Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, April 1, 2011

When I'm Sixty-four

When Paul McCartney wrote the words to the song, When I'm Sixty-Four, he was just sixteen years old. I am sure he thought sixty-four was unimaginably in the future. McCartney probably has a different perspective now that he is 68 years old. Unfortunately, many of us put off things in life, until we are older and have time. Genealogy is one of those things that seems to get put off "until we are older." When I look around me at genealogy conferences I realize that genealogy does not really have many younger adherents.

One of the biggest problems of waiting until later in life to begin an interest in genealogy, is that most of the people who can fill in the blanks in the pedigree and family group records have already passed on. When I was newly married, I still had regular contact with one of my great-grandmothers. She would certainly be an assistance now 40 years later in answering several questions.

I see genealogy's association with age as one of the biggest challenges to its greater acceptance as a serious pursuit. Presently, with the exception of Brigham Young University, there are no other major universities that offer a degree in genealogy. There is a four year college in Salt Lake City, Utah, Heritage Genealogical College, that offers a course in "Professional Genealogy." But you can scan the catalogs of any other universities in vain for any mention of genealogy as degree.

From time to time, I have discussed the need for certification for genealogists, but certification, by itself, will not move genealogy from the realm of hobby and avocation into the academic world. Part of the rejection of genealogy as a "serious" academic study comes from its checkered past and even more checkered present. What is more, I see absolutely no movement at all towards increased acceptance of genealogy as an academic discipline.

The first question is whether or not genealogy should be an academic discipline? Secondly, what would have to change to make genealogy a subject that would even be considered for addition to college catalogs?

Who decides which subjects are taught in the universities? Partially, the decision is made based on popularity. When I was at the University of Utah, several of the professors wanted to form a Linguistics Department. There was no undergraduate degree and no graduate degree. However, through the Anthropology Department, the professors were able to get a graduate degree established and offered a Masters Degree in Linguistics. At the time, the new department had three or four professors, who mostly worked for the Anthropology Department and about six students. They were able to get some support from the school's English for Speakers of Other Languages program (ESL now known as TESOL or Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages). Now, the University of Utah has an established Linguistics Department with both a complete undergraduate and graduate program and offers a PhD in Linguistics. The Department now lists 26 professors and instructors.

Linguistics is a highly specialized and esoteric subject. Those outside the discipline have no idea what the subject is all about. You may hear the subject mentioned, but you will not find any prime time television shows about celebrities and their search for their linguistic roots. So why would linguistics become an academic discipline and not genealogy?

A search of the University of Utah website shows that the term "genealogy" is not used for the purpose of discussing family history, but relates to everything from medicine to molecular biology. Likewise, the term "family history" has a lot to do with medicine but not history. The word "genealogy" is not even mentioned in conjunction with degrees in history.

Even though there is a history of certification in genealogy, the certification programs are directed more towards form rather than historical methodology. The requirements for certification in genealogy are more like the tests for contractors or air conditioning repairmen than the requirements for an academic study. When I took the three day State Bar Examination for Arizona, I was not graded on the form of my citations, but whether or not I could think like a lawyer.

The issue is not job demand. One reason why I mention Linguistics is that there is almost no demand for linguistics graduates outside of the academic world. You don't get a degree in Linguistics because you want a high paying job.

This post will be continued with a look at why historians have such an antipathy towards the idea of genealogy.


  1. Have you read the book, Generations and Change: Genealogical Perspectives in Social History? It is a series of essays about how historians use genealogy in their research.

  2. There's actually quite a demand for people with linguistics knowledge. A quick search on results in 347 job openings (compared to 15 for genealogy). They're getting hired by Google and other tech companies to work on things like machine translation and speech-to-text. In today's job market, linguistics is a much more marketable skill than genealogy or family history.

  3. And I forgot to mention, of those 15 jobs related to genealogy, only 2 are really genealogy jobs. The other 13 are for programmers at genealogy companies.