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

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Status of Genealogists in the Greater Academic Community

I was reading an article by Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG in the Nation Genealogical Society Quarterly: Centennial Issue 91 (December 2003) on pages 260-277 entitled "Genealogy in the "Information Age": History's New Frontier." Some of the comments in the article struck me as very interesting. After briefly reviewing the history of genealogical research in the United States in relationship to the overall academic history community, Ms. Mills made some observations about the state of that relationship at the time the article was written. One of the statements that caught my eye was a quote from the American Archivist in 1981 made by Phebe Jacobson which said, "Denigrating genealogists has been a cherished avocation of archivists ever since we began scratching our way up the ladder toward professional status."

Ms. Mills goes on to describes as three different species of genealogists; family tree climbers, traditional genealogists and generational historians. She observes that "Serious researchers have learned that, when visiting archives and record offices, any use of the G-WORD (genealogy) may limit their access to records. The result is that they conduct their work so quietly, so efficiently that staff and other patrons do not recognize them as genealogists." She goes on to state about genealogists:
Our investments in quality and standards are paying significant dividends among archivists and librarians. How long will it be before we can say the same for the rest of the academic world—not just for the historians who need our skills, but also for educational institutions where we need degree programs in generational history? Every field has both qualified and mediocre practitioners. Genealogy, however, has an added image problem. We were responsible for it initially; but we have treated the warts that once disfigured us: the masquerades and false grandeur of past generations, the muck of the eugenics movement, and the lack of formal educational programs.We have created a scholarly field and a profession. Yet we remain tainted by a past imperfect. 
The image problem exists for four reasons, each building upon the other: 

  • We have not clearly defined our identity. 

  • We have not educated the media and the academic world as to what real genealogy is.

  • We lack financial resources to support outreach and public education. 

  • We have accepted second-class citizenship in the educational world.
  • I would like to fast forward to the present, approximately 10 years since the article was written. Have conditions changed with respect to the acceptance of genealogy and genealogists in the academic community? Not really. But one very important thing has changed. The academics can no longer keep us or anyone else from access to the archives or the record offices. To a great extent this has been accomplished by the massive movement of original source material from the insides of the repositories to freely accessible files on the Web. What keeps the capable genealogist from producing an academically acceptable work product? Nothing at all except the will to do so.

    Ms. Mills advocated (I do not know if she holds the same opinion today) that in order to achieve academic acceptance that genealogists (referred to as generational historians) should:
    1. meet the historical profession’s definition of “historian”—an individual with some formal education in history, who practices history through research or teaching;
    2. possess earned credentials in genealogy (certification or accreditation) and, as such programs develop, pursue coursework and degrees in generational history;
    3. publish their research in peer-reviewed journals whose essays meet the standards set for scholarship by the academic world—i.e.,
    • exhaustive research, with skillful analysis and interpretation of findings;
    • thorough documentation, relying upon only the best existing sources, carefully identified;
    • sound theories and conclusions, critically tested through peer review and dialog with professional colleagues in and outside the field.
    In short, we eliminate the barriers between genealogy and the academic world by becoming historians. Of course, in doing this, we simply move the barrier down the line and those who are "family tree climbers and traditional genealogists" are obviously excluded. I certainly recognize that as long as there are those who consider themselves to be "academics" they will find a way to define away those who are not. As I have observed in past posts, all professions move towards exclusivity. Historians and generation historians are merely conforming to the time honored practices of professionals (or their equivalent) since the dawn of creation. If I produce high academic quality work and it is ignored by the "academic community" solely on the basis that I am a genealogist without academic qualifications, then the loss is to the academic community.

    The fact that there are hobbyists or family tree climbers or even traditional genealogists is no different than any other excluded category in any other profession. In the law profession they are euphemistically called "document preparers" and are mercilessly persecuted by the State Bar Associations and in Arizona, the Arizona Supreme Court.

    I do not want to detract from the major contributions made by Ms. Mills to the field of genealogy. Her article was and is needed. But I see that the democratization of the Internet may have some unpredictable consequences in the areas discussed in the old article. I am pretty sure that in the not too distant future the barriers expressed by the article will have disappeared due to the almost universal access to all of the now semi-cloistered information previously only available to accredited academics and as a result, any real distinctions between the "professionals" and those unaccredited may come to rely solely on the merits of the work produced.

