The Meaning of the Past: The Perception and Appreciation of History Among Dutch Genealogists

Kees Ribbens
Gerben J Westerhof
Cor van Halen


Genealogy is a popular hobby in the Netherlands nowadays. This article presents findings from a survey of 192 members of the Dutch Genealogical Society. This research focuses on the meanings genealogists attach to the past and on the emotions and activities connected to this. Dutch genealogists associate past and history with positive matters. They perceive the past as a source of knowledge and as a beneficial contrast to the present. They show a specific interest in the period between 1500 and 1900, the respondent's place of residence and region, his or her family life and the life cycle. Most of the genealogists are looking for those sources of information that reinforce an emotional connectedness to the past. Their appreciation of historical knowledge shows the continuity that they experience between the present and the past. Nevertheless many genealogists clearly consider the past as different, as a contrast to the present. Judging by their own definitions of terms, genealogists have more interest for 'past' in the sense of what is close by and small-scale, and therefore almost directly accessible, than for 'history' in the sense of the authorized knowledge from the dominant historical canon. Genealogists are a diverse group. Particularly the level of education and the connectedness with the region and place of residence influence the way in which history is perceived. Gender seems to play only a limited role here. Genealogists with higher levels of education have a broader interest, particularly with respect to larger geographical areas and to topics concerning society at large. Education and a geographical separation with the family past seem to stimulate a stronger development of the traditional notion of historical consciousness in addition to an interest in family history.


Genealogists; family history; popular historical culture; attitudes towards the past; perception of history; historical consciousness; survey research (the Netherlands)

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