Introduction for Donald Harman Akenson

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The highlight of the presentation ceremony is the introduction of the authors by distinguished individuals.

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Paul Whitney, Chief Librarian at the Vancouver Public Library, past President of the Canadian Library Association and University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University instructor introduced Donald Harman Akenson's book Some Family.

We hear much about the problems faced by the Canadian publishing industry. I like to quote Robert Fulford's Canadian publisher mantra - "thing are bad, they are about to get worse, and then they will get truly dreadful"

However when you consider that today's three fine shortlisted books originated with the three main branches of publishing in Canada, you have to believe things cannot be all that dire.

  • The large established Toronto based trade publisher - M&S
  • The Canadian regional small press - Goose Lane
  • And the university press- McGill Queen's Univ Press the publisher of Donald Harman Akenson's fascinating Some Family; The Mormons and How Humanity Keeps Track of Itself. (It is interesting to note that Dr Akenson has served as senior editor for the press for more than 25 years).

Dr Akenson's book is a fine example of that sweet spot for a university press where academic expertise and research intersects with the preoccupations of the general populace.

And as any archivist or librarian can tell you, genealogy (that is to use Dr Akenson's phrase, how humanity keeps track of itself) is one such widely held public preoccupation.

Any analysis of genealogy of necessity requires consideration of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints or the Mormons. An examination of the church, it's doctrines and its operations are central to Some Family's.

A core tenant of the church is the baptism of the dead hence the impetus for the more than 12 million church members to trace their genealogies as far as they can.

The belief in baptizing the dead is controversial for many, but over more than 100 years this practice has resulted in the creation of the world's largest facility for the storage of temperature sensitive records - the mountain of names which in Dr Akenson's estimate contains records on 2 billion people out of an estimated total of 102 to 106 billion who have ever lived or live now. This amazing infrastructure is supported by innovative digital data dissemination.

Akenson describes the church as a massive if usually underestimated cultural force. While not refraining from examining the flaws in Mormon doctrine and genealogical methodology.

While critical at times, particularly in his detailed examination of the fascinating if frequently problematic early history of the church, Akenson is generous in his recognition of Mormon achievements in compiling their record of human history. He especially recognizes and praises their openness and generosity in assisting secular researchers.

Not just the Mormons come in for criticism for their genealogical practice (in this regard the book examines annals of the Irish kings, Icelandic sagas and Judaism).

Dr Akenson clearly expresses his affection for those engaged in the seemingly quixotic pursuit of documenting the human race. Why quixotic? Consider Akenson's examination of the likely hood of false paternity and maternity, adoption, incest to say nothing of polygamy, polyandry, gay marriage, all of which can disrupt the neat family tree. These considerations provide for very interesting reading.

In considering those compelled to trace their family tree, whether for reasons of doctrine or personal passion, Akenson is clear that these are people he likes. This I believe sets him apart from many of his academic colleagues.

This affection is one example of the qualities which make Some Family's a special book. Dr Akenson's sense of humour and non-academic turn of phrase further enliven the text.

Reading the book prepared to be startled by some of the information conveyed - I was scratching my head and reaching for my calculator when I read that the largest number of births authoritatively recorded for one woman was 69. Were Dr Akenson with us today I would have been questioning him on how many triplets and quadruplets were included.

This discussion on Some Family's perhaps downplays the book's intellectual weight. Make no mistake, this is an important contribution to Canadian scholarship written by one of our finest academics.

As you may have noted in today's program, Donald Akenson currently serves as Douglas Professor of Canadian and colonial history at Queen's University. He holds two post graduate degrees from Harvard and has received four honourary doctorates from Canadian universities.

He has published over 20 books on history and five novels. His biography on Conor Cruise O'Brien won the trillium prize. This is but one of a number of awards and shortlist recognition received for his work. A body of work was recognized when he was named a Canada Council Molson laureate in the social sciences and humanities.

Clearly Dr Akenson's is an accomplished scholar and a fine writer with the ability to reach beyond the university sphere to the general reader.

Some Family's analysis of the various grammers of genealogical narrative is empathetic, engaging, eclectic and thorough. It is a most deserving nominee for the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction.
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