Saturday, April 21, 2012

A partial review of Michael Sharpe's Family Matters: A History of Genealogy

While I was attending the annual conference of the Ohio Genealogical Society in Cleveland last weekend, I had the pleasure of browsing the book offerings of Maia's Books & Misc in the vendor hall. I rarely buy physical books these days (the last one had been in 2011 and was the latest edition of Stephen Fishman's The Copyright Handbook: What Every Writer Needs to Know).

But I was immediately taken with a new book on a unique topic, the history of genealogy itself. This book, Family Matters: A History of Genealogy, by Michael Sharpe, published by Pen & Sword in 2011, represents an impressive bit of research into the origins of genealogical resources and organizations. So if you've ever wondered where pedigrees originated, how the Society of Genealogists developed, or what process led to the modern National Archives (TNA) in Kew, England, you'll certainly know by the end of the book. I finished it with a great deal of enjoyment and a feeling that I better understood this history.

However, I do feel the need to take issue with a few points made in the book. First, the title itself is somewhat misleading. It is essentially a book about the history of British genealogy, although it does briefly discuss such American aspects as the NEHGS, as well as some items related to worldwide computing networks. Perhaps a book on the topic of the history of American genealogy remains to be written.

Because I am no expert in British genealogy (or its history), I take at face value the presentation of that history, but because I've been involved in technology since the late 1970s, I feel comfortable in making some observations about the book's presentation of computing as part of genealogical history.

To be frank, I was somewhat distracted (if not annoyed) by the author's use of "internet" and "web", instead of "Internet" and "Web". While I realize that the capitalization of those terms is not universal in writing, I come down strongly on the side that points out that the two words are proper nouns (there is only one "Internet" and only one "Web"), and as such, should be capitalized. Before anyone out there tries to point out that you can have other "internets" or "webs", I will suggest that there are many "white houses", but we still capitalize "White House" when referring to the one in DC.

Another spelling glitch was in referring to AOL as "America-on-Line". I was a charter member of AOL in November 1989, and the service used the spelling "America Online".

At this point, you may be wondering if my primary criticisms of the book are purely about spelling and capitalization. I also was bothered that the index was lacking (many of the names and computer-related terms don't even appear in the index).

But books about history should be criticized primarily about misrepresenting the facts of history (or at the very least, misinterpreting the available information). In the chapter about the impact of computer technology on genealogy, the author refers to the creation of the Usenet newsgroup net.roots in 1983, and goes on to say "It was named after Alex Haley's Roots...". His source is an online article written by Margaret J. Olson in which she states "About 1983 in the early days on the net, a newsgroup named net.roots came upon the scene, named presumably because of the popularity of Alex Haley's book, Roots." So we have already gone from one author claiming that the name "presumably" originated due to Haley's book, to Sharpe making that claim even more strongly.

Because I had written an article several years ago about the history of genealogy on Usenet, I was familiar with the earliest origins of the Usenet genealogy newsgroups, and I refreshed my memory about it by reviewing the source material. In September 1983, Bob Stekl proposed a group named "net.geneology" (yes, with the misspelling). Others immediately agreed with the need for the group, but pointed out Bob's misspelling, and suggested alternatives "net.family" or "net.genes". It was Richard L. "Rich" Rosen (on October 3, 1983) who pointed out that "net.genes" might suggest genetics rather than genealogy, and that "net.roots" would make for an easy-to-spell alternative. Rosen makes no mention of the Haley book.

The use of the word "roots" in reference to one's ethnic origins has been around since at least the 1800s, and you'll find any number of newspaper articles published prior to Haley's book that use "roots" as another way of referring to genealogy. For example, a January 1976 article in the New York Times (Haley's book was published in August 1976) has the headline "D.A.R. Aids Families In Tracing Genealogy; Preoccupation With Roots Tracing Not Easy".

Regardless, I highly recommend the book, and I look forward to future books that take a look back at how genealogical research got to where it is today.