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

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Are you qualified to be a genealogist?

Somewhere in the world there may be someone who is qualified to be a genealogist. So far, I haven't been able to find any reference to that person. In today's technological jungle, we need highly qualified practitioners with such a huge variety of skills, that by the time those skills are acquired, our trained genealogists are all in care centers or cemeteries (literally, not figuratively). Let me start talking about a few of the skills needed to be a "genealogist" and perhaps you will see my point.

Of course, we all acknowledge that genealogists are interested in their family. Having an interest in something doesn't make you qualified to do anything. For example, I am interested in space exploration but that doesn't make me an astronaut. So there must be something more needed than just a threshold interest in family stuff.

How about a genealogist is "a person who traces or studies the descent of persons or families?" See I am not quire sure what that means. Maybe it is the word "descent." The same Merriam-Webster I have been using since grade school defines "descent" in six different ways. Here are the definitions:
1 a : derivation from an ancestor : birth, lineage b : transmission or devolution of an estate by inheritance usually in the descending line
c : the fact or process of originating from an ancestral stock
d : the shaping or development in nature and character by transmission from a source : derivation 2: the act or process of descending
3: a step downward in a scale of gradation; specifically : one generation in an ancestral line or genealogical scale
4 a : an inclination downward : slope b : a descending way (as a downgrade or stairway)
c obsolete : the lowest part
5a : attack, invasionb : a sudden disconcerting appearance (as for a visit)
6: a downward step (as in station or value) : decline
I am sure that I am more confused than when I started. I think my old standby Merriam-Webster has missed the point. Genealogy isn't just about descent, it is also about ascent. I don't just pick an ancestor and trace descendants, I look for ancestors on all my family lines and then some.

But then maybe we can get an idea of what a genealogist is by looking at what they have to do. Genealogists today need to be highly qualified computer specialists. Just to find out what has already been discovered about any family requires some pretty substantial hardware and software skills. Whoa, you say. What about the contribution of all those people who can barely turn on a computer but find huge amounts of information about their families by working in libraries and archives? Wait a minute, do we or do we not need computer skills to be a genealogist? If we have no firm or satisfying definition of what a genealogist is and cannot even agree as to whether knowing about computers is part of the set of skills necessary, then what can we decide is the common denominator for becoming a genealogist?

Maybe we can turn to the certification folks. Certainly, they must have some kind of idea about what they are certifying? Oh, Oh, we find no mention of computers or computer skills in any of the certification requirements. But then why do they all have websites listing the requirement for certification or accreditation? If I had no computer skills and no access to the Internet, how would I even know there was such a thing as an accredited genealogist? Are computer skills part of the mix or not?

Wait a minute, aren't almost all the library catalogs in the world now on computers? If I didn't have any computer skills how would I know if there were any documents or books about my family even in my local public library? How would a pencil and paper help me in that situation?

Let me move on for the moment. A genealogist certainly must be able to read and write. Does that raise any issues? Does anyone check to see if a potential genealogist can read? Or write? Maybe we just ignore that issue and move on to something else. Although I can think of a lot of jobs in the world that require a test before they let you work. I remember taking something called a Bar Exam about 39 years ago, but maybe we can ignore that issue also. Who is going to test the genealogists to see if they can read and write anyway?

How about the ability to read cursive handwriting? Well, we seem to think that all sorts of young people can do "family history" without this skill. In fact, we want them all to do Indexing and make no effort to determine whether or not they can even read the records we are asking them to index. So, handwriting is out as a skill? Yes or no?

I think I am getting hopeless confused. What about familiarity with a variety of foreign languages? What about research skills? Understanding libraries and cataloging systems? Using scanners, cameras, audio recorders? Anyone for adding any of those skills to the pile? I also find no mention of those skills on any of the websites for accreditation or certification. Maybe all that is just implied?

