Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, November 24, 2017

Also, don't expect your children and family members to read your surname book

A surname book is the generic term for books about either an individual or family related to the author. There are likely more than a million of these books that have been published over the years. Genealogists often spend years compiling and writing one or more of these books. Sometimes, the books focus on the life story of author's parents or a set of grandparents. Often, they include a listing of the subject ancestor's descendants or ancestors or both. I have often encountered a general antipathy towards surname books among "serious" genealogists due to the narrative nature of the subject matter and a lack of substantiating documentation.

My own family is well represented by this genera. One interesting phenomenon is that many, I would say nearly all of these books are "self-published" or contract printed. The authors often print up a certain number of copies with the expectation that their relatives will be interested in the book and help pay for the cost of printing. Then, when there is little or no interest, the piles of unsold books accumulate in garages and basements. Years later, the accumulation of books are either destroyed or given away.

The motivation for researching, writing and publishing such a book is usually to preserve the memory of someone the author feels should be known to other family members. In some cases, where there are more affluent relatives, they are contacted about funding the entire project with a promise that their own family will receive prominent mention in the book.

In the United States and I assume elsewhere, there is a substantial industry associated with promoting the publication of these books and related types of books. One well know such effort is the "Who is Who in America" series of books that is now in its 70th Edition. The two-volume set of these books cost $227.00. However, there are a number of genealogically related "publishers" who even offer to write such books for the client and then publish the results.

When I was a child, from time to time, I would pull one of these books off the shelf in my home and go through it trying to figure out who my relatives were and finding out a little bit about their lives. It would be of some interest, I suppose, if I were to claim that my years of interest in genealogy had its inspiration from my encounter with surname books, but that would be far from accurate. I managed to inherit or otherwise acquire copies of most, if not all, of the books I had available to me in my youth and I sometimes refer to them for an opinion about some of the details of my ancestors' lives, but essentially, I join in the opinion that the information is unsubstantiated and in many cases inaccurate or misleading.

One valuable part of the surname book tradition is the preservation of some documents and many photographs. I am not at all writing in an attempt to discourage the production of such books. My personal feelings about the books are entirely neutral and I laud the effort taken to preserve a small part of our collective history.

Those who decide to write and publish such a work need to understand that their motivation is not usually shared by other family members. With the advent of electronic or ebook publishing, the cost of printing such a book has dropped considerably. However, despite this clear advantage in publishing and distribution, many of the authors want a "paper, hardbound, copy" of their book.

I do have several suggestions, however, for would-be surname book authors.

My primary suggestion involves basic genealogy: cite your sources. Every once in great while, I find a book with ample source citations. These books are extremely useful and represent a real advancement in knowledge about a particular family. At the other end of the spectrum are books written like novels with obviously contrived dialogue and details that sometimes contradict good sense and the historical context.

I would also suggest that any would-be author of such a work give up the idea of making any kind of profit from the enterprise. If the author is fortunate enough to get donations sufficient to cover the cost of publication then they should feel more than justified in the production. But the fact that the author ends up with a lifetime supply of books in a basement or garage should not become a basis for condemning the family.

As an alternative to spending the time writing and publishing an entire book about a particular ancestor or family, I suggest doing some serious research and publishing an ongoing series of shorter publications. A good example is the effort made by my daughter Amy to publish a family-centered blog called "TheAnestorFiles." Each of the short posts is accompanied by specific and extensive documentation. If a more organized publication is needed then parts of that publication are already researched and written, meanwhile, family members have access to the research as it is ongoing. In addition, as appropriate, the sections of the blog posts can be attached as supporting documentation to individuals in online family trees.

Genealogy involves a great deal of family history. It is important to document and preserve traditional family stories. But it is equally as important to do well-documented research. I am reminded of a traditional family story in my own Tanner family. It has been passed down and retold to family members for almost 200 years. Many family members who have absolutely no interest in genealogy or family history can recount the story from their memory. Unfortunately, the original story was not well documented and there are differing accounts in the historical record of the details of the events. Even the origin of the story is questionable due to the fact that the earliest written account was written by a descendant who never knew or met his ancestor. I have written about this before and I am still hearing different versions of the story from my near and distant relatives. The entire story has been reprinted in a number of surname books, some of which still are available in boxes of copies that I inherited from family members and which are stored in my basement. From time to time, I am actually able to give away a copy of one or two of the books.

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