Working Collaboratively with Family Historians

Since May we have been working with a group of Leeds based family historians on the ‘living with dying’ project. Some of them are already experts, others had done a bit of research before joining the group, and a few are completely new to family history.  There are a number reasons why we have built family history research into the project. In the last few years historians have begun to realise the great value of genealogical skills, and there have been some really exciting collaborations between amateur and professional historians. Some of the most successful of these collaborations have taken place in Australia where family history is even more popular than it is in the UK (indeed, August is Australia’s annual Family History Month), and genealogists have been particularly important in demonstrating through their own family trees the prevalence of relationships between pioneers, convicts and Aborigines. In this way they have been able to challenge myths about Australian history.

Tanya Evans – after working with family historians in Australia for her project on illegitimacy between 1750-1850 – wrote that:

“The construction of a family tree, the discovery of manifold secrets and lies, throw into question the solidity not only of the history of family, class relationships and the power relations between men and women but also of the history of nation and empire. Each newly discovered document encourages the historian to add to or question the narrative so far”.

You can find Evans’ full article here.

In our project we want to think more about the possibilities for collaborative work between academic and family historians. We already have some ideas about what these might be:

  • Amateur historians produce detailed and high-quality research and they build up a picture of the life and death of their ancestors. We will be able to use this research to think about a whole range of aspects of death and dying.
  • Some of our family historians plan to produce written accounts of their family, and this is of huge value to both historians and local archives. It will give us an insight into family life, how death was experienced in everyday life, and how loved ones have been remembered and commemorated.
  • We are also interested in how dying affects the creation and telling of histories and family memories, and how stories are passed down through the generations, which we’ll capture through interviews.
  • And one of our key themes in this project is considering the relationship between the living and the dead. After all, family history is a way of building an emotional connection between ancestors we may or may not have met. What does that mean to those involved?


We are already finding that the process of working with our group of family historians is benefiting our research, but for the relationship to be truly collaborative it also needs to be reciprocal. One way that we are supporting the group is by providing training sessions, and so far we have:

  • Had a fantastic sessions with Jackie Depelle on ‘discovering family history’. Jackie is a very experienced genealogist and she runs a range of training sessions in Leeds and the surrounding area. You find out more here.
  • Ross Horsley gave us an introduction to the Leeds Central Library, Local and Family History section. Ross and his team are incredibly knowledgeable and helpful, and the Library holds some really useful resources including access to and local newspapers.
  • And most recently we have visited the West Yorkshire Archive at Morley to explore their collections. Vicky Grindrod, one of the fantastic archivists there, showed us a huge range of records, including from parish committees, workhouses, asylums and schools, as well as personal collections of letters, diaries and photographs.

But we don’t just want to exchange training opportunities with records of genealogical research. Working collaboratively means that we see our family historians as active participants and partners in the research process. It means that we value their expertise and their interpretations, and that we respect their decisions about the direction their research takes according to what they believe to be interesting or important: we value the story that they want to tell.

We think that as a result of this collaboration we will write better history. At the moment we are keeping an open mind about how that might happen, but we’re very much enjoying a sense of collaboration and working together with our group of family historians.


Thank you to Imogen Gerard for the lovely illustration which accompanies this blog.


  • Mark Crail says:

    It’s great to see collaboration between family historians and academic historians. I run the Chartist Ancestors website, having launched it quite a few years ago as a result of my own family history research. But over time I have enjoyed tremendous support from many academic historians, most notably Leeds University’s own Professor Malcolm Chase, who has been unfailingly helpful as the site has developed. As well as offering their professional expertise, a number of academic historians have kindly allowed me to use some of the lists of names they have built up, almost as a byproduct of their own research. As a result, I now have a database of more than 10,000 known Chartists on the site, which I hope is a useful resource for both family and academic historians. Obviously this is very different to the project you describe above, but I hope it shows the value of collaboration for both sets of partners.

    • hisjh says:

      Absolutely – this sounds like a fantastic project! There are a couple of similar databases that our group of family historians have come across in their research and which have been invaluable, both for details about their own ancestors and to get more of a sense of what life was like for them. Thank you for bringing this to our attention, and for creating such a brilliant resource!

  • Tanya Evans says:

    Sounds like a great project. Have you seen details of this symposium that Jerome de Groot and I are organising in Manchester in Sept:
    It would be great to chat more about our shared interests.
    All the best, Tanya

  • Margaret Chase says:

    Hi, Your project sounds wonderful, especially the coming together of non-academics and academics. I noticed Mark Craill’s comment regarding your project and his own website Chartist Ancestors which is a wonderful resource. I am currently working on a website regarding an ancestor, who turned out to be a long forgotten hero of the Chartist Movement, and I had a brief (tho’ very helpful) interview with Stephen Roberts (formerly with Uni of Birmingham) a couple years ago which inspired me greatly. I look forward to hearing more about your project.

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