    As for the goal stated by the article of moving genealogy into the colleges and universities, that is happening very slowly and mostly outside of the United States. I am not so sure that acceptance of genealogy depends so much anymore on its acceptance within academia's ivy-covered walls. I suspect that the universities may find themselves on the defensive and fighting for their very existence in a world where what you know is beginning to count for more than who you are in the context of the Internet society. 


    1. Records may be available to us all now, James, but the stigma of non-academic public history is still there. An early post of mine, 'Are Genealogists Historians Too?' ( presented an encounter of the two worlds by Dr Nick Barratt. More recently, I've tried to analyse some of the differences at 'Micro-history for Genealogists' (

      1. I'll check those out and I may have some comments. :-)

    2. For what it's worth, the problems aren't just with academic historians. Just try and read the comments page in Wikipedia on many a medieval figure where their ancestry is discussed (e.g.,_1st_Lord_of_Annandale ) Genealogists get a rough ride there from many who see themselves as guardians of Wikipedia's rigour and all genealogists as stamp collectors. (NB - I used to collect stamps, so don't complain at me for the analogy).

      In fact, many of the so-called guardians clearly wouldn't be let within the gates of academia as they refuse point-blank to evaluate sources. I understand where that principle comes from - but the simple fact is that Wikipedia *does* evaluate sources - as someone said somewhere, Wikipedia's article on "fire" does not give equal prominence to Phlogiston as an explanation of fire.

      But equally, many so-called genealogists are guilty of spreading and respreading the same tired stuff - that very article's talk page refers to "joke peerage sources [that] are used all the time on Wikipedia" and comments that "the peerage stuff fits most of the definitions of a virus actually, at least in regards to historical material on the internet".

      While the peerage stuff keeps popping up - with all the other equivalents such as Cherokee princesses - then the perception of genealogists (correct or not) is not going to alter in the non-genie world.

    3. Whenever an affinity group wishes to elevate itself to a profession, it will do the following three things:

      A) Develop a unique jargon for conversations among its members.

      B) Devise complicated methods and routines for accomplishing simple tasks; and

      C) Impose entry barriers to its ranks;

      The accountants, for example, do not say "left" and "right," they say "debit" and "credit." They allocate expenses to pools and reverse their accruals. And, of course, any aspiring person wishing to become one of them must pass the CPA Exam after obtaining the appropriate college credits.

      There seems to be some of this dynamic at play in both the Genealogy camp and in academe.

      And yes, the the world of academia is now in great upheaval in its own right; the genealogists' relationships with the academic world will surely be impacted, for better or for worse, by this upheaval.

      -- Kenneth H. Ryesky, Esq.

    4. The name of the game is economics. Education is based upon economic interaction with the world's business communities, and until and unless genealogy and family history are established as financially productive entities, nothing will happen. Family history and genealogy must be combined within the purview of scholarly academic genealogy.
      You must provide quality education and learning resources for all educators, across all disciplines, that includes information and data for institutional faculty, staff, teachers, students, parents and research specialists. For example, On the Genealogy of Morality, or On the Genealogy of Morals, is "considered by some Nietzsche scholars to be a work of sustained brilliance and power as well as his masterpiece." [Nietzsche attributes the desire to publish his "hypotheses" on the origins of morality to reading his friend Paul Rée's book The Origin of the Moral Sensations (1877) and finding the "genealogical hypotheses" offered there unsatisfactory.]. Working on origins in any of the university degree programs ultimately requires genealogical research specialist training, expertise which cannot be chained down as a limited sub set of history; which unfortunately, is the mindset from which Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG, presents her ideas. It is the tradition from the past, encountered in current classroom (BYU) presentations, and thus throughout global genealogical communities, sustained by the "everyone can do it" mentality of those whose objectives, thought meritorious, are lacking in effective promotion of family history and genealogy as rigorous disciplines. May I suggest that [to hold the key of the revelation, ordinances, oracles, powers and endowments of the fullness of the Melchizedek Priesthood], transcends all science and technology that is presently taught within secular educational institutions, and must be approached from foundations that brought forth this earth and the very beginnings of the Universe. Unless presented in this expansive light, society, mankind and the world we live in (including our past joint ancestry = now, monkeyed around) are severely shortchanged. Thomas Milton Tinney, Sr.

      1. Thanks for the comment. That is an interesting concept.