For me writing is the creative expression of my learning. It gives me pleasure to crystallise what I have discovered in words that enable me to create meaning in the narrative of our family history which is actually an amalgamation of the histories of many families through time. And publication, using technologies such as LULU Publish on Demand, Web 2.0 websites, social media and dropbox is the means by which our history is being communicated to members of our large family scattered all over the world.
There are times where I have become obsessed and so deeply engrossed that everything else gets neglected. There are also times (lots of it) where progress is slow or none existent. Yesterday I spent 6 hours searching Ancestry before I found something useful. But there have also been times in recent weeks, when I have been full of joy at discovering new and significant things about members of my family. For example after my fruitless searches yesterday I discovered a Welsh census document that gave me the full structure of my first wife's grandparents family in 1911. And on another occasion, thanks to the existing family trees on the Ancestry website, I pushed the maternal side of my first wife's family back 12 generations to1590.
But the process of writing a family history can also be incredibly painful and sad as feelings are engaged through reliving or imagining the past or empathising with the plight of family members as they fought in the trenches, were destitute, died young, or lost children to some terrible disease, as so often happened in the days before antibiotics.
I have spent a lot of time looking at photos of my own family, digitising them and then using them as prompts for my stories. The process has filled me with a deep sense of the passage of time as the years, populated by events and moments, births, marriages and deaths fly by. While there are many happy moments in fulfilling this task, what came to dominate my feelings was the sense of loss - those moments spent or not spent with my wife, my young children, relatives or friends have been and gone and cannot be repeated. A sense that is heightened by the death of people whom I have known and loved.
Such emotions are as much a part of my ecology for learning about my family history as the people, artefacts and data-bases I am using. I can now see more clearly that my learning ecology involves people I will never know who have poured effort and energy into researching their ancestors and shared their discoveries through the Ancestry website so that people like me might one day benefit from their effort and ingenuity. My ecology for family history also involves distant relatives and family connections, like the cousin of my first wife whom I have not met or spoken to for 40 years but who still remembered me and who was willing to share what she had discovered about her family and the family and ancestors she shared with her cousin.
My ecology for learning about my family is being enabled by the social technologies that are available like 'friends re-united' which enables people to tell me stories of their friendships with my first wife before I knew her. Or the local community websites where stories of the past and photos are shared which give you a sense of what it was like to live in a place a century ago. And it involves 'google street level' that enabled me to drive around the country lanes above Llanfairfechan to relive my visits to my first wife's parent's caravan more than forty years ago. All these things enrich and enliven my experience of enacting my ecology for learning.
A few weeks ago I visited my mother in Australia and when I arrived home I discovered an envelope from an uncle (father's brother) which enclosed a little red wallet, stamped WAR PENSIONS. My uncle knew I was researching family history so he had sent me my grandfather's war certificates which gave me his regimental number and told me he served in the Kings Own Border Regiment in the Great War. I immediately went on the Ancestry website and began searching World War I military records and because of the information I now had, I was able to locate my grandfather from the thousands of other Thomas Jackson's who served in the army. It was quite an exhilarating moment to discover new facts about him. He lied about his age he was no more than 16 when he signed up and was posted to the front in 1914. He was wounded twice but fortunately for his descendents survived nearly 4 years in the trenches. In working through the on-line archive I also discovered more information about the role my other grandfather played in the great war. It was altogether a humbling experience. Inspired by the progress I had made I then started a new chapter on my first wife's family and again I struck lucky in the on-line documents finding a treasure trove of papers relating to the emigration to Canada in 1924 of my wife's father when he was five. These experiences demonstrate the value of the Ancestry portal to the massive on-line historical documentary data bases for researching family history.
I once read that as parents we are custodians of our family's digital records, in other words one of our responsibilities as a parent is to create and curate the records, photos and other artefacts that preserve important and incidental moments in our family history. Photograph albums, maintained over the years, together with school reports and examples of school work we kept as our children grew up, together with a few toys and clothes, all help preserve the memory that was our life and the meanings and significance of the life we co-created as a family.
In the Social Age we have a wealth of technological aids and social media to help us in our curatorial role and tools like 'Lulu.com' which enable us to publish and share what we find. As I have been doing this, I have been conscious of the way an ecology has been created to achieve this purpose. My ecology includes - my parents, siblings and children, and more distant relatives, who have shared their stories about the family, the on-line record systems that I have accessed via 'Ancestry', personal artefacts - like letters, photographs, 35mm slides, video tapes, cards for special occasions and postcards, music, clothes, and sometimes objects that were collected and brought back as mementoes of visits to faraway places - all meant something in the past and can be used to re-create our sense of history.
My father and my grandfather's had no choice but to go and fight in the two world wars but I owe my existence to their survival. This year Remembrance Sunday will hold more significance for me because of what I have learnt about them. None of them wanted to talk about their wartime experiences when they were alive, but I have recorded their stories, as much as I have been told and have gleaned from their military records. Knowing what I now know about my family makes history much more personal and meaningful, and shows me that history is not just about the people in our text books, it is about all of us.
Jackson, N. J. (2013) The Concept of Learning Ecologies in N. J. Jackson and G.B. Cooper (eds) Lifewide Learning, Education and Personal Development e-book Chapter A5 available on-line at http://www.lifewideebook.co.uk/conceptual.html