2014 Closing Keynote Address

Thomas K. Edlund, Brigham Young University
The Why’s and Why Not’s of Family History Research: A Professional Retrospective

Rapporteur: David Block, University of Texas

Edlund is currently Eastern European Bibliographer, among other responsibilities, at the Harold B. Lee Library. His academic training includes being a student of the eminent Mesoamericanist, Charles Dibble, but he gave up Aztec studies for “something less violent.’ Genealogy is, as any librarian knows, an extremely popular pursuit. The searches of family history Internet sites are second in number only to those dedicated to pornography.

Surveys asking why people are interested in genealogy most often cite:
1. to learn about who I am; 2. to know my ancestors as people; 3. for posterity.

The traditional methodology is completion of pedigrees, which is in most cases quite a complex mix of culture and history. Uses examples from pre-hispanic Mexican documents (Codex Xolotl) to show how these documents reflect multiple lineages and often include a high degree of inaccuracy and legend. Another limitation of pedigrees is the insistence on tracing only paternal relations and a preference for tracing linearity.

Learning is an activity shared by organisms as simple as jellyfish and as complex as humans. It encompasses forms as variable as simple luck, experience, and reason to communicating a solution across an entire population, e.g. research and publication.

Methods of genealogical research—extrapolation, traditional documentary investigation, and genetic, all of which would optimally include both parenthood and filiations (brothers and sisters).

Molecular testing, the kind currently being popularized by commercial firms (STR), is actually better at demonstrating lack of relation than establishing a relation itself. Deep ancestry testing, UEP, is extremely accurate but also extremely complex and expensive.

In conclusion, Edlund offered that if genealogists seek valid results, they can obtain knowledge of something more than ourselves.  The why of genealogy is to transcend the limitations of the present.

Christine Hernandez, Tulane University, offered an explanation for why the people depicted in Xolotl would want to establish their ancestors back into a great time; elite people could demonstrate their connection to some divine ancestry that would solidify their own power.  Edlund answered that he understood this desire and added that a number of ancient people, many of them featured in the Bible, used genealogy in this way.  But stressed that his presentation was concerned the how, rather than the why of the genealogy.

David Block, University of Texas and rapporteur for the session, thanked Edlund for his challenging presentation, especially so for the recorder, and offered a summary of it along the lines of “an acceptable genealogy is one that is ‘good enough’ to satisfy the researcher.”