What was life like for our ancestors?
Brad Westwood, senior public historian at the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts, attempted to answer this very question in his presentation “What Was Life Like for My Ancestors?” which he gave on Access and Preservation Day at RootsTech 2019.
Celebrating the Past
Westwood is involved in a number of projects that help him and others both understand and celebrate the past. For example, Westwood worked on the Spike150.org initiative, which celebrates the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Point, Utah, through a year-long series of events across Utah and the nation.
Westwood also works on “Better Days 2020,” which will celebrate the 150th anniversary in 2020 of women voting in Utah elections. Included in this celebration is the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote nationally, and the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.
Relying on Good Sources
Westwood’s work has taught him the importance of seeking out valuable, valid, and authentic historical sources. “When it comes to sources, take your eyes off the center circle of the bull’s eye,” Westwood said.
He explained that people often only look for the bullseye—historical materials from those who are in the center of the action or who played a key role in an event or historical setting.
Westwood urged listeners to find sources about places or people who were included in an event but who may not have been key players in the event. These border sources—the neighborhood, the extended family members,and others who are part of the larger context—can help shed light on the surrounding setting.
These peripheral, extended bullseye sources are often ones with a human element.
The Need to Work with a “Shaman,” or Guides in Archivists and Librarians
Westwood spoke of what he called “shaman archivists and librarians,” who have no written evidence of their invaluable collection of knowledge. Instead, people must consult these individuals as a sole source or as a guide to their search for meaningful historical materials.
The more sources that are online, the less likely you will need to consult with a shaman. However, vast amounts of historical materials are not available online, so you may still need to work with these guides.
It is best to get acquainted with these guides, understand their interests, and stay engaged with them. It will likely take more time than one email, call, or visit.
Be Specific in Your Searches
One way to make the most of these interactions—and this principle also applies to online inventories—is to make more requests and more specific requests as you get to know your subject matter. Unfortunately, people aren’t always specific.
Westwood described most history reference staffs as overworked and deluged with vague requests, which pushes archivists and librarians to give the minimal amount of information possible or hand over long-held general reference materials when requests are vague.
Westwood encouraged individuals to get all the contextual information they can gather and know as much as possible about the subject matter and materials you are asking about before making a request. The more you know, the more help you can get—provide more information, and you will have more success.
Lastly, if you are working with private archives, there may be a desire to save face or “put the best foot forward” regarding a difficult historical context or event. Being exact and explaining that you know someone or something was involved—and including other details such as specific dates and circumstances—will likely give you better primary-source outcomes.
In closing, Westwood commended the genealogical community. “You have taken over the [history] universe,” he said. Genealogists are now the primary client base for most history agencies; their needs are driving archives and libraries to make their records available.
Brad Westwood is currently senior public historian for the state of Utah and served previously as director of the Utah Division of State History and as a manager for the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.