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Last Updated: Monday, 4 October, 2004, 06:45 GMT 07:45 UK
Is it The End for family stories?
By Stephen Robb
BBC News Online

While millions of Britons are using the internet to research their ancestors, BBC News Online asks whether the tradition of simply passing stories down from generation to generation is dying out.

A scene from the BBC sitcom The Royle Family
Are families no longer talking?
Interest in family history is booming, according to Mark Pearsall, family history specialist at the National Archives.

"It's growing all the time, mainly down to the fact that it's so much easier now to undertake research," he said.

"There are more and more resources becoming available online. In the old days, you would have had to go into a record office and spend hours ploughing through old records or microfilms of them.

"Now you can actually start at home sitting at your computer."

Online records

Census records, births, deaths, marriages, military service records and wills can all be researched online.

It is estimated that more than four million Britons investigate their family history every year.

In 2002 when the National Archives, then the Public Record Office, published the 1901 census online, the website was unable to cope with 30 million hits a day and had to be shut down for seven months.

Family tales which used to be passed down through the generations are being lost
Vanessa Green
Founder, Family Tales

But a survey by Family Tales, a company producing personalised family history books, found that almost eight out of 10 people wished that when grandparents and great-grandparents had been alive they had asked them more about their family history.

Almost two-thirds, of 610 people polled by Family Tales, did not know the names of their great-grandparents or what they had done for a living.

Family Tales founder Vanessa Green said: "The combination of people choosing to start families later on in life, and the fact that more and more people with children are living in different parts of the country to their immediate family, means that family tales which used to be passed down through the generations are being lost."

Communication problem

Maggie Loughran, of the Federation of Family History Societies, believes families nowadays spend little time "sitting around and talking, which is when the family stories tend to come out".

Dr Patricia Spungen, founder of parenting website Raising Kids, supports this view of 21st Century family life.

The stories and the lives that people are engaging with are Albert Square and Coronation Street
Dr Patricia Spungen
Founder, Raising Kids
"These days both parents and children have increasing demands on their time," she said.

"At home, children spend more time alone, with their own TVs, computers and music systems.

"Eating together is often the only opportunity for the family to talk, share experiences, laugh and have 'family time'."

But a Raising Kids study published last month found that one in five families eats together less than once a week, with 75% of families watching television while dining.

"The stories and the lives that people are engaging with are Albert Square and Coronation Street," Dr Spungen said.

Life stories

Paradoxically, as British families' interest in hearing about their own past has apparently diminished, the recording of ordinary people's stories as historical evidence has gained popularity.

It is someone's life story in their own words, so it is something that is kind of raw and isn't very often seen in historical source material
Bre Stitt
National Life Story Collection
In 1987, the National Life Story Collection (NLSC) was established to support the oral history section of the British Library and take recordings from a cross-section of British people.

To mark the millennium, the British Library and BBC collected around 6,000 interviews in the largest-ever oral history project.

"Maybe five years ago, a lot of people didn't know what oral history was," said the NLSC's Bre Stitt.

"It now seems to be a really vibrant area - there are lots of local groups around the country. I think it is more highly regarded now than it perhaps was five years ago.

"We get a lot of people using it as primary source material. It is someone's life story in their own words, so it is something that is kind of raw and isn't very often seen in historical source material."

Needing verification

Ms Loughran maintains that personal stories are the ideal starting point for researching family history.

She said: "I try to encourage children to actually sit down with the oldies in the family and get them to write down everything they remember.

People have said that things family members told them turned out to be wrong, and were 'red herrings' that hindered their research
Mark Pearsall
Family history specialist, National Archives
"Even if nobody does anything with it for 20 or 30 years, it doesn't matter - you can go back to it and you have got your basic facts."

But the National Archives' Mr Pearsall sounded a warning.

"We get people coming in with family stories, sometimes they are accurate, sometimes they are not accurate," he said.

"A number of people have said that things family members told them turned out to be wrong, and were 'red herrings' that hindered their research.

"It is something you need to do when you begin, but you need to verify the information that they give you with documentary evidence."




SEE ALSO:
Oddie traces sister on BBC show
28 Jul 04  |  Entertainment
BBC launches story of the century
08 Sep 99  |  UK News


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