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Uneasy Bedfellows: Academic and Family Historians

by Familia Ulster Genealogical Review 1999


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by Trevor McClaughlin

"However much we may extol the virtues of cooperation between family historians and professional academics, very little such cooperation actually occurs on a regular basis. When it does occur and is done well, as in David Fitzpatrick's Oceans of Consolation: Personal Accounts of Irish Migration to Australia', the benefits are great for all concerned.

The relationship between family historian and academic however does not always rest on secure foundations. The academic may too readily appear to talk down to family historians as amateurs blinkered in what they try to achieve, mindlessly grubbing after 'facts' whose broader historical significance they are unable to assess, and who run scared from 'big picture' historical interpretation.

For their part, family historians distrust academics as too precious by far, intellectual snobs who easily get both the 'facts' and the interpretation wrong as far as their individual family is concerned. The distrust in other words is mutual. Family historians tend to approach professional historians only when they have exhausted their own lines of enquiry and are unable to find what they are looking for.

Unfortunately in these days of so-called economic rationalism, universities may ask their academic staff to charge a fee for such advice, thus reducing any chance of mutual cooperation between academic and family historian. With such obstacles in our path we might well ask - is it worth the effort? What is to be gained?"

This article examines the often-uneasy relationship between academic and family historians, and the benefits that can occur from successful cooperation between the two.