Learning to be a professional

Recently I was asked about how to gain the experience required to work as a professional genealogist. This is a slightly edited version of my answer.

I think the best way to learn is by volunteering as a researcher or library assistant with a family history society and by reading. The book that I found the most helpful is called Professional Genealogy edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills, published by the Genealogical Publishing Company, last reprinted in 2004.

There is an online study group that grew out of the Association of Professional Genealogists mailing list called ProGen Study that goes through this book over 18 months – they do assignments and have discussions every month. I took part in the first of these groups that ended last Christmas. I can’t recommend it highly enough as a way of improving your genealogical research skills and for the business aspects as well. They now have a website. They are based in the States but there are a few members from other countries, including Australia.

The biggest differences I have found between researching for myself and for other people are

  • planning the research to complete it in the most efficient manner;
  • writing the report as I go – making sure I have the correct source citation before I put the microfilm or file away;
  • entering the results into the report as I go or as soon as possible when I get home.

When you are wandering around Ancestry for yourself you can take all night, but when you are searching for someone else who is paying you by the hour you have to be focussed and get everything you need first go. You want to avoid having to go back because you missed something the first time.

You might try practising. Think of a question you want to answer in your own research, and then tackle it as though you were doing it for someone else. Analyse what you already know and how reliable it is, write a research plan, carry out the research, and write a report of the results and suggested next steps. You’ll be surprised what a difference it makes. And the report will be invaluable when you next come to look at this part of your research.

You can also apply to do the Certificate of Genealogical Research with the Society of Australian Genealogists. Applications for the first intake close on the 31st March 2010 and the course will take 18 months, with assignments due every two months. YOu don’t have to be in Sydney to do this course, all tasks are assigned and submitted by email.

In the short term, you can start with record retrievals. Whether you charge for this service or you perform Acts of Genealogical Kindness, make sure you cite the copies that you’ve found correctly, and specify all the records or indexes that you searched, whether you found anything or not. Negative searches are also useful information.

A prediction from the past

I’ve been reading old Descents, the journal of the Society of Australian Genealogists. Currently I’m in the early-1980s, where life for genealogists was quite different than it is now.

Still, it is not as different as they thought that it was going to be. There was a prediction in an article by Elizabeth Simpson called ‘Historians and Genealogists’ (Vol 11, Part 3, Sept. 1981) that in twenty years there would be no need for anyone to do any further research because it would have all been done. Every family, presumably, would have done all the research that could be done and later generations would have nothing left to do.

Well, I’m here to say that this optimistic situation hasn’t eventuated. Not only has there not been the widespread interest in genealogy that may have contributed to this result, but there is always more to do!

Some people distinguish between genealogy and family history. Genealogy is the tracing of ancestors and filling in a chart. Names and dates, basically.

Family history is what you do when the names and dates are no longer enough and you want to know about the boxes on the chart as people. You want to know about their lives – where they lived, where they went to school, where they got married, what they did for a living, what they owned, what they looked like and what sort of people they were.

The search for information that can answer these questions can take a lifetime. It can take many years to find a single name or event. Finding information is becoming easier in this era of Ancestry and FindMyPast and other online resources but there is still so much that is only available in libraries and private papers. The difficulty is in finding out that the information is there to be found.

My mother said to me once that there was no point in her getting involved in researching her family because I’d already done it all. If only that were true! Unfortunately I don’t think it ever will be ‘done’.

Genealogy on Wikipedia

Elizabeth Shown Mills, author of Evidence! : citation & analysis for the family historian and Evidence explained : citing history sources from artifacts to cyberspace has rewritten the definition of “Genealogy” on Wikipedia, or at least the first two paragraphs. Her text, as she informed* the mailing list of the Association of Professional Genealogists, was as follows:

“Genealogy (from Greek: ?e?ea, genea, “family”; and ?????, logos, “knowledge”; often misspelled “geneology.”[1]) is the study and tracing of families. Because many unrelated individuals can share a common name, modern genealogical research is more than a collection of names affixed to pedigree charts. Rather, genealogy involves identifying living and deceased individuals, differentiating between individuals who bear the same name in the same place and time, establishing biological or genetic kinships, and reassembling families. By modern standards, reliable conclusions are based on the quality of sources (ideally original records, rather than derivatives), the information within those sources (ideally primary or firsthand information, rather than secondary or secondhand information), and the evidence that can be drawn (directly or indirectly) from that information. In many instances, genealogists must skillfully assemble circumstantial evidence to build a case for identity and kinship. All evidence and conclusions, together with the documentation that supports them, is then assembled to create a cohesive “genealogy” or “family history”.[2] Traditionalists may differentiate between these last two terms, using the former to describe skeletal accounts of kinship (aka family trees) and the latter as a “fleshing out” of lives and personal histories. However, historical, social, and family context is still essential to achieving correct identification of individuals and relationships.

“OVERVIEW
“Genealogists begin their research by collecting family documents and stories, creating a foundation for documentary research by which they may discover ancestors and living relatives. Genealogists also attempt to understand not just where and when people lived but also their lifestyle, biography, and motivations. This often requires – or leads to – knowledge of antiquated laws, old political boundaries, immigration trends, and historical social conditions.”

  1. ^ The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Provo, Utah: Ancestry, in conjunction with the Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2000), Standards 1-72; National Genealogical Society, American Genealogy (Arlington, Virginia: NGS, rev. 2005), lesson 15, “Interpreting and Evaluating Evidence”; Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 3d ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2000), Chap. 1, “Understanding Genealogical Research.”
  2. ^ The mythological origin of English kings is related in a number of derivative sources, such as The Scyldings, an article at Ancient Worlds. In this article one primary source cited is the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”. The following passage appears in the entry for A.D. 449: “Their leaders were two brothers, Hengest and Horsa; who were the sons of Wihtgils; Wihtgils was the son of Witta, Witta of Wecta, Wecta of Woden. From this Woden arose all our royal kindred, and that of the Southumbrians also.” In this context “royal kindred” refers to English kings. Reference: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Part 1: A.D. 1 – 748, part of The Online Medieval & Classical Library. Accessed 2005 March 11.

Of course, Wikipedia can be changed at any time by anyone, and what she has written has already been changed as I write this. You can read the full Wikipedia article here.

Does it sound like what you do? I’d like to think it’s what I do, collecting original sources with primary information and drawing conclusions  from the evidence. That’s what it boils down to, in the end – can we back up what we say with reliable evidence? Do we record the source of each piece of data we collect so that we know where we got it? Could we find it again, or let others know where to find it?

And are we building family trees or family histories? Do we collect names and dates, or do we try to “flesh out” what we know about our ancestors with the interesting details that make up real lives?

That’s the question that most interests me!

* Mills, Elizabeth Shown, Re: [APG] WIKIPEDIA; email message to apg-l@rootsweb.com on Tue 11 December 2007 at 11:25am (Eastern Daylight Time in Sydney, Australia).

My apologies if I haven’t cited this correctly.

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