Tuesday, October 16, 2007

I dream of genies

Lately we've been simultaneously surveying at two different sites. While John and Jenny progress through Temple's collections, I've been back at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, working on collections of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania with special guest star David, a reference librarian at HSP. Under the terms of HSP’s strategic alliance with GSP, materials which GSP collected (including several hundred feet of manuscript collections) are now part of HSP's holdings, so we’re surveying the manuscript material to help HSP's staff get a better handle on what's there.

HSP is already a rich source for genealogical and family research and the resources of GSP undoubtedly add to that richness. We've only been at the surveying for a little while, but already we've seen a variety of types of collections that fit under the "genealogy" umbrella, including funeral home records, items related to a Catholic church and cemetery, diaries of a minister recording his responses to personal and world events, and small caches of family papers.

By far the largest category of material, however, is genealogical research, created by people with various purposes: professional genealogists who conducted family research for others, individuals researching their own family connections, individuals interested in the genealogies of great persons like Charlemagne or William the Conqueror. The collections vary quite a bit both in how the research was compiled and how it was presented. Some people created scrapbooks or narrative histories that present a polished final product, while others maintained the research in its raw form. There are transcribed or photocopied extracts from published sources, printouts from microfilm, correspondence that documents the researcher’s inquiries to various libraries and archives, government offices, religious institutions, and personal contacts, pedigree charts, rough notes, and detailed data forms. Sometimes sources are cited, sometimes they're not. Some collections are thoroughly indexed by their creator or by volunteers at the society, while others are so idiosyncratic that at first glance their method seems decipherable only by their creator.

These collections provoke a number of questions when it comes to assessing research value. What do measures like "documentation quality" and "interest" mean when what is being assessed is someone's research using primary sources, rather than the sources themselves? We know that genealogy itself is a high interest topic; some sources claim that genealogy is now the second most popular hobby in the United States. (Even though some dispute the accuracy of these claims, anecdotal evidence and the success of services like Ancestry.com clearly points to a large segment of the population being interested in tracing its roots.) But how are genealogical research materials in archives used by researchers other than the person who created them – and how likely are they to be used? While each collection has a fairly narrow focus, does its value exponentially increase when added to an accumulation of similar materials in a place like HSP? Is this a category of material where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts?

Taking a slightly broader perspective, in addition to the genealogical content of these collections, do they tell us something about the nature of genealogical research? There’s a small but growing body of archival literature on the information seeking behavior of genealogists. For example, see Wendy Duff and Catherine A. Johnson's 2003 article from the American Archivist titled "Where is the list with all the names? Information-seeking behavior of genealogists" (soon to be available online, but currently print only) or Elizabeth Yakel's "Seeking information, seeking connections, seeking meaning: genealogists and family historians" from Information Research. These studies used interviews with and observation of individual genealogists to ferret out details of their research methods, but might an examination of those methods as exhibited in the collections they create also be useful?

Given that we still have over a hundred collections to survey, we'll be grappling with these questions for awhile. We have colleagues onsite here at HSP and GSP whose expertise will be invaluable, but I'd be interested to hear from other people who collect or access genealogical research materials about how such collections are used once they've passed from their creator into a repository.

No comments: