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Genealogy goes beyond all those 'begats'

A wave of genealogical interest sees novice historians digging for their roots - and publishing the results

By Mary WiltenburgStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 6, 2002

A nn Janes was sick of genealogy. After years of looking into her own and her husband's family histories, compiling lists of ancestors had ceased to be satisfying work.

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"It just started to be names and names and names," she says. "And I thought: This is good to know, but what were these people like? Where did they come from, and why, and what did they do when they came?"

So Mrs. Janes began looking deeper into old family diaries and letters, starting with those of her husband's great-grandfather. They were full of stories: about serving in the Mexican-American War, about a cross-country train trip he'd taken with friends in 1874. These piqued her interest, and with the help of an acquaintance in the publishing business, she made a book of them - so they'd be more accessible to her children and grandchildren, and with the hope that they might reach a broader audience.

The number of people publishing their family histories has lately reached a high not seen since the ancestry craze of the late 19th century, when old-money heirs and social climbers raced to claim impressive pedigrees and secure their place in high society - or at least the DAR.

Today, people are interested in genealogy for different reasons. "Most people today are bringing to the study of family history not a search for an endless amount of names that date back into infinity, but an interest in narrative," says Lynn Betlock of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), whose Newbury Street Press publishes a dozen family histories every year. "It's social history; they're looking for interesting stories. They're looking for connections with the past."

In the 26 years since Alex Haley wrote "Roots," about tracing his African ancestry - and even more in the past five years as the Internet has made a wealth of genealogical material easily accessible - more multiethnic, middle-income, and young people have begun documenting their family histories.

At the same time, the content of what they're publishing tends to be more concerned with stories than with names, dates, and begats. As a result, says Christopher Hartman of the Newbury Street Press, many of these self-published or small-press-published books are picked up by libraries and local historical societies.

If reading other people's family histories sounds about as exciting as watching piles of their vacation slides, remember, Ms. Betlock says: "No book has to be boring." She thinks that considering a readership wider than tolerant relatives can help writers struggling to decide what, of the reams of historical materials they've uncovered, to include in a book - and what to leave out.

Janes's "The California Excursion" is a good example. A colorful, photo-filled volume, it incorporates eloquent letter and diary accounts of C.F. Sargent's train trip across the country only five years after the intercontinental railway had been finished - including tales of a hunt in Kansas, a swim in Salt Lake City, and a trip down a Nevada mine shaft.

Mary Ann Hales, publisher of the Cottage Press, whose Heritage House imprint released Janes's book, thinks the growing interest in family history and memoir publishing is a product of people's need - in an increasingly complex and mechanized society - to make some statement about themselves or their families as individuals.