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Heathcliff meets Sherlock Holmes

By Daniel Hubbard | October 6, 2013

What we present to others, especially non genealogists, are usually the  condensed results of research. They would probably not want all the gory details so instead we give them the dry bones, which aren’t necessarily any more palatable. What is it that we should convey? What is it that holds interest?

The Medium is the Message

When Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” he was thinking of the interplay between the medium that conveys the message and the message itself. We may convey our message with a quick comment made to a person whose eyes may light up or glaze over. We might convey it with a pedigree chart, a book or anything in between. The medium and the message interact. Some media are good for conveying a few facts, others for conveying a great deal of information and context. Other media may convey a great deal of the richness of the story without spelling out where that information actually originated. Genealogy on television clearly tips toward showing the results of the research without much of the details. How could it do otherwise? A feed of source citations scrolling across the bottom of the screen would interest me at times but would hardly be a plus for the audience in general and would probably annoy nearly everyone at least some of the time. Change the medium to a research report and and it has to have those citations.

Research vs Results

One thing that I ponder often is what a genealogical story actually is. Is it the narrative that could be written based on our research? If we change the medium to a novel, some of the subjects of our research could easily be characters in a book (if anyone would believe them). In the extreme, the novelized ancestor would be stripped of all reference to the sources of the data and all the inferences drawn and all those modifiers that one needs to use in research when things aren’t perfectly clear. The presentation can be a work of art but it doesn’t tell the reader what the evidence was or how the reconstruction was made.

On the other hand, a genealogical story could also be the mystery story of the research itself. In that case the story isn’t a narrative that reflects the lives of the people being researched but rather the process behind discovering them. That sounds dry, but we all know that it isn’t. The thrill of genealogy is the thrill of the chase and it is full of both eureka moments and the intriguing trail of clues that people left behind a century or two ago that we can carefully discover. An ancestor may not have done anything particularly dramatic, yet the process of discovering them might have been truly fascinating. It might be the tale of how nineteen different documents, most of them obscure and hard to locate, were identified, contemplated and pieced together in the one way that makes sense no matter how improbable the result might seem.

So what is the story? I think genealogical stories almost have to be a blending of the two. There are two messages, yin and yang—the tale of the long ago lives and the mystery of their discovery. A genealogical story lives in a quantum world where it can be both Wuthering Heights and and an extensively footnoted tale of Sherlock Holmes. That is the story we should try to tell and the reason it is so difficult.


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