Writing a family history involves research, a great amount of research I have slowly and somewhat dauntingly come to find. This research is pleasant and efficient when much of the historical information one is looking for is already catalogued- whether in libraries, archives or electronically. Databases such as “Ancestry.com” or “Nationalarchives.gov.uk” are growing in both the amount of information they provide as well as their reach. For all of us writing our family histories, these databases are some of the greatest things to have been invented since sliced bread. Indeed, many of the topics we covered during the monthly meetings of our “Writing Family History” class at Faber last year centred on familiarising us with the research tools we had at our disposal, specifically what they were, how to recognise them, and what utility they could serve. We had an entire class devoted to “Research Methods” and another to “Specialist Archives”. We even had a Saturday class entitled “Visit to the Public Records Office at Kew”. I was astonished at the large quantities of data housed by this institution, its great back rooms warehousing documents so old I was surprised that public access to them was allowed at all. Connected to these vast outer rooms were smaller, comfortably furnished reading rooms. These reading rooms looked like mini-libraries with their large tables and small stacks of still more information, lined up in book form along one side of the room, allowing the treasure hunters who were camped out for the day to have their space to research on the other side of the room. There was even a consultant on-hand to address any requests such as pulling certain files off of microfiche or extracting a physical document, too large in size to be kept within the confines of the reading rooms but perfectly well warehoused in one of the immense outer rooms.
These types of resources are taken for granted in countries which have the means and inclination to organise their citizens’ histories this way. Countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom recognise and understand that chronicling birth and death certificates, censuses, and notarised documents is part and parcel of documenting their own country’s history. Accounting for people’s personal histories ensures that the greater history of a country is not lost to future generations, that it is less prone to having that history misrepresented or rewritten by those who most frequently write history- the winners of wars and the politically dominant.
Unfortunately, there are many countries in this world today which don’t even have censuses to chronicle let alone a national archives or reading rooms and online resources where one can just sit down and put together the skeletal structure of a family history. Instead, in a majority of countries today, one faces a far longer and more difficult trail of rudimentary investigation to unearth their historical past; calls to distant relatives, flying to previously unvisited places, unearthing century-old documents if one is lucky enough to find them and conducting interviews in a foreign language are all actions far more likely associated with carrying out family history research in such places. In smaller countries or those which have more recently experienced political upheaval or war, history is still being written (and re-written) so there is hardly time for documenting the present let alone the past.
I was therefore at the edge of my seat when I very recently discovered a Bulgarian website dedicated to the country’s lost history. Appropriately named “Lost Bulgaria” (www.lostbulgaria.com), this website was my biggest and most exciting surprise in researching my own historical past over the last three years. I stayed up very late that night, staring in awe at the over 5,000 black and white photographs telling me their story and marvelling at what one man’s vision had done in bringing Bulgaria’s history to the digital era. It’s still a long road ahead, but I was euphoric to see that the small steps had begun.