As part of the AHRC project, ‘Technologies of Memory and Archival Regimes: war diaries afer the connective turn’ (ref. AH/L004212/1), I have spent the last four months at The National Archives in Kew (TNA).   The project investigates the ‘war diaries’, which are not personal accounts of war, but daily reports produced by British Army units during active operations from World War I through to more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  By combining linguistic analysis of the diaries from World War I to present day with an ethnographic study of two sites, the Army Historical Branch and TNA, our project is pioneering an interdisciplinary understanding of the impact of digital change on cultural memory practices and the ‘official’ records of war.

While the project lead, Andrew Hoskins, is with the Army Historical Branch at Whitehall, my main role involves working on the diaries at TNA, as well as observing and interviewing staff and visitors to the site, to better understand the users and uses of the pre-digital and digitized war diary archive and the practices involved in their acquisition, preservation, and dissemination.  This includes weekly observations of activities on TNA’s ‘Red’ Enquiry Desk, which is dedicated to military queries.  As a result of these sessions, I have been thinking about the way history and historical research, particularly in the area of ‘family history’, is represented on television, and how these representations mediate relationships between discursive practices of history, both individual and institutional.


Firstly, most visitors to TNA who approach the desk do so not with a question, but with a narrative.  They begin with a story – something along the lines of ‘My grandfather/father was in World War I/World War II, and he was wounded in XXX and I’m trying to find out where he went/what happened afterwards . . .’  It is then the task of the TNA staff on the desk firstly to elicit what the actual question is, and secondly to guide the visitor through TNA’s extensive and complex catalogue to the records that might contain the information they need.  Visitors to TNA range from experienced, professional researchers through to academics, students, one-off visitors with a specific goal, and those who have little or no experience with any kind of research practices or archives of any sort.  Family historians form the majority of visitors, however, and these are either experienced (one visitor I met has been researching her family’s background for over twenty-five years), or completely new to the idea.

Family history has been an important part of TNA’s activities since the 1980s, and the Archives have partnerships with organisations such as Find my Past and Ancestry.  These organisations have digitized some TNA records, and link to TNA’s own website.  Both Find my Past and Ancestry are currently running adverts on television, which usefully highlight some of the issues involved in the intersections between ‘informal’ practices of history, and formal institutions such as TNA.

Here, accessing the past is as easy as opening a door and moving seamlessly from one era to the next.  Typing in a name will lead you to a narrative about your past, presumably complete and easy to follow.  Ancestry’s website promises ‘millions of stories’ that will explain ‘how you became, well, you.’

In the Find my Past ad, media (a faded photograph come to life as an old film, complete with scratchy soundtrack) appears to provide a window that opens directly into the past.  Both adverts create the impression that history can be ‘brought to life’ through its material traces, and that such traces are easily combined into a ‘story’ that makes up a personal history which has a direct influence on identity in the present.  Of course, the adverts are promoting web-based services for Find my Past and Ancestry, but they reinforce what Andrew Hoskins and Amy Holdsworth (forthcoming) refer to as the ‘digital archival myth of total access and accumulation’ (31) – everything available, everywhere, all the time.

The persuasiveness of this myth is illustrated by one visitor to TNA, who, upon being informed that the record of her father in World War I might be difficult to trace responded somewhat desperately, ‘But he was in it! I don’t see why he shouldn’t be somewhere!’  For visitors to TNA, adding to the complication that records may well be lost, the mechanics involved in searching a website are very different from those involved in searching an archival catalogue, particularly in an archive with records as extensive as TNA’s.  In most cases, typing a name into Discovery, TNA’s online catalogue, will not lead to easily navigated paths of research.  Even if a name does yield results from the catalogue, these will in all likelihood lead to fragments of information that require analysis and ordering before they yield meaningful results.  Both adverts consequently ignore the painstaking and sometimes frustrating nature of historical research, and also of historiography.  This view of historical practice and research is not limited to these ads, nor to online resources, but can also be found across representations of the past and of historical research in popular television, perhaps most prominently in the groundbreaking BBC series, Who Do You Think You Are  (2004-).

Who Do You Think You Are?

