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

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Is certification of genealogists necessary?

The term professional commonly means being paid or compensated for work rather than doing work for free. But, the word also implies excellence in the various skills employed by an individual in comparison to others less skilled. Historically, professionals sought prestige and mutual support from guilds. The guild system dates back into antiquity, pre-dating the Roman Empire in China and Egypt. Guilds, somewhat like modern labor unions, set professional standards and acted to protect the interests of the guild members.

Modern professionals have a variety of organizations that perform the same types of functions. In addition, guilds survive into the modern world. There are guilds for actors, screen writers, newspaper workers, and even quilters. Both real estate professionals and lawyers are subject to modern guilds. Although it is possible for a person to sell real estate without belonging to the National Association of Realtors, in almost all states, it is not possible to practice law without belonging to a local state bar association.

Arizona is an exception for the practice of law. The Arizona State Legislature allowed all of the statutes prohibiting the practice of law by non-lawyers (those not belonging to the state bar association) to expire. There are no statutes prohibiting the unauthorized practice of law in Arizona. However, illustrating the power of the bar association, the Arizona Supreme Court has ruled that non-lawyers cannot have access to representing clients in court, with a few very limited exceptions.

If you are member of a professional organization, similar to a guild, you probably understand and enjoy the benefits of your membership. If you are a non-member and aspire to work in the area controlled by the organization, you are probably painfully aware of the requirements for membership and have or will apply for membership after completing the requirements.

Many states also license and control various professions, such as builders, contractors, bankers, insurance sales, cosmetologists, morticians and all sorts of others. Many times, licensing requires schooling and an examination. It may also be necessary to pay a substantial registration fee and perhaps post a bond. The fee may be charged annually. The ostensible reason for this regulation is the protection of the public interests, but it also protects those involved in the trade or business from competition to an extent.

Now, what does this have to do with genealogy? Genealogists are not regulated (yet) in any state of the United States, so anyone can "practice" genealogy professionally without obtain a specific license, although you may have to have a business license and tax licenses. Likewise, there are no exclusionary guild-like organizations that can, as a practical matter, prevent someone for charging for doing genealogical research. Is this a good thing?

In the U.S. there are several national organizations for genealogists. Some of these are more in the nature of trade organizations, you pay your application fee and you are a member. Some of these, like the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG), have a Code of Ethics, a referral list and sponsor education and conferences. The APG also provides fee arbitration services. But no where do you have to be a member of the APG to hang out your shingle and start doing genealogical research for hire.

There are (at least) two major organizations that accredit genealogists. The most ambitiously named of these two organizations is the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists (ICAPGen). This organization has even trademarked the term "accredited genealogist." Despite its ambitious title, a search in its database of researchers for my home state of Arizona shows only one lone entry. This fact reflects the origin of ICAPGen at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Utah has pages of entries. Most notably, the vast majority of the Accredited Genealogists are within driving distance of the Library.

The second major organization is the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) located in Washington, D.C. Organized in 1964, BCG has been active in promoting genealogical standards and produces The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual for publication by A search of BCG's list of members for Arizona shows five certified genealogists. Utah has quite a few more than Arizona, but not nearly as many as shown on the list of Accredited Genealogists for ICAPGen.

Both organizations, ICAPGen and BCG, have extensive and difficult requirements for membership and certification or accreditation. However, just like any other professional organization, personal competency is not guaranteed by membership. As an attorney, I can testify that passing the Arizona State Bar Examination after three years of law school, is only the barest beginning of competency. Likewise, becoming a certified or accredited genealogist only proves that you can complete the requirements. There are many really good certified or accredited genealogists, but there are also a lot of really competent researchers who haven't bothered to join either organization.

It is probably a given fact that as a percentage of the whole, very few genealogists want to practice genealogical research professionally (for hire). Likewise very few people who are interested in research on their family lines, would even consider paying someone to do research for them. But it is apparent that considerably more genealogists consider themselves to be professionals than go through the process of becoming accredited or certified. A search of the APG list for Arizona shows 21 people listed, as compared to the one from ICAPGen or the five from BCG. Just a guess, but my experience with genealogists would show that few would be willing to pay to simply be listed as a professional, even if they were doing research for hire.

