In the giant universe of unforced errors and semi-comedic malpractice we archivists and our institutions engage in, partnership at any level with Ancestry Dot Com has to be the most bonechilling. Ancestry uses prison labor. Ancestry binds workers to intolerable quotas, leading some in desperation to weed superfluous paper just to catch up. Ancestry pitches its services to state and national governments as a replacement for state-funded reformatting and digital-archives work, and puts records of the state up behind a paywall. They send DMCA takedown notices to people who distribute United States government records. Naturally, Ancestry is a major sponsor of FNARA.
This is all evil and bad and it’s the means by which archivists become accomplices to our own ass-whipping, but even if none of the above were true, the business Ancestry is in is uncool and bad and we should no longer make it easy for the people who like this business, or who think of it as a harmless past-time. This business is genealogy.
“Genealogy” you say, “A fuckin snoot-ass archivist is going to write a blog post about how genealogy sucks OH YOU DON’T SAY /inserts that lame meme with the owl in it/.” Dear reader, this bears one clarification: typically, we snoot-ass archivists bitch to each other about genealogists which I mean yeah I’m HELL OF GUILTY of doing this, but I really want to stress that it’s not the people themselves (totally) but the practices, technologies, and the ideology of recreational ancestor-namin’ that are fucking up our shit.
Genealogists, for as long as my shop at least has been keeping metrics, are the solidest block of our users, from 20 to 25% every year. This, for me and my house, means two things: 1) They are a strong political bloc, and 2) They are not nearly the plurality of our users, much less the majority. Now why, just to blatantly extend my shop’s metrics to the industry as a whole, would entities like NARA, the New York State Archives, etc, all engage in deeeep strategic partnerships with a corporate entity which aims to serve maybe a quarter of our constituents? It is because, like fans of Silvio Berlusconi, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, or Donald Trump, individual users have become aware of their status as a bloc. They know that the realm of the Rest of All Research Topics in History is gravely fragmented (footnote: And much of this fragmentation is intentional! You and I both know this story, but because archives have always served as the romper room for future Ph.D.s, and because future Ph.D.s are just intolerable twats we’ve always closely guarded the paths they take through the archives. My shop’s patron registration includes “May we share the topic of your research with other researchers” which my god kill me end this) AND SO they can present a united front. Directors and funders see us dropping all sorts of time and effort to help the names-gourmand and naturally see the Ancestry hook-up as a means to take knucklehead stuff off our plate, so I dunno, we can get back to making twitter bots or blogggggging or something–
You can see how this becomes a feedback loop. Presented as a cheap and fast solution, Ancestry swoops in myriad tonnages of content. Bringing new content on-line allows it to hook new subscribers and to keep old subscribers hooked. People get Ancestry subscriptions for Christmas, try the crack, like the crack, and then start banging down archives’ telephones to see “is there anything in there that haint been digitalized,” whereupon we start Phase X of what becomes less like a partnership and more like the relationship ants have with aphids, or Exxon has with the Gulf of Mexico.
This is all bad for archives, but LA DEE FRICKIN DAA how is this bad for society? I’m certainly not one of the goons who says that archives are necessarily Good For Everyone (Stalin: /raises hand/) and so damage to them is damage to us all, and so I’ll start with that story we all read in the fall, from this young woman’s tweet:
Genealogists think of themselves as a class because they share material conditions: records of their ancestors were kept accurately and transmitted unshorn to their children. (By the way, this is one of the chief differences between genealogy and family history: genies are basically playing Bingo with the census, with church records, with county clerks and probate courts etc. Family historians, out of historic and political necessity, have a steeper mountain to climb.) In this country only white people’s material conditions permit the existence of genealogy as a past-time. To expand the class of subscribers, Ancestry is counting on successive waves of white retirees needing something to do, and is planting the genie seed accordingly. So here’s the thing, simply by trying to become profitable, Ancestry is exporting into a broader audience of white people the pursuits, habits, and desires of a pretty small subset of those white people.
The first overt desire embedded in genealogical practice is to prove your whiteness. You could be the wacko white supremacist who will take DNA test after DNA test to refute allegations of his African lineage. I mean yeah if you subscribe to the ideology of racial purity genealogy suddenly becomes a big deal. If your Prophet says “any man having one drop of the seed of Cane in him Cannot hold the priesthood,” you’re going to break out meemaw’s old Bible tout de suite. Pace Robert Taylor, interest in genealogy spiked in the late nineteenth-century, as “native” white folks sought to distinguish themselves from the unwashed hordes from Eastern Europe landing at Ellis Island, congealing in the eugenics-and-Palmer-raids-infused 1920s: “The Wisconsin Magazine of History advised its readers in 1923 that ‘the only hope of improving the race is through “selective breeding” and that questions dealing with racial superiority and traits ‘may often be considered with the aid of data compiled and worked out in genealogical study.'” It’s not for nothing that the two versions of white supremacists’ Fourteen Words are about women and the family; it’s not for nothing that the baby photo becomes a universally cherished object during reconstruction. White supremacists fetishize the whiteness of white babies and the whiteness of white mothers to create “a future for white babies”; genealogists run the line backward to “secure” it.
In the 1920s the desire to prove whiteness using names in the past masks itself or repackages itself in the genealogical practices of whites outside the northeast and upper-class African-Americans as a desire to be related to power. Follow, for example, the Iowa Daughters of the American Revolution, as they slowly come to understand that Iowa didn’t have all that much bearing on the war of independence, and by 1925 shift from locating revolutionary soldiers’ gravesites to just straight red-baiting — disseminating spider-web charts, “yellow lists,” usw, all “to bring about a clean cut cleavage between un-American subversive forces and the constituents of Patriotic societies.” Genealogical practice informed the frankly eugenic aspects of African-American racial meliorist publications (!) — follow Daylanne English in Unnatural Selections as she acquaints us with (me certainly; I mean I’ve read Nella Larsen but I never heard of the) Crisis Children’s Number prize-baby contests.
To review: genealogical practice originates in and in turn sustains white supremacism; that white supremacist package is exported to new groups as they practice genealogy. Genealogy is supremacist and exports supremacism. So where are we headed?
The obscene, disavowed other of genealogy, and the natural wellspring of the acknowledged desires above, is incest. White power groups and royals are of course, famously ahem endogamous, but it’s not like genealogists are all trying to keep it in the family. It’s more like genealogical practice is incest by proxy. The structure of genealogical practice is to plug names into a giant root-and-branch diagram, starting with yourself. By this diagram you can envision yourself splitting mitotically into your own forebears, and, once you have All Teh Names, run the threads chronologically and think of all those dead bodies, fucking.
Juicing retired white people into passing enthusiasm for this junk in a time of rising nativisms and exclusion-based political movements around the world is, I submit to you Dear Reader, actively evil. Ancestry isn’t on the hook of course for Donald Trump and Golden Dawn, but even if it doesn’t know it, it’s riding the same wave, and it’s convincing archives and archivists to hop on, and because of that ancient stank, as if we needed another reason, it’s high time we hopped off.