As John Ellis observes in an earlier blog for CST on television formats, WDYTYA was not intended to be a series about family history, but set out to discuss major events in British history, using celebrity as a hook.  The family history and genealogy of celebrities became the focus of WDYTYA in a formula that proved so successful that the series is now in its eleventh incarnation, has been exported to countries as diverse as the USA, Russia, South Africa, Israel, Portugal, Sweden and Finland, to name a few, and now forms part of a lucrative transmedia property including a magazine and dedicated website that both offer tips and tutorials on how to research your own family tree.  In his blog, Ellis emphasizes the ways in which the series trades on the appeal of a ‘behind the scenes’ view of the personal lives and histories of celebrities, but Amy Holdsworth’s reading of the series focuses on the introduction of ‘emotionality’ to history, which she argues is key to the moment of the ‘reveal’ (2011:70, 69 respectively).  Holdsworth describes how the series advances the idea of historical research as a ‘journey’ of discovery in which each celebrity uncovers something about their past that somehow explains an aspect of their present.  Throughout the programme, mediated relics of the past (especially photographs), are offered as windows to history, as Holdsworth’s thoughtful discussion of the use of photographs, place and time in the episodes dedicated to Ian Hislop, Jeremy Clarkson and Stephen Fry shows (81-83).  Overall, the celebrity’s ‘journey’ of discovery builds a narrative in which the past is often presumed to explain, or create, the present, although, it must be noted, without any real evidence of cause and effect.  Contrary to Martin Freeman’s observation on his own ‘journey’ that ‘we’re all made up of these extraordinary people’, we are more than the mere accumulation of our lineage.

Although both the series and its associated properties provide ‘tips’ and ‘tutorials’ on how to research your own family history, WDYTYA smooths over the process of historical research.  As Holdsworth contends, this is ‘memory work without the work’ (68).  The celebrity’s ‘journey’ is one in which research always yields meaningful results, and even absences in the record, such as the lack of any information on the death of a relative of David Baddiel who may have died in the Warsaw Ghetto, are put to good effect (Holdsworth 2011:84).  The fact that, as Ellis maintains, there is a 50% rejection rate of celebrities whose pasts yield little of interest, is perhaps understandably not well-publicized.  Both Michael Parkinson and Cherie Blair are amongst those who have been rejected after research behind the scenes found nothing considered dramatic enough for the show.  By focusing only on ‘interesting’ and ‘emotional’ histories WDYTYA fosters the impression that investigating family history is a ‘journey’ of discovery with an easily constructed narrative that always contains meaningful and emotional information about the present.  One objective of the programme was to ‘bring new users to archives and genealogical websites’ (Sumpner, Armitage and Cross 2005 in Holdsworth, n155), and TNA saw an 18% increase to first-time visitors to its website following the first series of WDYTYA (Holdsworth 2011, 95), but not much has been done to investigate the actual impact of the series on the relationship between institutions such as TNA and family historians.

Although this is not a key aim of our ‘Technologies of Memory’ research, I do see evidence of how traces of the understanding of historical research as represented in the Find my Past and Ancestry’s adverts, as well as the impression of family history created by programmes like WDYTYA have combined with the myth of the infinite searchability of the World Wide Web to create the idea that records of our ancestors must all be somewhere.  Underlying this perception is the notion that ‘history’ can be reduced to the experiences of individuals, which in turn can be organized into neat narratives.  Rather than connecting family histories to broader historical moments, what appears to be happening is a contraction of focus onto one individual’s ‘story’, in narrow searches for the stories of the experiences of grandfathers and fathers.  On more than one occasion, I have seen frustrated visitors abandon these searches, particularly those bringing expectations raised through the conventions of Google searches.  Of course, this is not to ignore the fact that I have also encountered family historians who are all too aware of the complexities of negotiating TNA’s vast collection in the search for fragments of their family’s past – ‘like a squirrel collecting nuts, and sometimes the branch gives way beneath you’, as one veteran family historian described it to me.  But whether veteran or rookie researcher, all family historians are exerting pressures of their own on TNA to make their material accessible in ways that acknowledge the needs of this large user group, without alienating others, such as professional researchers and historians.

One example of how TNA is acknowledging the needs of family historians can be found in Operation War Diary, a project using ‘citizen historians’ to ‘tag’ diaries from World War I.  With every unit of the British military keeping a daily record of its activities throughout the course of World War I, the War Diaries contain more information than can be effectively managed by any professional historian, or even a team.   Although the diaries are digitized, they are not searchable, as most are handwritten.  By harnessing the collective power of crowd-sourcing, TNA hope to mine the data contained in the diaries, and in particular, to uncover names.  While this information is of course important for historians and other researchers, TNA are concentrating on this element of the diaries specifically because of its importance for family historians, and hope to organize the material into a searchable form in the future.

The ways in which different discursive practices of history – whether on television, or conducted by curators and archivists, or by family historians and citizen historians – intersect, complement, and feed off one another warrant more thorough investigation, and this will shape my next project.  For now, however, I’m off to see if I can find what my great-grandfather did, or did not do, in World War I . . . after all, he must be somewhere.

Family Tree


Debra Ramsay is an Associate Researcher with Glasgow Univeristy on the AHRC project ‘Technologies of Memory and Archival Regimes: war diaries after the connective turn.’  She is author of the forthcoming book American Media and the Memory of World War II (Routledge, March 2015).  She has published articles on the impact of DVD and Blu-Ray technologies on the relationship between history, film and television, and on the First Person Shooter and the memory of World War II.  She never did find out what her great-grandfather did in the war, but uncovered Irish, French and Russian branches of her family tree, none of which explain her obsession with Kung Fu.