History Hobbyists Can Make a Difference


The old adage that there is nothing worse than dinner with someone researching genealogy, is a mite misleading to say the least.  The influence that hobbyists have over the documentation and discovery of history is growing at an astounding rate.  Even these genealogy buffs themselves sometimes underestimate what they are doing as only valuable to themselves and family, however immediate or extended.  What these people can offer to professional archivists and curators is oft overlooked by both the professionals and the hobbyists. 

In a recent article in St. Olaf  News, entitled "Search of Online Archives Spurs Donation",  author Clair Olson conveys the experience of Ms. Vivian Engbreit.  While  in her search of family information through the online archives at St. Olaf, she discovered she had dozens of unique photos that the University did not. She made a decision that she would contact the archivist.  When the archivist heard about the collection she had, he was "salivating," as he put it. 

[St. Olaf Associate Archivist] Sauve is well-versed in early St. Olaf history, yet some of the photos and documents were completely unfamiliar even to him. The collection injects more information and images about early St. Olaf life into the archives and provides a new perspective.

While, in this article , Engbreit's father had been a noted genealogist, I think this is still a compelling case for consideration, Engbreit, up to that point, was probably not aware of the value her collection held for others who were researching, or for the general advancement of historical knowledge. 

History has so very much to do with perspective and the context from which it is drawn, because of this, modern researchers are in a very unique position to not only find, but to reflect and impart this knowledge to others.   History in the past has been largely composed by a singular search, the rich, the scholarly, the victors, the conquerors, but it doesn't have to be so any longer. 

The vantage point from which you are able to view your ancestors'  lives may be vastly different than that from which a scholar might look at it, or perhaps, your ancestors might be overlooked by such a scholar.  By fitting together the puzzle pieces of lives from all different walks and experiences we are able to complete a much richer, more complete picture of life in different eras. 

One of the greatest contributions you can make is to make your work publicly available if you are able.  When you are doing your research, confirm your facts whenever possible.  If you are unable to confirm the facts, or if information is taken by word of mouth, always cite the source of the information.  If you have a substantial collection of photographs, family trees or a published memoir or biography, contact your local historical society to see if you can contribute to their collections.  These foundations, organizations and societies are always more than willing to discuss options with you about how you might be able to contribute.  Most of all, no matter how frustrating things get, remember that what you are doing is important and valuable.

Endangered Cemeteries: Preserving Overlooked Historic Sites

Historical enthusiasts are often quite over-spoken about their passion for preservation,  especially when it comes to books, landmarks, or homes.   But what do we do when one of our richest connections to the past, the places where our ancestors lie, go unmaintained?  What happens when they are vandalized and overgrown with brush to the point where they are unapproachable?

Copy Editor for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Jim Anderson, in his July 24th article "Graveyards Where History Lives On,"  talks about a couple of Washington County graveyards which have been recognized as historically significant places.  One which has been well maintained and looked after, and one in which crumbling head markers and years of neglect are starkly obvious.  The article goes on to say:

There are more than 4,000 cemeteries and farm burial grounds in Minnesota; many are abandoned or under threat of vandalism and neglect, their history forgotten. "I would call it a significant problem," said Bonnie McDonald, executive director of the Minnesota Preservation Alliance.

A significant problem indeed.  I can't begin to convey how many times I have relied upon headstones as a source of information in my research, they truly portray invaluable information about the course of a person's life.  Not to mention the emotional connection I feel with my own ancestor's final resting places. 

So, what can we do about it?

There is a movement right now going on among historians, genealogists and hobbyists of all levels and backgrounds to transcribe headstone listings.  Using the Internet to keep record of the massive lists of names and dates and even photographs of the stones themselves.  Some amazing resources exist for those who either can't travel to the cemetery where their ancestors are buried or are just starting out in their research, to name a few:


If you are so lucky as to be able to visit the cemetery where your ancestors are buried, realize, it likely will not be around forever.  Take as much information as you can, transcribe, take a rubbing, or a photograph.  Next, you may consider donating that information to one or more of the websites dedicated to preserving such information.  Many companies, such as The Historium, who do some of this research on behalf of clients, will offer you the chance to sign a waiver, allowing them to donate information like this to the applicable societies and web resources, that way, the information about these people will hopefully never vanish entirely. 

In history, it is important to remember that the information you are looking at has significance to more than just your individual subject, it belongs to a greater context.  Cemeteries don't just serve as filing cabinets for names and dates of seemingly insignificant events, they tell a story of the origin of a town.  Graveyards portray an intimate look at the times, lives, and circumstances that woven together create cities, counties, and territories.  Of course, there are also other ways to help: contacting historical societies, preservation associations, and even local and state government can help to rectify the situation, there is often a need for man-power and monetary support.  Even though fighting the passage of time can seem relentlessly tedious and sometimes even hopeless, it is so very important that these records remain.