Graphic used with permission of Chai with Lakshmi (http://chaiwithlakshmi.in/2013/inclusiveindia/inclusive.html)

In his recent blog post, James Tanner asked the question “Is Genealogy Inclusive or Exclusive?”  Well … both.  And neither.

I agree that we do have those who might be considered “elite” in genealogy – just as we have those who might impose this title upon themselves.  However, we may all have completely different definitions of “elite,” and our lists of individuals who fall under those definitions may be nothing alike.  (I can count on one hand those people whom I consider “elite,” and that is taking into consideration their overall attitude, their professionalism, and their expertise.)  But the true “elite” are out there helping to educate and increase the skill level of all genealogists, just like James.

While I agree with a lot of James’ points, I have to ask … why do we keep comparing genealogy to medicine or law?  A license is required to practice both medicine and law.  There is no licensing for genealogy.  If you forget to cite a source, no one’s going to die or end up in jail.  So why do we keep comparing genealogy to these two major professions?

In my opinion, genealogy is a lot more like … say … marketing.  You can go out in the world and hire any ol’ Joe to do your marketing for you.  If ol’ Joe doesn’t have his ducks in a row, you’re not going to end up in the morgue or in prison, but it could end up costing you more than just the money you paid Joe.

Let’s say Joe watched a few marketing webinars and read a couple of books.  Now he feels like he has enough know-how to start doing some marketing for real.  He starts tweeting and Facebooking and G+ing.  That’s all well and good, as long as the only person affected is Joe.  But then someone sees him all over these social media outlets and asks him to help get the word out about their new product website.  Well, what the heck? Joe’s got experience with some social media.  Plus, he read those books and watched those webinars!  Sure, he’s ready for a client!

Uh oh.

James said “We can’t have it both ways, we can’t make genealogy a broadly popular pursuit and at the same time promote “professionalism” and certification. ”

First, I don’t recall anyone browbeating genealogists into becoming accredited or certified against their will.

Second, I disagree with this statement.  We CAN have both, and we do.  At one end of the spectrum, we have those individuals who approach genealogy as a hobby and that’s as far as it goes.  And that’s okay.  Then we have professional genealogists at the other end of the spectrum.  And we have a bunch of other folks in between.  In any case, is it wrong to promote professionalism?  I think not.

Merriam-Webster defines professionalism as “the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person.”  Professionalism is an attitude, the way a person presents themselves.  Why is it wrong to expect this in genealogy?  If we can’t promote this in genealogy, perhaps there are larger problems that need to be addressed.  You don’t have to BE a professional to ACT like one.

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In my opinion, exhibiting professionalism in genealogy doesn’t mean that the folks who are researching only for themselves need to run out and get a degree in history.  It means that researchers WANT their research to be accurate.  It means that researchers WANT to learn as much as they can about the location, occupation, etc. of their ancestors and learn about the record groups they are using to ensure they are collecting accurate information.  It means they are cognizant of copyright and privacy issues.  It means that they understand that flaws in their research may affect other researchers.  It means they understand they aren’t going to find their way back to Charlemagne from the comfort of their home PC and a pair of bunny slippers.

James made the comment: “We can help those who need help to find their families and we can focus on our own personal research and we can decide that becoming a professional is acceptable, if you want to do so …”  I agree … with the caveat that those who need help are willing to receive it.  Which is where I think the real problems lie.  It’s not that personal researchers are being asked to turn out professional reports, just that they learn enough to know when they have inaccurate information, where they got their information, and how to explain why they think their information is correct.  And I, for one, don’t think that’s too much to ask.


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Inclusive or Exclusive? How about just Accurate? — 11 Comments

  1. Good critique! You can do Genealogy as a hobby (try that with medicine!) and like any hobby there are varying levels of experience and professionalism.

    I have learned a LOT from those more professional’ than myself, but have not felt intimidated. I don’t feel pressured to get certified, but I like knowing it is out there – that there is a ‘discipline’ to genealogy.

    • Thanks for dropping by, James. I really think it will take all types of “elite” … people like you who are working at the grass-roots level, and those who are more visible online and at national conferences and institutes, etc. … to make sure the educational opportunities and varying venues for that education are there for those who WANT to take advantage of them.

  2. Thank you for this. I’d read the post you were responding to the other day, so your title caught my eye . I’m glad to have read it. I’m a very beginning hobbyist family historian who is starting to trace her family tree (and, due to the weekly questions as to who or what I’m up to now, have also very recently started a blog to keep my family & friends informed). It is good to know what constitutes quality standards in the field. I’ve no desire to be a professional genealogist (my day job in the law is sufficient, thanks) but I do want to do quality work on my new hobby, for my family and future generations who might use my work as a springboard for their own.

    • Thanks for taking the time to stop by and comment, Jo! All of us were beginners at some point, and I think it’s important to remember that we didn’t become “not beginners” in a vacuum. It benefits us all to pay it forward when it comes to providing opportunities for other researchers learn new skills and learn how to apply them properly. Good luck!

  3. Jenny, your well constructed post clarifies the definition of a responsible genealogist.

    Folks work together more effectively with a kind, positive approach.

    Thank you for calming the waters.

    • Thanks Myrt! You have always been one of the bright spots in my genealogy world. Your way of providing educational outlets for all skill levels was one of my main motivations in striving to be the best researcher I can be, and for that I thank you!

  4. Thank you for articulating this so well. There will always be genealogists who cobble together a tree from fog and fantasy, have fun doing it in bunny slippers and don’t want to be bothered with that pesky ‘quality’ word.

    And (thank goodness) there’ll always be those who want to do better, keep learning, and produce the best work we can.

    Most of us in the second group are more than willing to help others improve as far as they want to. Having a set of ‘best practice’ standards to aim for isn’t exclusionary (whether we call them professional standards or not — although I don’t like the ‘professional’ word because of the commercial/licencing baggage it brings with it in some quarters); some people will care about ‘best practice’ and some won’t and there’s room for everybody in this obsession of ours.

    • Well said! Unfortunately, there are those who don’t want to be bothered with quality in every profession/hobby/avocation. Having handled many malpractice and negligence cases in my real-life profession, I can attest that all the licensing/regulating in world doesn’t make you care.

  5. You have made some excellent points here. To my mind professionalism is as much about standards, accuracy and a learning attitude as letters after your name.

    I am more than happy to help others with their family history but give up when facts and history are ignored in favour of anecdotal “evidence” or just a more interesting yarn.

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