Monday, April 7, 2014

Musings On Genealogy "Expertise," "Elites" and Education

There has been an interesting discussion over the past few days spurred by social science and public policy expert Tom Nichols, who published a post in the Federalist on 17 January 2014 titled The Death of Expertise.” 

Michael Leclerc, on the Mocavo Genealogy Blog, posted "The Death of Expertise" on 5 April 2014 which discussed his view of how the Nichols article applies to the genealogy industry and community.  

James Tanner wrote "The Sequestration of Genealogy, Not Its Death" on the Genealogy's Star blog on 5 April 2014.  He noted that the peer-reviewed periodicals are difficult to access online, and most of the beginning genealogists he works with will not care.

Drew Smith added "Expertise is Neither Dead nor Sequestered" to the conversation on the Rootsmithing: Genealogy, Methodology and Technology blog on 5 April 2014.  

Michael John Neill wrote "The Genealogy Elite and Genealogy Police" on his blog on 7 April 2014.

Each of these experienced and influential researchers and writers have a lifetime of genealogy expertise, and are considered by many genealogists as informed, engaged and really smart people (including myself, having met and discussed genealogy affairs with each of them).  

If this topic interests you, I encourage my readers to carefully read each post above and make appropriate comments on the posts if the spirit moves you (but please come back here and read my commentary too).  

How did we get into this perceived "mess?"  Or is it a "mess" at all?  My own views are sort of an amalgam of those expressed by my genea-blogging colleagues, plus more, including some history, and opinions, according to Randy:

1)  There is little "formal genealogical education" for most researchers (I know, there are several degree programs, several certification programs, educational course, conference, seminars, webinars, YouTubes, etc.), so most researchers start out without much formal methodology training, as a hobby or avocation. That's just the way it is, and genealogy expertise is not developed similar to many other disciplines where expertise is recognized after achieving a bachelor, master and doctoral degree, and publishing extensively, in the chosen field.

2)  In the "old days" (pre-1985?) beginning researchers went to the local library, checked out a genealogy reference book, and tried to follow the step-by-step guidelines.  Eventually, they discovered other repositories (e.g., genealogy libraries, state and national archives, courthouses) and found more books, periodicals, microfilms, manuscripts and unpublished papers.  They photo-copied material that pertained to their family lines, and tried to piece the information together on pedigree charts and family group sheets.  This process took a long time since it required traveling, reading at the repository, paying for the copies, etc.  In this era, the "expertise" was with the book/periodical authors/editors, and with the repository/archive curators.

3)  Then along came the Internet and genealogy software programs in the 1980s and 1990s.  Some researchers adapted to the software programs, and eventually to online family trees, and worked to add name/event date/event place information to their database program, linking persons to parents, adding source citations, adding media items, etc.  The programs evolved also, from very simple database programs to the modern, very sophisticated, programs that can do everything for you, including crafting source citations and providing research guidance and suggested records.

4)  Another major change occurred in the 1990s, when the Board for Certification of Genealogists developed the Genealogical Proof Standard, wrote the BCG Standards Manual, and provided excellent examples of working to the standard in the peer-reviewed journals and in published books.  Some in the genealogical community adapted to this standard, but many did not, and some may consider credentialed genealogists as "elite."

5)  Through the years, only some of the genealogists have joined local, regional or national genealogical societies where they found like-minded researchers, were exposed to genealogical speakers and seminars, and perhaps regional or national conferences, where they learned more about honing the genealogy craft, applying that knowledge to their research, and enjoyed the social interaction with their society colleagues.

6)  Along the way, only some of those beginning genealogy researchers dedicated themselves to learning as much as they could about their addictive avocation and/or profession.  The rest put it aside, and might occasionally come back to it after years or even decades.  As we can tell, the genealogy landscape has changed considerably over the past 30 years!

7)  Then along came beginning genealogy researchers who did not have access to or experience with libraries and archives, and wanted to do all of their work online because surely everything they need to know and find is online.  Not exactly!  Here's the California Genealogical Society and Library "iceberg chart," which is still as true as ever (and probably always will be!):

(image used by permission of California Genealogical Society)

Some of these beginners learned about keeping a research log, doing a reasonably exhaustive search, citing their sources, etc.  Some joined genealogical societies, or took education classes, or watched online webinars and videos to improve their knowledge base and help advance their research.