So why aren't more genealogists who consider themselves to be "professional" members of one or the other of the two accreditation/certification organizations? Could it be that membership is either too difficult or too expensive? ICAPGen, for example, has a threshold research requirement of 1000 hours in one geographic area. Additionally, the research test is given only at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. It is simply difficult to imagine spending that kind of time (and keeping records).

On the other hand, BCG has no specific time requirement, but has an extremely extensive writing and report requirement with a lengthy review process. The time involved is considerable and it may take several tries to obtain certification at all.

So given the fact that so few genealogists are certified or accredited, is certification even necessary? For the same reason I would not go to an unlicensed attorney or chose a real estate salesperson who was not a member of the National Association of Realtors, I would think that certification for genealogists is meaningful. For the same reason that contractors in Arizona prominently display their license number, those who go through the process to become certified or accredited genealogists are more likely to have a level of competency than the general mass of researchers.

Hopefully, however, the self proclaimed organizations who provide certification and/or accreditation will not view themselves as so exclusive that the designation becomes meaningless due to the fact that no one applies or qualifies. For example, ICAPGen far from being international, is marginalized in Arizona and membership is somewhat meaningless with only one member. That situation is more a result of the requirements for membership than anything else. Likewise, with BCG, if so few genealogists can complete the extensive membership requirements that there are not more than five people in a whole state, the designation, although prestigious in some circles, loses meaning to those who are actively involved in genealogical research for the practical reason that almost no one would know someone who was certified. Whereas, everyone knows a doctor or lawyer or contractor and can recognize that certification for those professions, although not as limited or exclusive as for professional genealogists, has more meaning.

I believe that with any meaningful profession, some sort of certification or accreditation is necessary and useful. There needs to be an objective method of determining if a person has a certain minimal level of competence. On the other hand, if the requirements for certification or accreditation become so difficult and absent a governmental mandate like lawyers for example, few people will try to become qualified and the designation, no matter how prestigious in some circles, will have little or no meaning to the public at large.


  1. I am an ICAPGen Accredited Genealogist and I think you are overlooking a major reason why people do not choose to become accredited or certified. A lot of people who join APG (I am a member) do so because they aspire to become a professional genealogist -- they view the APG as a mentoring organization and attend the APG training day at the annual FGS conferences.

    ICAPGen is different. Being an AG demonstrates that you have achivied a certain level competence in the aspect of genealogical research that you tested in. For example, my area of accreditation is the records of England. If I was a professional genealogist in Arizona, I would be incapable of adequately preparing for the England examination because all of the genealogical materials in repositiories there relate to the western United States. So it is very logical that there is only one AG in Arizona because a person who had experience using only Arizona records would not be adequately prepared for the test.

    Sure, you can get microfilm of English records into a FHC, and there are some English records available on pay sites, but only in Salt Lake City or in England itself could a person adequately prepare for the England test.

  2. Thank you and your guest commentator for this valuable information. I have been considering this avenue, but have not gathered enough information to explore further. Now I can research more into the certifications.
    Thank you

  3. Your article misses one very valid point. Neither ICAPGEN nor BCG are "membership" organizations. One cannot become a "member". These organizations are credentialing organizations which set standards for the work product and offer testing and peer review. The people listed with each organizaton have been credentialed.

    The process in the field of professional genealogy is similar to that of becoming a board-certified attorney or a CPA in the accounting world. Yes, the numbers of credentialed genealogists may be relatively small. In Texas, for instance, fewer than 2% of all attorneys are board-certified. Check the yellow pages for the number of non-CPA accountants. The number of tested and qualified master plumbers is significantly less than the number of journeymen. For many professional genealogists credentialing is a career ladder move.

    Whatever the reason, the credential indicates that the person's work product meets the standard of the credentialing agency. In many instances, such a genealogical credential is necessary to perform work for the legal community, governmental agencies, government contracts, corporations, trusts, insurance companies, title companies, etc.

    best regards,