Building a Family ArchiveI am a third-year majoring in History and South Asian Studies, and my interests and my academic experience lie in social and family history. My professional goal is to become a historian of South Asia. This summer, I would like to return to Tamil Nadu, the part of India from where my family comes, and assemble an archive of my family’s history. This archive will consist of interviews with family members and material objects like letters and photographs. Studying these will help me understand how my family responded to historical processes like urbanization and industrialization. Through this project, I hope to gain exposure to the techniques family historians use to collect and document family histories. My mentor for this project is a genealogist. As an aspiring historian, I look forward to working with primary sources that will let me see the links between individual experience and large historical trends.
The three primary processes in this project of building a family history archive are:
1. Identification of information: this involves the narrowing of my focus to a few central themes and seeking out the relevant interviewees and material objects. I will focus on two broad themes—movement and family structure—and their interaction with other factors, such as work, education, and gender roles. I will try to interview as many people as I can. I hope to find information about five generations of family members. The material evidence I will look for includes, among other things, letters, photographs, legal documents, house floor-plans, and pictures of family heirlooms.
2. Collection: this involves the process of interviewing family members and collection of documents. I intend to begin in Chennai, where most of my family lives, and make trips to other towns relevant to my project. I will try to collect not only basic information about individuals, but also inquire into how they experienced these situations. I will take photographs or scans of material evidence. Collection will require significant attention to detail and take up the majority of my time and energy.
3. Presentation: The final stage of the project—presenting the information—involves the interpretation of oral and material evidence regarding my two themes. I will maintain a weblog where I track my progress and display samples of the materials I have collected. I intend the posts on this website to be short exercises in the presentation of evidence and reflections on the process of information-collection.
In executing this project, the principal challenge I expect is dearth of information. I will have to rely on other material evidence, like letters or photographs, and my interviewees’ memories. I estimate that my principal costs in this project will be travel-related, and I am confident of fitting my costs within the budget comfortably.
My mentor is Mr. Matt Rutherford, the Curator of Genealogy and Local History at the Newberry Library, Chicago. He will guide me in identifying and collecting information about my family. Mr. Rutherford is especially interested in this project because he is interested in how tracing a genealogy works in Eastern cultures. Though the distance will present some challenges, we will be in weekly e-mail contact with each other, and he will be able to track my progress through the weblog. I also plan to begin collecting preliminary information before I leave for India, so that I can receive some concrete feedback from him in person.
I expect this project will give me first-hand experience in procuring and interpreting primary sources. I expect that my project will involve a lot of hard, but rewarding work, and that it will give me exposure to careers both in genealogy and social history. Most of all, this project is personally meaningful to me in understanding how large historical trends are reflected in my family’s experience.