Tuesday, July 26, 2016

It's not just me whining about access

I recently returned home from my first trip to the Czech Republic with my husband. It was a perfect trip. I would not change anything.
Me with my 5th cousin Roman in front of our ancestor's church in Vratimov

If I could sum up the most important thing that I learned from this trip it would be, "I knew nothing." 

This realization is, of course, very humbling. I think I had already started to realize how little I know and understand about my Czech ancestors, and how much there is left for me to know when I started this blog. I have always felt that I was not so much setting myself up on the pedestal of being an expert Czech family historian, but that by writing about my discoveries and sharing them online I was making valuable knowledge more accessible to others. I knew then, and I certainly know now that I am not alone in my desire to research and truly understand my Czech heritage.

However, it was not until actually seeing and experiencing it for myself that I was able to begin to grasp how little I actually know. I thought I knew more, and it's so very painful to realize that I'm such a novice. 

Fortunately, I'm young. I'm only 29. I have a lot of years ahead of me in which to gain knowledge and experience. I'm also very persistent and tenacious when I pursue my interests, and this interest has evolved into more than a hobby: it is my dream to become a true expert, a scholar, on Czech family history, which is inseparably linked to history, the Czech language, politics, culture, art, religion, etc. 

Here's an analogy: my husband and I photographed 75% of the Vratimov cemetery, including all of the oldest section. This is the village of origin of my maiden name Vašíček ancestors. It took us several days and many hours to photograph thousands of headstones. Each headstone averages 3-4 names, some with many more. We skipped some headstones that had no information whatsoever on them besides, "Rodina Kallusová." 

The goal of photographing these headstones is to eventually put them all onto Find A Grave, a large, free, volunteer-based database of cemeteries and images their headstones. It is going to take many, many hours to do this. It is going to be difficult. And at the end of the day, what will we have accomplished? We will have added 75% of one cemetery from one tiny Moravian town, representing perhaps one 1-billionth of all Czech cemeteries. 

Currently, there are only 116 Czech graves on the site, and those were all for famous Czechs. I laugh to think that my peasant ancestors will join the ranks of people like Jan Hus, Gregor Mendel, Antonín Dvořak, etc!!! I suppose it has to start somewhere.

Just like my acquisition of knowledge has to start somewhere. Gawking at the sheer mass of knowledge I need to pursue, gain, and master to become the kind of expert I want to be is as daunting as the prospect of being single-handedly responsible to photograph and upload all the graves from all the cemeteries in the entire Czech Republic to Find a Grave. It feels impossible. 

Intuitively, I know that the reason I have so much left to learn is not all my fault. I know information exists, but I have thought for some time now that it is not nearly as accessible as scholarly knowledge about other topics in history. I am always hesitant to blame anybody but myself for my lack of knowledge, though, because it feels like whining.

Today my inter-library loan books came in. The first one that I am reading is called, "Between Lipany and White Mountain: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Modern Bohemian History in Modern Czech Scholarship" by James R Palmitessa (Editor), Barbara Day (Translator), and Christopher Hopkinson (Translator). It was published in 2014 and explores precisely the ideas that I need to understand better in order to be a truly knowledgeable Czech family historian.

The preface was very validating to me because it gave several explicit reasons why knowledge about Czech history is limited and inaccessible:
  • Czech is not one of the common research languages which historians and other scholars in the humanities and social sciences learn, so non-Czech speakers have to turn to comparatively limited body of scholarship in English and German.
  • Unfortunately, the history of the Czech lands has been relegated to the margins of western civilization, for many complex and fascinating reasons, but especially because of communism.
  • Communism isolated Czech historians and Czech scholarship from western historiography. 
Basically: it's not just me whining about access; gaining the knowledge I want is a legitimately difficult task

But it is worth the struggle.