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

Thursday, August 28, 2014

What is genealogy?

OK, I have come full circle again. I am back to questioning the stereotypical image of a genealogist and also back to the question about whether or not genealogy even has a definition. First some different questions. Does searching for your ancestors, per se, make you into a "genealogist?" Is there some threshold entry requirement for becoming a "genealogist." Do I become a genealogist the moment that I begin calling myself one?

There is an interesting analogy. We have real estate salespeople and we have REALTORS®. As the National Association of REALTORS® likes to frequently point out, "A real estate agent is a REALTOR® when he or she is a member of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®. I think there are those who would like to make a distinction between those interested in family history and GENEALOGISTS. Maybe those who think this way should start coming up with a new trade name? I might also point out that the REALTORS® have an uphill battle. You may wish to read a rather entertaining history of the word in The Word Detective's post "Realtor."

Every time I write about this subject, I get comments from GENEALOGISTS who point out that they are eminently inclusive and that they have no intention of excluding any of huddled masses from their own pursuit of their own family history. But we all know that real GENEALOGISTS adhere to certain standards and are usually members of certain organizations. How do we maintain a consistent balance between professionalism and inclusivity?

By looking at the real estate community, you can make some interesting comparisons to genealogy. For example, by statute in Arizona, anyone can sell their own property. But it you want to sell property for someone else and make a commission, you must be registered with the State of Arizona. In addition to registration, you have to take a rather long and involved formal real estate course and pass a test. Oh, and you have to pay for and receive a license to "practice real estate." See Arizona Real Estate License - Qualifying for and Obtaining. But even then, you do not become a REALTOR®. As I already pointed out, calling yourself a REALTOR® requires joining a particular organization.

Should we aspire to the same sort of regulation for genealogy? I think the main reason this analogy does not work completely is the nature of the product. On one hand, we are talking about real estate. In the United States we can own real estate. We have a formal title system for ownership with government recording requirements that date back into antiquity. On the other hand, genealogy is a nebulous concept of recording information about our ancestors, none of whom we own. I also think that we would have a much harder time trademarking the word GENEALOGIST (with or without capital letters) than the National Association of Real Estate Boards had back in 1916 for REALTORS®.

But this analogy brings up some more basic issues. As I have pointed out in previous posts, the number of professionally certified or accredited genealogists is very, very small compared to the number of people who have enough interest in information about their ancestors to put a family tree online. There is no other fact that so completely separates the "serious genealogists" from those who have a casual interest than this one fact. Because I teach at the BYU Family History Library and previously taught at the Mesa FamilySearch Library, I have been in a position for years to hear from patrons. The one most common complaint I hear, as I have mentioned before, is that people are changing my family history on Family Tree. This is always said with the attitude that "I am putting in the correct information" and "they" are putting in incorrect information. Of course, what I usually find is that neither the complainant nor the person changing the online record have any sources to support their position.

By asking the above questions, I am not advocating creating a cadre of genealogy enforcers. You may be able to cite examples of the abuses of so-called professional genealogists that warrant regulation, but it is unlikely that there are so many occurrences that any state legislature would take you seriously. In any event, as I well know from the practice of law and real estate, just because you have a professional organization and entry requirements does not mean that you do not have issues with professionalism and honesty.

This post is more of a component in an ongoing dialogue than some kind of resolution. The dialogue is going on in my mind and I appreciate any comments or input.


  1. As a fairly new researcher, your exploration of the question of "genealogist" versus "hobbiest" is right on target. In reading the blog, a couple of thoughts come to mind. First, there has been a major shift in the world (in almost every field) where "experts" are suspect, the process of gaining knowledge is valued over the transmission of knowledge, and there is a much larger tolerance for "making it up" as you go along. Wikipedia is an example - articles with errors are put online, corrected by the community, authors are pushed to add citations, and over time the rough posting is polished. Very different from the Encyclopedia that we had on the shelves - purchased by parents on a monthly payment basis - with an annual update provided by the company! As family records have moved online - the messiness of this new point of view has followed. It is a very different way of thinking about the identification, accumulation, and transmission of knowledge/facts.

    Second, I can't imagine how any person could stop any other person from pursuing family research in any fashion they want, or calling themselves a genealogist. The astronomers don't ask the backyard hobbiests to turn in their telescopes- the geologists don't outlaw the stone collector-etc. I think the idea of "professionalization" or the implementation of standards can come in to play when a person is hired to do family research for another person. The transaction moves research from a personal hobby to a commodity where some quality assurances make sense. Certification with related "letters behind your name" becomes a short-hand for the consumer of genealogy consulting to have some way to judge quality. The rest of us are just amateur genealogists- or poor genealogists-or crazy genealogists - or simply folks interested in our own families. Perhaps there could be some way on the jointly developed family trees to further refine who/how changes are made - in the meantime, I think the best strategy is to encourage hobbiests (non-professionals) to pursue "good" genealogy practice...teach, inspire, help, share, assume good will....and for those who are upset by the messy state of current joint trees to keep their own family research out of the hands of "the commons". Stay engaged in polishing the information on the joint family tree, but don't subject your research to what might be the uninformed changes suggested by others. Isn't it a great problem that there is so much interest in family history - there are enough people to have divergent views! It's good for everyone.

    Thanks for raising this issue for discussion.

  2. Thanks for your very comprehensive and insightful comment. However, from other comments, there are certainly those who would disagree with both of us. Thanks again.