8)  Some "searchers" are "name-collectors" who want to add names and not much else to their tree, unless it's really easy to do.  It's a game, or contest, for some.  There are millions of Ancestry Member Trees with just names, some dates, some places, no sources (except for the source citations that accrue when a record is attached after clicking a green leaf Hint - those are good things!).  There are other online tree systems that try to help the searcher find records (e.g., MyHeritage Record Matches), and some online systems rely on user notes and sources (e.g., WikiTree).

9)  Genealogy research is a very broad field, with many specialties, and everybody in the  community needs to learn as much as they can over time.  I've read that it takes over 10,000 hours of study and effort to become an "expert" in any field, whether plumbing, teaching,  engineering, or genealogy.  I was able to devote perhaps 500 hours a year before I retired from my engineering job in 2002, and now devote over 2,000 hours each year to my genealogy study and application, and still feel like a beginner in many ways.  I am not certified or accredited, and I don't consider myself as an "elite" researcher, and I greatly respect and try to emulate those that are certified and accredited.  I learn a lot from the articles in NGSQ, NEHGR, TG, TAG, and other peer-reviewed genealogical journals, and I think every serious researcher should be reading them on a regular basis (either online or in a library).

10)  The most basic thing I've learned over the past 26 years is that "I don't know what I don't know," and that "genealogy research is a continuing education endeavor."  It never stops.  Part of that is learning to adapt to, and to use, technological advances.  For example, I've tried to adapt over the past 30 years from typewriters to word processors to computers to laptops to tablets to smart phones to voice-activated devices (and eventually to thought implants and teleportation).  Part of it is reading genealogical literature - published books, peer-reviewed periodicals, society magazines and newsletters, free and commercial websites, blogs and online articles, etc.  Part of it is staying up-to-date with new record collections and new search techniques.  Part of it is knowing what is not available online, and knowing how to find those resources offline, and making the effort to find those offline resources.

11)  Online family trees with unsourced or poorly sourced information may be commonplace, but they can be extremely useful for finding leads to family structures and to records.  The key is to sort out the wheat from the chaff.  Those that have sourced records, especially those that lead to an original source (e.g., probate, land, tax, vital, Bible, etc.)  or a reliable authored work (e.g., NEHGR article, family history that cites sources, etc.) can be very helpful.  The contributor who puts up an unsourced tree may have gems hiding in the midst of all of the persons with no supporting documents - because it's their family and they don't understand the genealogical craft yet (or perhaps they don't want to!).  If there's an event date and a place, then that's a lead that may be found in records of some sort that can be found.

12)  I refuse to bash or denigrate those who are not at the so-called "elite" level, because there, but for the grace of God, was I 25 years ago.  My view is that, with very few exceptions,  every researcher wants to do the best job that they can on their family tree, but some have not figured out the educational opportunities, or don't have the technological skill to find them online.  As always, the key is education and work experience. The genealogy industry has done a great job on providing educational opportunities, but we can't make people learn until they realize that they need it.

13)  My conclusion is that, if there is an "elite" group, then they follow the BCG Standards, and the Association of Professional Genealogists standards, and adhere to those standards in their research, writing and client services.  There are also many researchers trying to learn more through conferences, seminars, institutes, online courses, webinars, study groups, etc. so that they can gain more expertise and perhaps become professionals.

14)  My experience with the genealogists with credentials is similar to Michael's - that they are helpful, encouraging, patient, and very willing to share their expertise and knowledge with those wanting to learn.  There is little back-biting or criticism, unless someone does or writes something unseemly or egregious.  I haven't seen any "genealogy police" either.

15)  This is way too long, my apologies for the stream-of-consciousness paragraphs - I hope that they will be useful.  If nothing else, they can always be a bad example of "have blog, will write my thoughts..." I'm going for a walk after spending two hours trying to write this.   Did anybody read this to the end?

The URL for this post is:

Copyright (c) 2014, Randall J. Seaver

UPDATED 9 April:  Tammy Hepps posted "In Defense of Genealogy as a Hobby" on the Treelines blog, on 8 April 2014.  Please read the dialog between Tammy and the commenters too.


Judy G. Russell said...

