Friday, September 18, 2009

Archivists, Historians and Genealogists

One of the comments this week on the petition for appointing a County Historian got me thinking about the relationship of the disciplines of archivist, historian and genealogist and these disciplines' relationship to the records themselves. The signer expressed that "We need someone who knows the difference between being a genealogist and someone who can care for the historical archives of DC." The records are important to historians and genealogists alike, and these disciplines are not mutually exclusive. The true genealogist must be adept at studying history, especially of new places, and of evaluating the role that history played in individual lives. Without this knowledge it is very easy to confuse individuals of similar names, or to fail to discover links between generations. Depending on the area of interest, an individual historian may or may not be concerned with genealogy, but it is doubtful that their work will not be of some service to genealogists. A historian can also be a genealogist and visa versa, though such is not always the case. Both should have some understanding of the role of archivist, though neither might have expertise in this discipline.

The archivist assesses, collects, organizes, preserves and assists in providing access to collections of historical value. Clearly some knowledge of both history and genealogy would be helpful for this profession. The Dutchess County Historian, by law, appoints an Archivist to care for the historical records. Organizing and providing access to the record collections does imply the ability to judge the correct placement for types of records, and determine their relationship to those who may seek them out, and this would require both historical and genealogical knowledge, but not necessarily proficiency.

Are individual records ever more valuable to history or genealogy? Records pertaining to Smith Thompson who was born in Amenia 17 January 1768 and died Poughkeepsie 18 December 1843 provide a case in point. As Secretary of the Navy his story contributes to military history. As candidate for both presidential nomination and New York governor he relates to political history. As Supreme Court Justice who ruled not to turn over the Amistad captives to President Van Buren one might argue that he provided a forum for abolitionists to publicize their cause, giving his records an even wider scope of historic importance. Genealogically his records can certainly flesh out the stories for both the Thompson and Livingston families.

Records of those who did not become famous perhaps are not so important historically, except in their aggregate, but these records are critical genealogically. Those who are not recorded in history may have only one or two records that might identify to a descendant the link between families. As such these records are extremely valuable. Furthermore, it is not possible to assess from a single document its genealogical value. A will may provide the only documentation of the children of a couple. Looking at the will alone, however, we have no way of knowing that. For all we know the children may also be listed in a family Bible, town history, church baptismal records. The will is still important either way, but much more so if it provides the only record.

The genealogist and historian interpret the records for related and sometimes indistinct purposes. Both rely on the integrity of those records, and therefore on the archivist to preserve them and provide access.


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