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

Monday, January 25, 2016

Is Genealogy History or is History all Genealogy? (The rest of the post)

I apparently published the first paragraph of this post before I finished the rest. Oh, well. We all get older.

Genealogy has only recently in some quarters become accepted as an "academic" pursuit. In the United States there is only a handful of colleges or universities that award a degree in genealogy. History is usually lumped in with Social Sciences (Studies?) or Liberal Arts. According to the U.S. Department of the Census, in 2005 only 5.6% of the Bachelor's Degrees awarded in the United States were for history.

Unfortunately, there is a gulf of misunderstanding between those who profess being "professional" or "certified" genealogists and what is commonly accepted as genealogy or family history activity. There is also a substantial gulf between genealogy as pursuit, professional level or otherwise, and what is taught in universities as history leading to an academic degree. The only university level course description I could find leading to a Bachelor of Arts degree in family history is from Brigham Young University, an accredited university. There are two other possible degree programs in the U.S. neither of which is accredited or associated with an accredited university or college. There are several "certificate" programs that do not produce a certificate that is applicable to an accredited degree.

The Program Requirements for a BA in Family History at BYU include classes in writing, rhetoric, logic, statistics, world civilizations, family history studies, the historian's craft, many classes in family history by area such as northern, southern and colonial American research, one language class and choice of social or cultural history courses. There is also a research seminar requirement. You would have to complete all of the general graduation classes also.

I would venture a guess that few genealogists, other than those who have completed this course of study at BYU, have taken such a broad spectrum of courses to qualify themselves for the process of doing family history. Personally, I took about five years worth of courses from the BYU Independent Study Department in addition to my own personal reading and study and years of practice. But I do not charge for my services and do not belong to any "professional" organizations although I have in the past. I only make note of this because I feel that the type of program offered by BYU should be the basis for any discussion of either professional certification or professional standards.

Nearly every certification program I am familiar with has an educational requirement. I had to attend and graduate from an accredited law school to take the Bar Entrance Examination in Arizona to practice law. I also had to take an extensive course of study and sit for a qualifying exam to obtain a real estate license in Arizona. I am familiar with both the education and test requirements for a contractor's license and other the exams for accountants. I could go on to cite the classroom, individual study and testing requirements for many other professions.

If genealogists want to be take seriously as professionals and as academics, they will have to establish a structured educational and testing service. Both as an attorney and as a real estate agent I was also required to maintain a certain number of in class hours each year to continue my certification to practice either profession. I could join a genealogical professional organization by simply paying my dues and agreeing to their ethical code. Although there are at least two organizations that certify genealogists, neither has an in-class study requirement and neither has the broad base of the BYU BA program. I do not say this to denigrate the genealogical accreditation or certification process, but to point out that neither program would be accepted as a credential for teaching at the college or university level. In fact, if I or anyone else wanted to seek an academic position teaching family history, an accredited university or college would require an advanced degree and for a full-professorship, a doctorate degree.

There have been attempts by some educational institutions to accept "life experience" as qualifying for some or all of the requirements for a degree. Many of these programs are branded by critics as "diploma mills" and such do exist. At one time we were familiar with an organization in Sedona, Arizona that had a short study course and awarded Ph.d degrees in life experiences. I was well aware of a prominent local cleric in the Phoenix area that claimed a Ph.d and referred to himself as a "Doctor" who obtained both degrees from mail-order diploma mills. The purpose of accrediting universities and colleges is to prevent this kind of activity.

Many BYU graduates in family history also obtain one or more certifications from the genealogical certification organizations, but a BA degree even with both certifications would still fall short of the entrance requirements for obtaining a professorship at a university. By the way BYU-Idaho also has an online degree in family history, but neither a BA degree from BYU or a Family History Certificate from BYU-Idaho is sufficient to obtain certification or accreditation. In making this observation, I am not writing about obtaining employment. Job requirements vary considerably and many employers look for experience and competence over degrees received. The are unemployed people with advanced degrees. Employment and academic recognition are two different things. I have know some very successful and wealthy businessmen who had no formal academic training.

A genealogist who obtains certification or accreditation may be perfectly qualified to perform professional services for clients. They may also become well employed by genealogically related organizations, but the doors to academia are closed to them. For years I taught at a local community college and observed the politics involved in their employment practices. A degree was the entry ticket, but being hired as a professor, other than on a part-time or adjunct basis, depended almost exclusively on politics not experience, qualifications or ability.

If I wanted to teach history at a university level, as opposed to a community college level, I would also need at least a Masters Degree and if I wanted to advance and become a full-professor, once again I would need a doctorate degree. Genealogy is not accepted as a full-fledged academic study because there are so few college or university level programs available and no advanced degrees in genealogy in the United States. I happen to have a recognized doctorate level degree. Setting aside the fact that I am past the age of mandatory retirement at most universities, could I get a job as a professor? Even in law, the fact is that there are extremely narrow requirements to advance academically and obtain a position at an accredited law school. Most professors have not only obtained a law degree, commonly a Juris Doctorate or J.D. degree, but also excelled in their academics and in most cases pursued clerkships for prominent judges and/or advanced law degrees. I could also add gender and minority status considerations but that is another issue altogether.

The real issue here is whether or not genealogy as a pursuit can develop the type of acceptance and credibility that would cause any accredited universities to develop programs that would lead to advanced degrees. I do not see that happening. Can genealogists themselves develop standards and educational programs that can produce a credible, academically based and universally accepted program? Presently, there does not seem to be any such effort being made. It took over hundred years from the law profession in the Unites States to evolved into the regulated profession it is today. Likewise, the medical, dental and other professions have gone through the same processes. But all these professions have entrenched client and patient bases and wide appeal. Genealogy per se has no such client base or appeal. There are no children growing up wanting to be rich and famous genealogists. Genealogists have a distinct tendency to obscurity and poverty with a few exceptions for those employed by large genealogical companies. In the United States, genealogy is more a commercial enterprise than an academic one.

When I accidentally published the first paragraph of this post, I got a very interesting comment to the first paragraph. I reproduce the comment here from Nancy so that it will not be lost.
James, this is such a great question. I feel a rant/answer coming on. When I started grad school in history in the late 70s, the new social history that emphasized the everyday lives of average citizens was just beginning its ascendancy over the theory that dominated for decades that studying Great Men in History captured the past. From my perspective, this has resulted in wonderful research and writing on the lives of women, native, and immigrant lives and cultures, all informed by the common availability of genealogy resources such as census and migration records. I also lament that degrees awarded in the humanities degrees are declining, but how to encourage the study of history and the flexibility it offers in careers? Archivists, librarians, lawyers, and others demonstrate practical uses of the degree. Teaching in the history field is still tenable as well:
I originally intended to write about the theories that dominate historical writing and will do so in the near future. I am presently reading background material concerning the philosophy of history and will likely start writing about historical trends and how they affect the genealogical viewpoint. I guess my basic question is if genealogy is history then why are so few genealogists aware of history?

In a comment on the comment above, each of the professions noted, archivists, librarians, lawyers etc., have their own academic degree programs and qualifications. I often regret that I did not get an advanced degree in library science rather than law (or both). But I was under the economic necessity of making a living and supporting my family at the time.


  1. I have a BA in Family History from BYU. After working professionally as a researcher for about a year I entered graduate school and obtained a Masters in Library Science (MLS) in Archives Management, as well as a MA in History. In the intervening 12 or so years, I have often been frustrated about this very thing. I have found all of my studies very helpful and complimentary to each other.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I would like to hear more about your observations from both perspectives.