Monday, 21 November 2011
Book review - Family Matters; a history of genealogy
I'm not in the habit of writing book reviews, in fact I have never written one as a blog post before. But I've just read a newly-published book that I think is worth writing about. As the title tells you, it looks at the world of genealogy from a new angle, and this is much to be commended. It's also a better book than I thought it was going to be when I flicked through the index, which is not very good at all. This is probably not the fault of the author, Michael Sharpe; as an author myself I all too aware how little control you can sometimes have over the finished article, which goes out under your name.
Having said that, I still have some serious reservations about the content. Overall it is definitely worth reading, and contains a great deal of information that you won't easily find elsewhere. Anyone who has entered the world of family history research within the last decade or so - essentially the Internet age - will be fascinated to find out how things were only a very short time ago, and how we got to where we are now. The problem is that with a subject as wide as this it is impossible to do justice to every aspect in a single volume. In this case a more accurate subtitle would have been 'a history of English genealogy'. There are some mentions of genealogy in other countries, mainly Scotland and the USA, and mainly in relation to England, or by way of comparison with it. This is fine, as to go into any great depth about them would require several more volumes. I just wish the author (or the publisher) had been more up-front about this in the title.
The early chapters on medieval genealogy and heraldry are very informative, and set the scene for what I think is much the best section, the chapters on the 19th and 20th centuries. The author rightly gives due credit to figures such as Percival Boyd, whose name lives on in the indexes and collections he created. His output was astonishing, given the technology available to him a century ago. I have often wondered what he and some his contemporary 'gentleman genealogists' might have achieved if they had computers. Even those of us who used resources like Boyd's Marriage Index and the Great Card Index when they were still in books and drawers, respectively, have become accustomed to searching them online, any time we like. It's easy to forget what a performance it used to be. Pallot's indexes, which he does not mention, oddly, were even worse - as far as I remember you had to pay about £10 or £15 per search to have the staff at the IHGS in Canterbury search it for you.
But the later stages of the book seem rather rushed by comparison. This may be partly because he is describing events that I remember well, and was often involved in, so I am particularly aware of what has been missed out, which is not the case with the earlier chapters. All the same, some omissions are serious by any standards, and there are numerous factual errors. The author rightly gives an account of the 1901 census project, but does not even mention the 1881 project, which was equally ground-breaking in its time. There is remarkably little on FamilySearch, where there have been significant developments in the last few years, and not enough on the business of digitising records and putting them online. He mainly talks about the commercial players like Ancestry and Findmypast, and ignores the enormous quantity of documents, transcripts and indexes put online by non-commercial organisations, principally record offices. Again, there are irritating factual errors; at GRO Scotland the service run by Origins was not re-branded, its contract was not renewed and instead went to another company, which is now part of brightsolid. He says that the Society of Genealogists' fair in London did not include any lectures, and while this was true of the first fair, the lecture programme became an integral part of the subsequent London fairs, and was not confined to the events in the midlands, as he suggests.
I was disappointed that there was no discussion on social media, which now has such a big part to play in the genealogical world; FreeBMD gets a mention, but there is nothing on UKBMD, or user-generated content on wiki sites, or major volunteer indexing initiatives like Ancestry's World Archives project and FamilySearch Indexing. These things are not just the recent past, they are the future. I would also have liked to see a lot more on genealogical education, from society-run classes and correspondence courses to online modules, the degree-level courses now run by at least two universities that I know of, the roles of local authority and WEA classes, and the U3A.
It is admittedly difficult to cover the most recent developments because the pace of change is now so fast that it is hard to keep up with events, let alone write about them. All the same, I think this is the weakest area of the book, which would have benefitted from more attention to 21st century genealogy, if necessary at the expense of some of the earlier content. For example, it would have been reasonable to assume a basic knowledge of the major genealogical sources in a book of this kind, instead of repeating information that is more than competently covered elsewhere.
I am prepared to cut the author some slack, however, as I know the kind of horse-trading that can go on between author, editor and publisher. I think I can also see the hand of the publisher in the footnotes, where the numbers are so small that I didn't realise there were any footnotes until I looked at the back of the book. But at least there are footnotes, which is to be commended, and he cites his sources impeccably. I will even give him the benefit of the doubt for some of the irritating minor errors, most of which are not disastrous in themselves, although there are so many that it tended to undermine my confidence in the areas where I was not so familiar with the subject matter. I won't list them all, which would be tedious and petty, but by way of example, there are many references to Cecil Humphery-Smith, every single one of which mis-spells his surname, and Iain Swinnerton is a colonel, not a lieutenant-colonel. In a book on genealogy you really should take particular care with names and titles.
I don't want to end on a negative note, so I will finish by emphasising that there is a lot more good than bad in the book, and I enjoyed reading it. It wasn't a review copy, by the way, I paid for it out of my own hard-earned. It is a hardback, which makes it rather expensive, but it is on sale at The National Archives online bookshop with £4 off the list price.