Hello there, welcome to the 4th “Voices of Genealogy” Interview! This series will be a collection of interviews from people who were young (early teens to early 20s) genealogists from different decades! These interviews will highlight the stories of professional genealogists, show how the field of family history has changed over the years, and promote younger people in family history by showing that even experienced and professional genealogists started at a young age. Today’s interview comes from qualified genealogist and writer, Liz Walne! So if you began genealogy as a teenager or a young adult in the 2000s, 1990s, 1980s, 1970s, or beyond, please consider contacting our co-founder, Tyler, for an interview. Deadline to register for Series One of “Voices of Genealogy” is April 1st, future series of interviews will be started in the near future.
A Little Info about Liz…
Liz Walne has been actively researching her genealogy for about 15 years. However, she first became interested in family history research in the mid-1990s when she visited old family gravestones. Liz graduated with an MSc in Genealogical, Paleographic and Heraldic Studies and is currently a professional genealogist and local history researcher in Norfolk, England. Liz’s work in genealogy includes being a researcher, writer, tutor, speaker and workshop leader. You can read more about her work on her blog! Liz will be the 4th interview in the Hidden Branch’s blog series, Voices of Genealogy, and will speak about her past fifteen years of being a genealogist.
The Interview Questions…
- Give us a brief introduction about yourself; how old were you when you began your genealogy journey?
“My upbringing (and, it turns out, my DNA!) is very much East Anglian. I grew up in a small village with farmers on one side and grain merchants on the other.
I was eight or nine when Mum and Dad took me to Brockdish Churchyard in Norfolk, where Dad showed me the Walne family vault and some enormous tombs. More than one had the name ‘Elizabeth Walne’ on it. How could I not be interested in the women represented there?
Further up the road were two large houses, one of them with ‘W’s on the downpipes. Also intriguing.
This was the mid-90s, I was still at Primary School, and I was hooked.”
- How did you get into genealogy? Did you do it by yourself, or did someone help you?
“Mum and Dad have both been interested in their ancestry at various times, but other people were in the mix. I will mention two here. Firstly, my Great Great Aunt. This lady lived to be over 100 years old. Towards the end of her life, she summoned us to her nursing home to hand over a collection of papers about her ancestors. She hadn’t trusted her brothers to look after them, but apparently, a few generations down had her vote. It was (and is) a treasure trove – although not without a little embroidery around the edges of the truth.
I think many of us also had *that* teacher that inspired us. For me, this inspiration wasn’t genealogy but local history and geography. When I was about ten years old, we did a project about a village not far from my own. My teacher wrote some very lovely things about the photography and write-up on my resulting display. A small thing, but part of a bigger picture that gave me a lifelong interest.”
- What was it like being a young genealogist in the mid-2000s? Did you meet anyone your age at the time who also was interested in family history research?
“When I was younger, it was still the era that you needed to drive and have an income to do a great deal of genealogy (not issues that have necessarily gone away). I didn’t live within walking distance of a record office or library, so I couldn’t dig deeply until I was an adult.
I dabbled with online research to start with; my Mum had a subscription to Genes Reunited, which began as I was heading to university, I think. The research was alongside my asking questions (where I thought I could) and learning about research methods and record sets.
It’s worth saying that at this point I never considered any career in genealogy or a related field. I was intrigued by it, but it was firmly a side interest alongside five sciences/maths/geography A levels and a science degree.
When I got my first ‘real’ job, it just so happened to be in the building next to a Record Office. I took an in-person course (seems a bit old-fashioned from a 2021 perspective!) which was fantastic because it bridged the gap between physical sources and the increasing number of digital sources coming ever-faster by 2008. One of the tutors I had on that course is now one of my best friends – and yes, she’s a similar age to me.
In 2010, I was made redundant and redeployed to another department. It sucked: I dreaded going to work each day. During that time, I applied for the University of Strathclyde MSc in Genealogical, Paleographic and Heraldic Studies so that I could spend some of my time doing something I actually wanted to be doing. It paid off almost immediately as I was able to secure the role of Archive Specialist in what was, then, the busiest library in the UK. Over the next three years, I completed my Masters, and over the next eight, I worked my way up to Heritage Centre Manager via Archive Education and Outreach Manager.
I adored my job. I met hundreds – thousands – of researchers looking at all sorts of things, launched the 1911 census to library users, ran talks and workshops and events not just to help people learn but to increase accessibility to library resources and diversity in the Heritage Centre.
Sadly, my role no longer exists due to budget cut-backs and associated reorganisation. Still, while you can take the girl from the Heritage Centre, you can’t take the heritage from the girl; I carry all that experience with me in my current endeavours.”
- How do you think genealogy research has changed since you started back in the mid-2000s?
“It seems a bit obvious to say that the amount of digital material has increased, but of course, that’s true. I’m not old enough that we didn’t have computers when I started school, but I am old enough to remember floppy discs the size of my face!
This rush to digitise has come at a cost, though, if you’ll allow me to elaborate. Throwing so much data at people (and marketing that suggests a family tree in an instant) means that some new researchers might think *everything* is online when – as I’m sure readers will know – it’s not.
It’s still critical to understand why records were created, how they were arranged, why they may or may not exist, where they are now if they survive – just as it was when I started. All of these things are important for context. It’s also important to know which collections (or parts of collections) have been digitised and where to access them.
