on in the course and give lots of examples of these and talk about different ways of creating these. But I just wanted to show you the kind of– the skeleton of genealogy before moving into family history.
So– considering context and what this is. A dictionary definition that I came across is “the surroundings, and circumstance, backgrounds, and settings that help clarify or explain an event or an occurrence”. So, as I was saying, it can help you understand why ancestors made particular choices. Why maybe things happened in their lives that might have been inexplicable, otherwise, to you. And, as I’ve been saying, it brings greater meaning and richness to your family’s story and hopefully helps bring the people alive to you. So it’s really a great thing to try to get your hands on some context. And there’s lots of different types of questions that can be asked around context. I’ve just given a couple of examples here.
So, what might a particular emigration journey have been like if your ancestors travelled to Australia in the 1850s or the– 1850s, 1860s. What was it like to be on that ship going across the ocean? What was it like working in a carpet factory in the 1830s– in particular in Scotland, the example I’m going to show? And there’s all sorts of social groups around. And what things were available in the place where, perhaps, your great grandfather lived? And might he have been a member of one of them? And what happened in those social groups? So, looking at these questions and considering where you might find context for them. So, thinking about the journey to Australia.
From a journal that I found from a website, a museum in Australia– the quote is - Due to storms, “these water barrels were rolling from side to side” and all these teapots and things were “bouncing… down the area between the bunks.” And this just really brings the whole reality, of being encased on a small ship, very vividly to life to me. So, OK– maybe your ancestor wasn’t on this particular ship but you can bet there’s probably a storm that happened whilst they were on board. So something like this might have happened to them. So, to find this type of information– as I said, I found this from a journal that had been digitised and put on a web page.
But there are lots of written history books that describe emigration journals– emigration voyages. And lots of journals available. One of a great source for Australian information in particular is a website called Trove, and that’s from the Australian archive service. And they have newspapers and all sorts of great digitised information, so I encourage you to have a look if you’re interested in Australian aspects in particular. So– considering work experience. What was it like working in a village carpet factory in 1835?
And this source is from a wonderful piece of work called The Statistical Accounts of Scotland– which I won’t go into the ins and outs of what it was, maybe we’ll do that further along in the course, but really describes local agriculture and conditions. It’s a good example of a local history. And local history started being created– well not started being created, but really had a great plethora of them in the 19th and 20th centuries. So they’re really good sources for gaining information about local areas. But in this particular one, there’s this carpet manufactory, as they’re calling it, and they’re describing what the working conditions were like. And talking about the people working, generally, about 10 hours a day.
And they’re earning about 12 shillings a week, and they appear to be in a comfortable condition. And I used this website to look at what 12 shillings a week might equate to in today’s money. And it was about 54… 52… 54 pounds a week. And that was in earnings. So, what you could actually buy with that money. So not a great deal of money, I have to say. There are different ways of considering what the value of money is, but– so I would encourage you to go out and look at local histories and try to get a sense of what local conditions were like in the areas that your ancestors lived in.
And then, lastly, this context for social life and hobbies. On the left here– it’s a page from a local directory. And again, in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, and I suppose local directories still exist, primarily online, but they reflected what was going on in a local community and were published either by the Post Office or private entities, but gave all sorts of great information. And in this case, some information on local clubs. And the one I was particularly interested in was this Ancient Order of Free Gardeners, mostly because it caught my eye. But it gives information on when these clubs met during the week.
And this is from Musselburgh which is a small community on the east coast of Scotland. And you get the information that they meet once every six weeks in Musselburgh. And then I also found some great information from a newspaper in 1903 talking about this annual soiree that happens for the Ancient Gardeners. So I was just envisioning an ancestor going along to this annual soiree and really bringing things to life. And the chairman of the, I think it was one of the Edinburgh-based Free Gardener associations, talks about that there’s nothing better for a young man to be a member of a society and how he’s a member of seven different ones.
And it’s a great thing to bring yourself out of yourself, and get better connected to your community. So, just some examples of printed documents, and books, and newspapers that can help you understand what life, perhaps, was like for an ancestor. And what they might have gotten up to in their free time. Newspapers and directories are available in both physical format in archives and libraries, but also, increasingly, have been digitised and put online, often freely available to you. So they’re good places to have a look for context. And just some ideas about how you might actually use contextual information in your writing and communication of your results.
This is just a bit of text that I wrote about a gentleman who lived in Kirkcaldy in Scotland. And, looking at the census of 1861, he’s shown living alone with a servant. He’s a widower. And it goes on to talk about what– he was a flax merchant, in particular. And so the Statistical Accounts give some great information about what the flax and linen industry was like in Kirkcaldy at that time period. It was the principal trade of the town, was the manufacture of various descriptions of linen, and it goes on for quite a time about this. So this is more of a written format and not the straightforward birth, marriage, deaths information I was showing you from the charts.
So it brings, as I say, a richness to your genealogical writing and hopefully will help inform you and show your family, or whoever it is that you’re going to be showing your family histories to, more of what life was like during the time period your ancestors were alive. So I encourage you to go out and have a look for further information sources.

In this step we look at the distinction between genealogy and family history and begin to consider how context can enhance genealogical data.

Some examples of contextual sources are used with ideas given on how they might add flavour and colour to a family tree.

The slides in this video that feature documents can be found in the ‘Download’ section below.

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Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree

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