Over the last two years, with Jessica Hammett as postdoctoral fellow on my AHRC project ‘Living with Dying’, I have worked with a small group of family historians. Keen to think about new ways of collaborating with different kinds of historians, we brought this group together to share expertise in historical and genealogical methodologies, to learn about families in the past, and to reflect on the value of historical knowledge.
Working together over about fifteen months, through monthly meetings accompanied by interviews, visits to the participants’ homes, and workshops, we benefited from a huge amount of research data – interviews, access to private family archives, the research of the historians, and written accounts of a family’s history. Overall, what we got from this was access to family memory, knowledge and expertise, in a way that cannot be found in a physical archive.
The family historians told us they got a lot out of working with us too – access to resources and training, better knowledge of the historical context of their ancestors’ lives, and a new appreciation of the diversity of what can constitute ‘history’. This could be the appreciation of under-used sources, or using oral and social history approaches. It could also mean thinking more radically about the nature of ‘truth’ and what matters in history – getting at true ‘facts’ or understanding meaning, subjectivities and emotions in the past. As one of the group, Sarah, put it, ‘I’ve discounted some things in the past, like my mum’s stories […] or not valued them as history […] but it is history, isn’t it?’ As Tanya Evans notes in her article for History Workshop Journal, family history can be radical and turn our attention to groups previously overlooked.
Finally, we all benefited from being part of a small community which met every month to share the exciting things we’d found out in our research. We ended the project with a celebration conference, sharing what we’d done and considering the value of such a collaboration.
When I tell others about this project – either genealogists and family historians, or academics – there is one almost universal reaction: ‘Wow, that’s so innovative!’, ‘Academics never talk to us!’ and ‘How did you think of doing that?’ In one way, such a project is unusual. There are just a small handful of examples of projects which have been based on collaboration, such as Tanya Evans’ project on the Benevolent Society in Australia, which benefited from the involvement of the descendants of those who had used the charity. Similarly, Jane McCabe’s work on the Graham’s Homes in India involved engaging with the children and grandchildren of individuals who had lived in the homes and later been sent to New Zealand. In both cases the knowledge and expertise of the family members involved was crucial to the research. There are wonderful projects which are sharing knowledge and resources between these different groups of historians, such as the Railway Work, Life and Death project, Our Criminal Past, and the English Bills and Petty Finance project, on the English poor law. But, it’s still not very common to bring together different types of historians and historical knowledge at all, and certainly not to do so in a sustained collaboration. Working over a long period with family historians and collaborating in such an in depth way is pretty new.
Yet, it’s not revolutionary stuff. What this actually involved was creating a space for meeting up and talking about history. A room, tea and coffee, and some biscuits or cake were the makings of this project. It required a bit of money, and some time and effort. It really was just sitting around and chatting each month. But why is it that bringing together different types of historians working in different ways – on their own family, as a genealogist, or as an academic – is seen as such an innovative development?
Over many decades, plenty of academic historians – many of whom have been associated with the History Workshop movement – have sought to work across institutional boundaries, valuing the expertise of historians in and outside the academy, and the different kinds of knowledge a diverse range of people can bring to history as a practice. Yet perhaps the idea of truly being willing to let go of the idea of the academic as the expert on a given subject, to cede authority and to work collaboratively is still radical. Perhaps it’s still ‘innovative’ to see anyone interested in finding out more about any aspect of history as a historian.
Indeed, the institutional structures at work in universities today push historians towards one-way impact rather than true collaboration. And whilst the academy, and the humanities particularly, feel under threat, letting go of our position as ‘experts’ on a subject (derided though such a position is) can feel risky. If a self-taught historian of their own family is an expert, what role does and should the academic historian have?
At a moment when history feels ignored, contested but also needed more than ever, these are pertinent questions. Here, a relationship like this one, of working with family historians and truly respecting and learning from their expertise, has such value. When family history is a truly booming area and one of the most popular pastimes around, there is such rich potential to bring together academics working on any given topic and family historians who might just be researching the very same people as those academics. Here, then, is where the innovative potential lies, of valuing the expertise and knowledge within families and communities as much as that within the academy.