Ian Watson became editor of The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record for the January 2023 issue (vol. 154, no.1). To get to know Ian better, we asked a few questions. The beginning of this interview appears in the New York Researcher, vol. 34, no. 1 (Spring 2023).
What makes you excited about family history?
Family history is a journey around the world and back through time. The journey never ends—there is always more to discover, more to connect with. Your ancestors’ lives are meaningful because their stories folds into your life story and even your own body. As we honor past lives, we show our children how we hope to be remembered. Our forebears’ struggles shed light on our own, and we come to understand how they were marked by the social worlds they were born into, just as we are today.
On a more everyday plane, the puzzle aspect of genealogy is addictive, and a well-done biographical sketch is a thing of beauty. Genealogists pursue the truth and try to tell it tactfully, which is refreshing in a world often marked by deception.
What advice would you give someone who is considering submitting an article to The NYG&B Record?
Publishing your work in a journal like The Record is a good sharing strategy when you have a well-written family document and want your efforts to live on in just that form. It could also be breakthroughs that aren’t obvious, and you want the reasoning behind them to be preserved for future researchers.
We would like more submissions, not fewer, so don’t hesitate to get in touch. Articles that are interesting, well researched and argued, concise, and clearly written speed through the review and editing process. Good documentation is key, and we will help you make your footnotes look nice. As with any kind of writing, get it on paper, then revise, revise, and revise again before you call it done. Each article is a little work of art, a labor of love. Patience helps. A big part of my job as editor is acting as writing coach.
How do you see family history evolving?
The Internet has changed everything, and the old world of paper research will continue to recede. The role of libraries will keep changing from collecting and housing content to pushing it out on the web. Access from home to digitized information is now the norm. Collaborative platforms like FamilySearch and WikiTree allow us to reduce duplicated effort massively. Open access will continue to expand, allowing us to view more and more information at less and less cost. DNA has been a great new playground and we will get better at using it to illuminate history. New ways of hosting in-person family history events with face-to-face interaction are also evolving.
Tell us about your New York roots or connections to New York.
My father’s paternal grandmother spent her adult life in California, but she grew up in western New York, largely in Oswego County. Her parents in turn had roots in Cayuga, Madison, and Otsego counties. After my parents moved from Los Angeles to Rochester, we discovered this rich vein of family history within daytrip distance and its roots extending back to colonial New England and Long Island. Later, I learned that another one of my father’s lines (nineteenth-century English/Irish immigrants) had lived in New York City and Buffalo on their way to Wisconsin.
How did your family influence your interest in genealogy?
My mother was very interested in her family history. My father’s father, who died before I was born, had carefully preserved a few boxes of old photos and letters. When I was twelve, my father brought these boxes to Rochester and gave them to my sister and me to sort out. What a treasure trove it was. We followed leads, explored village cemeteries, met town historians, and got to know distant cousins who were, it turned out, passionate about preserving the past. As I learned to drive, I looked forward to being able to visit upstate county offices without my parents in tow. I was the only teenager I knew who cared about the difference between the Surrogate’s Court and the county clerk, who arranged to borrow the microfilm reader from his father’s office, subscribed to TAG, or wanted a bigger filing cabinet for Christmas. I still have the reprint copy of French’s 1860 Gazetteer of New York State that I got for my sixteenth birthday. I felt self-conscious about my nerdy hobby, but in other ways I had a quite sociable childhood. I had several teachers who loved local and family history, and they encouraged my interests, as did my parents and cousins.
What would you like our membership/community to know?
In the short term we aren’t planning any huge changes in The Record, but in the medium term, I think we are open to many new ideas—and thankful for members’ constructive suggestions. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
You spent several years teaching information design at universities in Iceland and Norway. How will that influence your work as an editor?
The field of information design is all about the choices you make when you communicate structured information, in everything from medical charts to bus schedules to signage at the airport. Good information design is user-centered. That means that you try to understand how users interact with the material, and then you set things up to be as easy as possible for them. The users of a genealogy periodical or web site include not just the readers but also the authors and editorial staff. Those doing the managing need to keep a finger on users’ needs and habits, and then make design decisions accordingly—showing respect for tradition—and also shaking things up when that will have a positive effect.
Tell us about your work with Rick Steves' Europe and other travel/tourism projects.
My summer job in college was updating European travel guidebooks. I liked the work (which has certain similarities to genealogical writing in its dense web of detail), so I continued on to work for Rick Steves’ guidebooks after graduating. I have worked for Rick a few weeks for the past thirty years, just in the summers, both with guidebooks and with leading and designing group tours.
On group tours, some of my tour members are visiting countries where their ancestors came from. Choosing to visit old family haunts is a great way of getting out of the rat race of mass tourism. Sure, you’ll want to see the sights in Rome and Florence, but you might actually get more out of spending three nights in an AirBNB in the Italian village where your great-grandmother was born.
How did you get from academia back into genealogy?
I put genealogy aside after I started college and thought I would never come back to it. People told me it was just a hobby with no job prospects. I studied linguistics and sociology, got a Ph.D. at Rutgers, enjoyed many parts of the experience, and had a real mensch of an advisor (Eviatar Zerubavel), but I felt that a typical academic career might not be the best fit and never pursued one. Instead, living in Scandinavia, I got an administrative job in international education, though I kept on getting roped back into teaching. Then, when our kids were little, I saw that it had become possible to make a living from genealogy, working flexible hours from my home office, in ways that I had never dreamed possible as a teenager. I gave it a try, started out proofreading genealogy publications in my spare time, and it just went on from there and eventually became my full-time job. I was able to put academia aside definitively.
You share some of your genealogy work on your website. What are your thoughts on how to share genealogy with family and the public?
FamilySearch works for me as a home for my own family genealogy, scanned photos, and documents. I feel confident that they will be well preserved there and accessible to all at no cost. The site is thoughtfully designed. I love how I am able to link directly from FamilySearch profiles to original sources. I don’t see any reason to hold anything back or put it behind toll barriers. Genealogical data is meant to be shared, reworked, improved, even overwritten. It is never really finished, so you might as well share it now. I have accounts at some of the big for-pay sites, but only the free versions, and I rarely use them, except for DNA. My own website is useful for sharing in the short term, but I know it may not be maintained after I die, so I’ve tried to find permanent homes for things I care about preserving.
What family lines (of your own family) interest you the most?
I’d say all of my family lines are interesting, and each has its own charm and poignancy. My father’s ancestry traces back to nineteenth-century immigrants from Scotland, Ireland, England, Germany, and Switzerland, as well as to colonial New England. My mother’s parents were Jewish and came from a small town that’s now just a few miles into Belarus from the Polish border. They spoke Yiddish between themselves but not to their daughters. As an adult my mother decided to study the language, and she brought my sister and I along to her lessons on Friday afternoons after school. So we learned it too.
Since I started working professionally in earnest (about 2012) I have barely had time for my own genealogy, but my kids, especially one of my daughters, are interested. Lately they have been exploring my wife’s German ancestry.
When we write our family stories, are they fixed, or can they be added to or corrected in the future?
Telling an ancestor’s story is often a process of diminishing returns. The basic outlines are clear with relatively little work. Added detail comes with increasing effort, which at some point no longer feels worthwhile. But breakthroughs and serendipitous discoveries can take place at any time and can radically change what we thought was a settled understanding of a person’s life.
Thank you to Ian Watson for sharing his thoughts with us.