Names and Family History

Last week NPR and CBC played a number of a stories focusing on feminism, the life of working women, and women’s right.  Many of these stories were linked to the fact that Friday March 8th was International Women’s Day.  The abundance of discussion relating to feminism and women’s rights cause me to think about the history behind family names and the impact name taking another last name can have upon family and personal history.

A lot of family history is tangled up in a last name.  Family names can connect you to a genealogy, a cultural identity and to a general sense of family.  Granted the patrilineal nature of family names in Western culture connect individual to a specific type of family history, a history connected by the males of the family. 

Other than the personal impact of changing your name (eg. being identified as belonging to a different family group) name changes can also have a significant impact on historical records and digital footprints. In the case of historical records if  a complete set of birth records, marriage certificates and death records are not available it can be difficult to gain a complete picture of life prior to marriage.

Family names used pre-marriage have a tendency to drop off the face of the earth in certain types of records, photographs, legal documents following marriage, personal correspondence, etc.  Genealogy is typically far easier if you are attempting to follow a family line of males than females. In older records where married women were identified by their husband’s name (Mrs. Robert Scott instead of Sally Scott) finding out information about personal identity becomes even more challenged. 

What about in today’s abundance of digital records?  What happens to your digital footprint when you change your name?  I suppose it depends on the type of digital record.  It’s possible to change your facebook profile, twitter account, and google profile to reflect a name change.  You can easily include both last names in these instances.  However, digital records which you didn’t create typically can’t be altered.  For example that news article that mentions your work isn’t going to be altered to reflect your new name.  And what if your new last name is overly common? Would you be better off continuing your digital identity with your less common pre-name change last name?

I’m don’t have a definitive answer. A lot depends on personal preference and what’s important to you as an individual.  Changing your name can have impacts well beyond how your write your signature.  Adopting another person’s family name can impact your sense of family identity, digital identity, and family history.  On the other hand, a name is just one of many things that make up an individual’s identity.

Making Oral History Relevant: The Legacy Project

The Legacy Project began in 2004 with Karl Pillemer Professor at Cornell University.  Pillemer began by collecting ‘practical’ advice from elderly people in America by having them answer “What are the most important lessons you have learned over the course of your life?”  This initiative resulted in over 1500 people over 70 years old describing their personal life lessons and experiences.

The main portion of Legacy Project site is a ‘browse by life lesson type’ section.  This portion of the site includes textual transcripts of elders descriptions of important lessons.  The Legacy Project also has a YouTube channel where video versions of the talks with some the elders interviewed can be watched.  I wish the site included more video or audio content, reading the transcripts is interesting but doesn’t provide the same dimension as video.

What initially drew me to this project was no where in it does Karl Pillemer discuss the fact that he is essentially undertaking an oral history project.  Pillmer focused more on the present day applications of the knowledge provided by the interviewed persons.  The appeal from a historical stand point of these  modern day applications of oral history is that they have the potential to almost ‘trick’ the general public into take a glimpse into the past.