Over the past decade, the genealogy and family history website Ancestry.com has amassed millions of uploaded, previously unpublished, family heirloom narrative texts that are known on the site as “public member stories.” Contributed by family history enthusiasts who are also website subscribers, the texts are chockfull of memories, emotion, and speculation. They add life and energy to the otherwise sterile listings of names, dates and locations that typify family trees.
If collected from many families and analyzed in large numbers, public member stories can open new windows for looking at the past. As part of a project about New York families and the infrastructures they’ve built, worked, and used, Anne Mosher studied hundreds of public member stories that mention our most enduring public work: the Erie Canal. As a collection of texts, these stories identify previously overlooked dimensions of canal and New York State history — like the emergence of the “public safety” ideal. Aspects of the data, however, have proven difficult for her to understand, possibly because she did not grow up in New York (whereas public member stories about New York ancestors who ended up in the American Midwest resonate beautifully with her own family history and folklore).
Perhaps your community, neighborhood or organization can add insight to her interpretations. They might have their own New York canal and waterfront family stories to tell. Let’s talk about it. Prior to Anne’s visit, she can custom prepare a public member story “mini-analysis” specific to your community, neighborhood or organization about which we can also have a conversation. What significance do uploaded family heirloom stories have for you and for other New Yorkers, especially when we consider those stories in large numbers?