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

Friday, July 12, 2013

On Defining Genealogists and Family Historians

Although we speak of a "genealogical community" those who pursue information about their ancestors really exist in a number of entirely isolated communities. Considering all these disparate interests to be part of one larger community is analogous to the questions asked in inclusive polls. For example, if you want to show a broad interest in genealogy, you ask a question such as; are you interested in your family? Then you claim that anyone who answers "yes" is a genealogist. I have written before on the subject of claims that "genealogy is either one of the most popular or the most popular leisure time activity in the Unites States." Of course, there is no quantifiable way of refuting this vague and unsupported claim, just as there is absolutely no support for the claim.

Does posting a copied family tree file to a public family program make you a genealogist? Does it make you a family historian? What degree of involvement over what period of time qualifies someone as a member of either category? If I have never had any interest in searching our information about my family and I attend a meeting where genealogy and family history are discussed, does that automatically qualify me to be a "genealogist?" Or a family historian? What if I went to the meeting now knowing beforehand the subject matter? The real issue is when does a vaguely identified interest in your family turn into actively seeking information? If I post a photo online to FamilySearch photos, do I become "actively involved in genealogy or family history?"

The point of this discussion is that defining what does or does not qualify one as a genealogist or family historian is a matter of degree. In essence, anyone who at anytime in their life ever looked at a pedigree chart or family group record probably qualifies as either a genealogist or a family historian. In fact, looking at family group records and pedigree charts is probably too stringent a requirement.

Licensed and regulated professions are more easily defined. If I want to know how many medical doctors or lawyers reside in any jurisdiction, I can go to the licensing board or bar association and find out exactly who is and who is not certified or licensed. Some genealogists would like to impose the same restrictions on the practice of "genealogy" especially for that small minority of genealogist and family historians that attempt to make money selling their research services. In my profession, law, the bar associations are fiercely protective of their territory and monopoly on practicing law in the courts. There are extremely stringent rules about when, where and how you can practice law in any jurisdiction in the United States. This is all done under the guise of protecting the public and the profession. Those who would regulate the practice of genealogy use the exactly the same language and arguments to support licensure and regulation of genealogists.

Let's assume that through the efforts of the "professional genealogists" looking for your family history became as regulated as law or medicine. Isn't there something wrong with this idea? What if we confined the regulation to those who make money from genealogy or hold themselves out to the public as genealogists for hire? Does that alter the issue substantially? Did doctors or lawyers become regulated out a general consensus in the community that this needed to happen or did regulation come about as a result of doctors and lawyers protecting their own interests to exclude some (or many) from claiming to be lawyers or doctors and thereby enhance their income? In my case, I am specifically aware of licensed lawyers and doctors that are entirely incompetent. I also know of unlicensed individuals who are more competent lawyers than many in the profession. I realize that I am taking a cynical view, but the question of who is and who is not part of any particular interest group, ultimately comes to this type of definition. In Arizona, everyone from dog groomers to beauticians and contractors are licensed and regulated.

When we say we would like to expand interest in genealogy, do we mean we want more researchers with letters after their names or do we want a few more people in our classes and attending our conferences? Does an increase in attendance at RootsTech, for example, constitute an "increase in interest in family history?" Let's face it. Both "genealogy" and "family history" are vague terms with multiple and sometimes confusing meanings. If you want to know how any statistic can be manipulated to show anything you want to prove, I suggest the following books as basic to your understanding:
  • Best, Joel. Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
  • Huff, Darrell, and Irving Geis. How to Lie with Statistics. New York: Norton, 1954.
  • Wheeler, Michael. Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: The Manipulation of Public Opinion in America. New York: Liveright, 1976.
If you grow a flower in a pot, are you a gardener? If you look at a genealogy TV show are you a genealogist? 

Are we really concerned with whether or not someone is or is not a genealogist or family historian or is our measure of participation some other defined activity? 

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