Radical Family History

How do Family Historians Work with Memory?

In recent publications, I’ve suggested that globally family historians are focused on bringing the lives of the marginalized to the fore, challenging stories about the stability of nuclear family life, gender, class, race and sexuality as well their respective ‘national’ stories. Since publishing my 2011 HWJ article on the radical potential of family history I have continued to analyze the meanings and impact of family history on ‘ordinary’ people around the world. Drawing on survey data and oral history interviews undertaken with family historians in Australia, England and Canada I want to briefly explore some of the ways in which family historians work with memory.

My research has revealed that family historians collect and analyze varied historical sources including oral testimony, archival documents, pictures and objects of material culture to undertake critical readings of memories and to challenge the state’s and other people’s versions of the past. I want to use my research to think about how people are thinking historically outside academia, what historical skills they are using to produce historical knowledge, what knowledge is being produced and what impact that can have on them as well as us. I am continuing to trouble people’s assumptions about family historians as sentimental, nostalgic and un-analytical, and to promote their radical potential.

Many of us know that our repositories of historical data – libraries and archives – prioritize particular forms of history and memory-making that is gendered, classed, raced and heteronormative. As Gloyn et al argued in 2018, ‘traditional historical approaches to understanding and valuing archival practices privilege state-driven modes of history-making, formal and institutionalized ways of thinking, and masculine and patriarchal forms of knowledge.’ Like them, I want to use family history, often collected and shared privately, to challenge this.

Global family history that is practiced self-consciously and critically (which is not always the case) challenges the nation-focused/state-driven patriarchal history we discover so easily in our formal archives and libraries. If we revalue family history we can privilege the history of intimate, everyday lives contextualized daily by family historians drawing on broader themes to reveal the power relations that privilege particular forms of knowledge and labour over others. As a feminist historian, I am interested especially in how family historians can trouble the gendered order of history making.

Oral historians have identified women as the major ‘keepers’ of family stories. Family history and the sharing of family stories is also a gendered practice that remains feminized and derided. Many female family historians state that female relatives fostered their practice of family history. One of my survey respondents, Shane O’ Neill, wrote:

I think I was being groomed for the role by my mother but I was a willing acolyte. It came from a mixture of curiosity, empathy, desire for truth, a conviction that the ordinary was in itself extraordinary, a belief that in a life you could demonstrate social and economic change on a large scale (the microcosm and macrocosm), as well as a strong sense of wanting to give little people a voice.

Tanya and family historian Maria Linders in the Friends Room, State Library of New South Wales, © Joy Lai

While it is often assumed that family historians love seeking out ‘Golden Ages’ and familiar motifs in the telling and retelling of family stories and sharing of memories, the family historians I have worked with are primarily keen to overturn assumptions and oft-told stories they remain suspicious of. They are well aware of their agentic role in reworking memories over time. Scholar Asri Erll, influenced by philosopher Maurice Halbwachs’ theory of collective memory, suggests that ‘Family memory is not a monolithic, stable entity, but an ongoing process shaped by the multidimensional cadres sociaux of family members… an exchange of “living memory” takes place between eyewitnesses and descendants’.

Family historians are often autodidacts, but are also taught by librarians, other researchers, related family historians around the world, community members, local historical societies, and by watching global versions of family history television programs, especially Who Do You Think You Are? The tertiary sector has also recently expanded to accommodate and financially benefit from the interest in family history. Through the channels of this global community of knowledge, family historians learn how to question the data they collect and use to construct stories about the past. Many of the family historians I communicate with are derisory about people on genealogical sites such as Ancestry who make many mistakes when constructing their family trees and who ‘steal’ data uploaded by others. While many family historians are proficient users of social media and website portals for research purposes, some remain deeply suspicious about the promises of the Internet. They take enormous pride in their capacity to read sources critically and to constantly check, triangulate and question their data. There is no doubt that written, oral and material evidence has emotional impact on family historians but it is used critically nonetheless.

Family historians often evoke powerful attachments to objects and talk about the varied meanings they make from them. These objects often have a disruptive power in family storytelling. I’ve written about the ways in which unmarried daughters in large colonial Australian families became family historians, hoarding objects and archives associated with their family history, allowing them to cement their place in the family tree in spite of not having children themselves. These women collected and preserved family histories to strengthen their legacies and made significant contributions to their family’s memory into the future. Family history making was the labour they undertook on behalf of their family in place of childbirth and rearing. Many of my contemporary survey respondents are women without children who frequently talk about the ways in which family history is labour performed for their families in place of motherhood.

Family historians use their research to challenge stories of illegitimacy, bigamy, adoption, desertion etc that have had a negative impact on them and others. Family histories are used to piece together fragmented family stories and to contest particular forms of family making and storytelling. Female family historians apply critical readings to a wide range of historical sources and in so doing gain significant authority within their families by becoming the keepers and disseminators of these memories.

In the process they are using history to challenge the value given to other forms of female labour by society. They are also probing the ways in which we understand the power dynamics within families – revealing the invisible and emotional labour of family making and sustaining. They are learning about the power relations that structured families in the past as well as now. Tackling deep-seated myths about heteronormative nuclear families in the past and revealing the consequences of the gendered division of labour can only happen collectively.

Like others I believe that collaborative work between family historians and those of us based in the academy needs to continue. More communication should occur between academic historians, cultural institutions, libraries, archives and family historians if we want to bring an end to patriarchal history making and the public and private memory-making that maintains unequal power relations in our contemporary world.


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