The Alternative Historian

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Thoughts, Ideas, and Other Musings by an Alternative Historian

Roles in Family History

Last month I participated on a panel about preserving the history of African-American women in Atlanta. The attendees were mostly genealogists looking for help in researching and keeping safe their family history. The program included tips on preservation, genealogical research, and the use of oral history. One of the presenters talked about the “family archivist” as the person in each family that keeps all the paper. Someone in the family is the one who keeps the photos, mementos, and other physical objects deemed important. The archivists keeps them in the hopes they will survive for future generations. The idea that a member of a family gravitates to this type of role intrigued me, and after some thought I’ve come to think there are two other roles as well: the journalist and the historian.

The family journalist has all the news. This is the person who calls to tell who just graduated, got married, got divorced, or went to jail. The journalist does a great job of gathering the news and then disseminating it. There often is a fine line between news and gossip, but when talking about a family rather than a White House scandal it’s not something too troubling.

The family historian keeps the stories of the family. Stories are news plus context. The journalist will tell what happened, but the historian will know why it happened when it did. Why did your grandparents immigrate? Were they running away from or towards something? The historian has the answers.

It’s a good idea to think of archivist, journalist, and historian as a role not a permanent state of being. Individuals, many times more than one, will assume these roles and may hold them for years, even an entire lifetime, but they will eventually pass them on. Throughout the existence of a family there always are archivists, journalists, and historians, but the people fulfilling those roles change. Take this as a source of comfort if the idea of taking on one of these jobs seems daunting. Know you aren’t by yourself, and you never have been.