Family history is the fastest-growing leisure activity in Britain. In the past 30 years, it has developed from a snobbish search for aristocratic ancestors into a truly popular hobby. Alongside, and often interrelated, there has been a corresponding interest in local history. The bestselling magazine in this field is Family Tree , aimed at the kind of people who read Reader's Digest . It offers a mix of practical articles on genealogical subjects and pieces from family historians along the lines of "My most unforgettable ancestor", supplemented with a regular section on computers and the usual news and reviews of hobby magazines. Of its type, it is good.
I approached Family and Community History hoping that it would cater for intelligent family historians who want to put their researches in wider social contexts. Key figures in genealogy have long called for closer links between family and community history. Would this publication bridge the gap?
Family and Community History grew out of an Open University course. Ruth Finnegan, who was there at its inception and is now one of the general editors, wrote that "a course of this kind would seem a 'natural' for the Open University given its emphasis on providing courses that are at once on topics of real interest to adult learners (not just dry academic theories) and at the same time of the high academic quality to be recognised by other universities". Four years later, the journal was launched.
One of the problems of local history is that it is local. Those interested in coal miners in Northeast England 1860-1920 are unlikely to be equally fascinated by Quakers in Hertfordshire 1811-1840 or Basque refugee children in 1930s Britain. No one publication can hope to provide articles of equal interest to a reader, but in this respect Family and Community History is better than most. Each issue has five articles, of which three are on a particular topic - such as domestic service, migration or childhood - and this gives a degree of cohesion to what is usually a fragmented area. One of the three articles is an overview of the subject by an academic. The other contributors are a mixture of students from the course and academics, although the latter predominate.
The journal is attractively produced, on good-quality paper and well illustrated. It was runner-up in the Charlesworth awards, given for typographical excellence, in 1998-99. This encourages readers to persevere with something outside their immediate area of interest. Although visual standards are generally improving, many academic journals rely on their readership's dedication to the subject to keep them turning their ill-designed pages.
The OU course does not include genealogy, despite the fact that, as Finnegan notes, "it was an eye-openerI to realise the huge number of people up and down the country who were researching on their own families or localities". More than any other kind of history, family history is the study of people as individuals. The majority of our ancestors left no written records of their thoughts, feelings or motives, so tracing their lives through their occasional recorded brushes with authority raises questions to which there is rarely an answer. Local history might provide a clue, so studies being done on a community can supplement individuals' research and help them to understand wider trends and influences.
Instead of genealogy, the course covers the history of the family as an abstract concept, and this abstraction is reflected in the journal's articles. Despite the editors' plea to contributors "to write in an accessible style" and "to avoid insensitive or unduly specialised language", the articles are written in a passive, impersonal academic voice that is a major turn-off for most readers. Jargon, though minimised, still rears its ugly head. Finnegan's plan to provide "topics of real interest to adult learners (not just dry academic theories)" has been only half fulfilled. I am sure the projects the students undertake during the course are of real interest, but the end results, at least those appearing in the journal, are not only filled with dry academic theories but also have any human interest and excitement squeezed out by the style. Family historians might find answers to questions about their ancestors here, but most will not be able to understand them.
The title is less than compelling, combining as it does two words beloved of sociologists and social workers. "Family" and "community", like "care", usually crop up as euphemisms describing the opposite of the dictionary definitions. Although it is unlikely that the average family history student would find Family and Community History a satisfying read, it could be useful to those teaching genealogy and local history, both to inform their students about the social background since the mid-19th century and to suggest research topics. History Today's 50th-anniversary celebration shows that there is a market for popular general history. The gap between popular and academic family and local history remains to be filled. Though this was not necessarily the aim of Family and Community History , it did miss an opportunity to fill a real need. The publication that manages it is on to a winner.
Kathy Chater is a family historian and tutor.
Family and Community History: (twice a year)
Editor - Michael Drake, Ruth Finnegan and Dan Weinbren Maney
ISBN - ISSN 1463 1180
Publisher - Maney
Price - £26.00 (individual) £58.00 (institution)
Pages - -