I just re-read my post so far and I am ever more confused than when I started. What is a genealogist? At this point, I have no idea whatsoever. I have reasoned my way out of almost any of the possible qualifications and can't figure out what is left. It looks like I am back to a mere interest in ancestors. But what is the definition of an ancestor? Is your uncle's wife your ancestor? Is your Grandfather's third wife's second husband your ancestor? Time for Merriam-Webster again. An ancestor is "a person who was in someone's family in past times : one of the people from whom a person is descended." So what am I doing at the Mesa FamilySearch Library helping all those people find their ancestors? How can I be a genealogist if I am not looking for my own ancestors? So you can be a genealogist and never look for your own ancestors?

Wait a minute, there is something really wrong here. I can be a genealogist but there are no qualifications and I don't even have to look for my own ancestors? I think I will have to stop using the word altogether and start using family history. Now, maybe I should look up the meaning of "family" and "history" and see where that gets me? Maybe I should think about changing the name of my blog?

I am so happy I started this post. It has certainly clarified things for me to start out my day.


  1. I love this posting. You confused me, Mr. Tanner. But, in a good way. I had a good laugh. It brought back the occasional arguments about only the certified can call themselves genealogists and the rest of us are hobbyists. I would argue that I am certifiable, just not in the right way.

    I am FamilyTwigs and that says it all. I work on my family history and have for over 30 years.

    Are you going to add a new post confusing me about that? (I am hoping so.) I learn a lot from your posts.

    Thank you, Mr Tanner.

  2. Great post, Jim. I considered becoming a genealogist myself, and without being able to verbalize it, was discouraged by the very things that you have been able to put in a nutshell with a bit of humor thrown in. Bravo!

  3. I am deeply confused as to why your blog is one of my favorites. Maybe it is because you are a straight shooter and make me smile! Hey, keep the confusion rolling :)

  4. What do you think of the term "genealogy hobbyist"?

    1. I guess I wonder why there has to be such a category. I gives the impression that the "hobbyist" is not a serious genealogists. What do you call someone who spends their full time doing genealogy?

    2. Good question. I think it would depend on how that person defines themself? Before genealogy became so mainstream, were people this fixated on categorizing each other as a genealogist, family historian or genealogy hobbyist, etc?

    3. The history of genealogy is fairly complex. See the book Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America by François Weil

  5. Cute post, but what difference does it make? To me one of the biggest mistakes this 'industry' makes is that of trying to make it more than it is. I use genealogy with some folks and with family and youth I never use it ... I only use family history. Just my two cents.

  6. I put about 7-8 hours a day into my genealogy, I do family trees mainly from Eastern Kentucky.. I love the genealogy there, when doing someone else's tree, I always find new information on my own. No other job on the planet I would love more than doing ancestry!

    1. I certainly agree. Great Job! Great Pay! Nice people to deal with.

  7. Because I have recently retired I am finally able to work on my family history. I always said not only do I enjoy my family history but I am passionate about knowing others as well. I don't discriminate. I am an equal opportunity family history lover. Perhaps I am a budding geneologist!

  8. I believe "genealogist" embraces all the requirements you discussed James, although not all in the same person. The profession/industry/discipline requires them all somewhere, but it would be virtually impossible for any one person to have *all* of those skills. When I wrote about the "genealogical community", last year, I pointed out that there were many talents/skills present, and that the us-and-them distinctions were not helping the "community". Certification isn't appropriate for everyone so I say leave it to those who _are_ certifiable (tongue-in-cheek pun for the New Year) :-)

    1. Some of us are already "certifiable" or why would we be blogging on holidays?

    2. Tony and Jim, Jim I love your blog post and Tony I love your above response. I just transitioned into Forensic Genealogy. (I bet you could have a field day with that designation, Jim LOL) I have been both supported and snubbed by others in the "field". I believe Tony has a good point. We are part of a community, each with our own skills to contribute, if we are willing, that enhances the character and abilities of the community.

      I also believe that being certifiable ;) is also a requirement. LOL

    3. Maybe we should be certifiably qualified. Thanks for your comment.

    4. Thanks Ann. I still dream that the different factions might work together, since that's the only way genealogy will progress, but I know it's just a waking dream.