We need fewer microfiche and microfilm machines now, but I would say that it’s still worth knowing how they work. It’s also still essential to understand how to search an archive catalogue (although that process may have changed or run alongside older card indexes). Plenty of material is a long way from going online, be that for licensing reasons, budgetary reasons or something else. For example, the strongrooms at my old archive are larger than the city’s castle keep (Google Norwich Castle!) – and they’re nearly full now. Imagine how many stories are in there waiting to be told, then multiply it by the number of formal and informal archives around the world…
Conservation methods have also moved on apace. During my tenure, a scroll that couldn’t be opened was x-rayed in fine detail and *digitally* unrolled. Tiny parchment pieces were tested to see whether the DNA revealed goats or sheep and from where those animals hailed. I would encourage aspiring genealogists everywhere to get behind the scenes at an archive and see how they do things and why. Conservation departments are fascinating. So are strongrooms!
Of course, with fewer people visiting ‘real’ searchrooms, recent years have seen their very existence at threat in some cases. Please use archives, libraries, museums – and the knowledge they contain (archives and staff!) You will find information both online and off, and accessing it in both ways will help them to thrive into the future.
To finish, especially given this is for The Hidden Branch, I must talk a little about diversity. I have been delighted to see the genealogy community becoming more diverse in the time that I have been a part of it, but we still have a way to go. Everyone has ancestors, so it follows that anyone with interest should be able to indulge it.
Let me be honest, being young meant that I could be passed over – at least initially – by visitors, consciously or otherwise, because they thought the specialist would be an older member of staff – and perhaps a male one! Some reactions when they were pointed in my direction were less than subtle. One gentleman said in a huff that he didn’t want the ‘MISS Manager’, he wanted the ‘MANager’. Even at a professional event, an older professional genealogist pointedly asked me if I was in the wrong place before I opened my mouth – and I was nearly 30 by then. But these people are not everyone, so please don’t let them put you off!
Of course, I can write only of my own experience of age and gender diversity; there is obviously so much more work to do outside of those bounds. Things are better than twenty years ago, but they are by no means perfect. We have opportunities to open up genealogy like never before. As a community, there are so many ways we can do this. For all the things we lost in 2020, the year also forced some welcome accessibility changes. For example, many people who were previously unable to access physical events have been able to attend online. The future, I hope, is a mix of virtual and real-life events. What else can we achieve? I look forward to finding out.”
- Do we have more access to information, or have we just created new barriers to it?
“Let me explain. When I was 18, some key record sets were already online, but I’d need to drive for an hour or use a research service to access most of the things I wanted to view. It was a challenge then – but it’s still a challenge now for many vital records for my research.
Today I need (arguably) access to several paid-for databases to access material that even then has several layers of licensing applied. Vast collections are still not digitised, UFP (Unfit for Production), or not catalogued. Yes, once I have paid for the market leaders I have access to more information than I could have dreamt of, but it isn’t necessarily the right material for the job, so I might still need to do things the ‘old-fashioned’ way. My home county doesn’t have digitised parish registers yet – an illustration that there is still a long way to go.
There are complex discussions around accessibility, and I know many people have deep-seated discomfort about paying for records access. Still, proper digitisation is expensive, and a local councillor voting on budget spending will always put more into social care than digitising archives. Won’t they?
Proving the worth of archives: connecting communities, educating through life, offering interest and challenge and even a place to go and a friendly face (and all the other great things they do) isn’t always easy. We have gone through – and continue to go through – a period of austerity, certainly in the UK. For everything we have gained through digitisation, we have also lost hundreds of libraries and hundreds of knowledgeable people that could have helped us.”
- Tell us a bit more about your work as a genealogist.
“I’ve been a member of the Register of Qualified Genealogists (RQG) since its inception in 2016, having graduated with my MSc in 2014. I don’t take on a great deal of paid client work anymore because it felt wrong to do so when working full time in heritage. These days there’s no way I could fit it in with two kids, a job, and lockdown. I hope to return to it one day. In the meantime, I love to write and have published a few books and supported the publication of a few others over recent years. I’ve also given a lot of talks and run plenty of workshops over the past decade.
The beauty of being a genealogist is that there are so many paths that one could follow. For me, helping someone take their first steps and uncover information for themselves has generally been more enjoyable than researching on their behalf, so I love to tutor. My passion is house history, and I hope one day to specialise in that area. Eventually, I’d like to be Dr. Walne, but in the meantime, I’m writing a new book based around a former manor house. (As my Twitter followers will know, this is a drawn-out challenge thanks to my other commitments!) Others of my colleagues specialise in living relatives, probate, specific periods in history or particular groups of people, perhaps military or medical research, for example.
My genealogy is not in a silo but spreads across into local history, etymology, geography, world history, politics, demographics, technology, and so much more. Sometimes it’s fun; sometimes it’s uncomfortable. Either way, genealogists never stop learning about old things – and new things. I recommend it.”
In the short time of only 15 years, Liz has become a very accomplished genealogist and has done a lot in her field of work, having become a member of the Register of Qualified Genealogists (RQG) and holding a MSc in Genealogical, Paleographic and Heraldic Studies. Liz also made a career for herself as a writer, with two books, Secret Norwich and District Through Time. She has also done two One-Place Studies over the English towns of Badingham and Cransford and a One-Name study over her own surname, Walne. Being the youngest person to participate in our Voices of Genealogy Interviews, I’m sure we will see much more from Liz in the future!
If you wish to follow Elizabeth and her work…
Facebook: @Elizabeth Walne
Again – if you started researching family history genealogy as a teenager or young adult (early 20s) in a previous decade. Please consider contacting Tyler for an interview before the end of the month to be on series one of Voices of Genealogy.