Friday, October 23, 2009

Getting Genealogy Into the Academy

I have come to be of the opinion, in the last few years of my serious pursuit of genealogy as a profession, that genealogy is a social science and should be classified with the other social sciences on an equal footing. Genealogy has its own theoretical base, propounded by Donald Lines Jacobus and Val D. Greenwood. It has its own methodology, made more rigorous by the work of Elizabeth Shown Mills and others. And it produces -- and has for many years -- academic-level work product in professional journals.

And we're getting there. Boston University has recently begun offering coursework in genealogy, though not yet a degree (and, of course, Brigham Young University has been offering a degree in genealogy for decades in an ever-improving program). And there are individuals out there who are both qualified historians and certified genealogists, and who are breaking new ground in combining the sources and methodology of genealogy with the pursuit of historical inquiry of academic quality.

One of these is Carolyn Earle Billingsley, with whose work I became familiar today, when my copy of her book Communities of Kinship: Antebellum Families and the Settlement of the Cotton Frontier arrived. I found out about the book last week, through a curious set of circumstances which had put me on a similar path as Dr. Billingsley, though on a smaller scale, before I knew about her work.

As I am down to the wire with my present book, Non-Federal Censuses of Florida, 1784-1945: A Guide to Sources, I was casting about for an idea for a subsequent book. I really cannot describe the process by which I arrived at this idea. I'm not sure myself how it happened, as the events of the past couple weeks have been fast and furious. Anyway, about two weeks ago, while I was crossing the campus of the University of North Florida on my way to a quiet uninterrupted morning of study in the library, I saw a sign announcing an undergraduate research grant. I inquired into it and decided to apply, but needed a subject.

At times, we have various ideas amorphously formed in the back brain, where they stew and percolate, and come pouring out in what seems a concatenation of events pushing us in a particular direction. That is what is operating here. I am at UNF studying history and Spanish, and having taken two courses in learning how to read very old Spanish documents, because I have decided based purely on my location to study the old Spanish lineages of Florida. I wrote my book on the colonial, territorial, and state censuses of Florida as a means of familiarizing myself with the extant sources in my area. So to apply for the research grant, I thought I would take a genealogical approach to the history of St. Augustine during the second Spanish period (1783-1820). I want my approach to be one not often used -- to first establish the family relationships of the population of St. Augustine, and then examine the historical events during that thirty-seven year period through the lens of those family relationships.

In perusing the literature as part of preparing my grant application, and as part of a personal inquiry into further educational opportunities for myself, I came across mention of Dr. Billingsley's book. I ordered it from Turns out that my idea is quite similar to hers.

Dr. Billingsley studied the kinship of one family, and its allied lines, through a longer period of tiem over a larger geographic area, but the basic idea of studying history though the lens of genealogy is the same for her as it is for me. I read the introduction of her book today (I'm home in the process of becoming increasingly miserable through the process of having a cold), and with every paragraph, I liked the lady more and more. She and I are thinking along extremely similar lines! It's exciting.

The professor I have chosen to direct me in my study, as the grant will be used in a directed individual study next term, is the professor who taught the paleography courses. He seems to think I have a solid idea with considerable potential, and is on board with the genealogical angle of it. This is a logical approach for colonial St. Augustine, as kinship ties were very important to the Spanish in those days (not to say they are not important today).

Well, it's quite a feeling being a pioneer.


Thomas MacEntee said...


I loved this post - so much so that I read it last night and gave it a re-read this morning. I agree with you that genealogy is a social science and there should be more degree programs in the topic.

Amy Coffin said...

I've had the pleasure of socializing with Carolyn through the LoneStar APG events. She is a wonderful person. 100% Southern personality. Very friendly and approachable, should you want to drop her a note about your studies.

I look forward to reading more about your work.