Events that make history, the ones we read about in textbooks, can seem so big as to be almost abstract, out of reach of ordinary folks. But they always involve real people, sometimes our own ancestors. A UWM alum is helping people make those connections.
Peter Janecky, who earned his doctoral degree in history from UWM in 2012, works for Ancestry.com, an online service that helps people track their family tree. His research and writing help people find how their ancestors might have been involved in history-making events. He recently offered his thoughts in a Q&A:
Tell us about yourself and your background.
I was born and grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, and I live there now with my wife, Dawn. I was interested in studying history from my first course as an undergrad at UW-Whitewater. I majored in journalism and minored in history at Whitewater and then earned a master’s degree in history from UW-Milwaukee in 1992.
After working as a journalist and a mass media professor, I studied for a PhD in history at UWM, and I completed that degree in 2012. My dissertation focused on the relationship between the editors of Milwaukee’s daily newspapers and the city’s two mayors from 1949 to 1988.
Where are you working now, and what do you do?
I have worked as a writer for Ancestry for more than two years now, and I write articles for a project called “Historical Insights.” Ancestry members are given hints that their ancestors may have participated in or watched some event. My job is to write brief articles and photo captions about these historic events. For example, lately I’ve been working on a collection of episodes on the history of the World Series. I’ve written about each World Series up through 1949 at this point. Ancestry members who have ancestors who lived in the cities where the series was played will be targeted with hints to attract them to read my articles.
How does your UWM education help you in your job?
Studying history at UWM provided me with a broad understanding of United States history, and I could not do this job without that education. I am able to write about topics as varied as the history of transportation infrastructure in the U.S. during the 19th century to the birth of a princess in the Netherlands in 1910. My focus at UWM was on U.S. history, but the research skills I developed have allowed me to also write for the Ancestry.com sites in Canada, Australia, and Great Britain. I have also written articles on the history of Mexico, India and several European nations.
What do you like best about your job?
Writing episodes on a wide variety of topics has greatly expanded my knowledge of history and the ways that the world has been connected throughout history. I am constantly learning on the job.
I also enjoy searching for the first-person angle that we always want in each episode. I try to find a letter, a diary or a newspaper article that provides a human perspective from the time of the event that I am writing about. Often, I find these eloquent statements from people involved in dramatic situations in the past, and those quotations become the gemstones of my articles.
Have you researched your own family history, and if so, did you find anything surprising?
My mother was an Ancestry.com member long before I began writing for the Historical Insights project. She has done such a thorough job of following both our paternal and maternal lines that there is nothing left for me to do except enjoy her work. There haven’t been any major surprises for us. My mom has corresponded with newfound family members in Norway, and our roots go back to Germany, Bohemia and Norway, as we suspected.
What do you think fascinates people about family history and ancestry?
There is a personal connection that is much stronger when you are learning about your grandparents or great-grandparents. These are people you probably knew as children or even as adults, which makes their lives and the history of their times more real. And then to go back further in time to make connections between the ancestors you never knew and the ones from your lifetime becomes more of a personal mission. These are not just some random people from history. These are the people that made my life possible. So, in many ways, learning about your family history is really learning about the pre-history of your life before you were born.
Thinking back on your time at UWM, was there a particular experience or faculty member who inspired or influenced your career path?
I remember my time at UWM more broadly as two intensive periods of studying history. I worked on my master’s degree from 1990 to 1992, and my course work toward the PhD took place from 2004 to 2012. I was already inspired about studying history by the time I left UW-Whitewater in 1988. The professors I worked with at UWM all contributed to keeping that inspiration burning. During the time I was writing my dissertation, Dr. Genni McBride consistently offered inspirational feedback and direction that I truly appreciated.
What would you say to a high school student about the field of history? Why is it relevant to today’s world?
As I write my articles for Ancestry.com, I am constantly reminded that the troubles and triumphs of today were also present at many different times and places in the past. History is not just a series of dates and events. In each event there are heroes and champions, victims and villains, and these were real people, not just characters in a movie or a book. We should learn from the examples of the past. We should ask ourselves: How did our ancestors overcome a challenge in the past, or, when tragedy struck, how did our ancestors respond? The answers to those questions can be valuable as we travel through our time in history.