And I did too, and appreciate your thoughts, Randy. I keep wondering who the "evil elite" may be, since I've never encountered anyone I would consider elite who has not been gracious in sharing knowledge and guiding me along... something for which I am most grateful.

Unknown said...

I read all the article and yours till the end! Well I don't really know who the "Elite" is since I only read the likes of you and Judy Russell who are always sharing and helping us "Newbies". I had to chuckle about the "Genealogy Police"! I am also a quilter and we are always worried about the "Quilt Police". We should just ignore them, do the very best we can and continue to improve every day.

Geolover said...

Read it all! Thanks, Randy.

Those who refer to the "elite" are a bit hazy about meaning. Credentialed? Journal editor? Frequently published?

I share the experience of Michael John: I've never had contact with a FASG, CG, etc. who acted like an ~elitist~ with the exception of on one mailing list several years ago (the person no longer with us). In my book, that was just the odd cowbird in a flock of songbirds.

Underlying a lot of this discussion is critical-to-angry perspectives on silliness in trees. This will persist, in part because some of the marketers benefit. But I think your end of point 12, "we can't make people learn until they realize that they need it," is the key.

Most of the experienced and skilled do whatever they can to foster the learning environment. All are to be commended.

Bill West said...

I read it all, too! Well said, Randy!

Tessa Keough said...

Enjoyed your post Randy and I read it all the way through to the end!
Although there are occasional dust-ups (and every field has them, let's not fool ourselves), the genealogy field is filled with thoughtful, helpful and genuinely kind and encouraging people. Social media is a double-edged sword. We have immediate access to and the ability to comment on any topic and our thoughts are pushed out to the world. Sometimes we need to give our posts and comments a bit of time before hitting publish.

Cousin Russ said...


Well said, and Thank you.

Its an honor to be able to comment on your blog post among other great GeneaBloggers.

Thank you for sharing your experience and your observation on this topic.


Michigan Girl said...

I read every word Randy. Now to go and read the articles you referenced.
Thank you for your summary.


Unknown said...

Read to the end, and agree wholeheartedly! I began with a book and a workbook many years ago, and am now in ProGen21 (having taken most of those steps you mentioned along the way). It takes time and hard work, but I owe much to the gracious sharing of knowledge of those more learned than me. They are a generous and welcoming group that I hope to emulate one day.

Susan said...

Great blog post! Like you, I've been doing this a long time but only been spending massive time since I retired a few years ago. I clearly remember when I started in the early '70's having everything on paper and trying to photocopy information and title pages alike so I would remember where the information came from. I seem to recall most of my education, at that time, came from FHC volunteers and librarians at various facilities. Like you, I am not certified but do try to take advantage of as many webinars, videos, seminars, conferences, society events, etc as I can. I am amazed at the amount of free and low cost education that is available for those who want to learn and the number of well-known genealogists (both professional and not) who are willing to provide help and advice. In turn, I try to give back by providing help where appropriate and many times when I give back, I also learn something. What more could one ask for? Thanks for spelling out your thoughts, Randy.

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

I read it to the end as well, Randy. Thank you. Another fine contribution to the community for this blog of yours! Well said. Dr. Bill (not part of the "elite" by any means...) ;-)

Lowcountry Africana said...

I read it to the end and think you have cut to the heart of where most researchers spend the majority of their time, which is on the journey, not in a fixed or static place.

My formal education was in anthropology and I find it terribly difficult to break from citing resources in American Anthropologist style because it's been driven into my DNA after all this time.

In my journey to learn Evidence Explained citation style I have never been called out on my lapses into AA style and have been grateful for that! It is a huge challenge for me and it may take me years to get it right. But I keep plugging away with my copy of Evidence Explained in my lap.

No police at the door so far...

Deborah said...

I read every word, Randy! Thanks for all your efforts! Well said!

cjtf said...

Read it all. Agree with all. Question however on all the unsourced and really screwed up trees (children born prior to parents, extra children, grandchildren listed as children etc). I definitely use them for clues. When I see something that I would like to be true, I write and ask for the source (answer usually is from another unsourced Ancestry tree) but should I let people know when I know something is wrong. I looked at 15 trees this evening, with only 1 having citations and whoopee, copies of documents. The others all had incorrect information (or full dates with the census given as the source). Some of errors were so obvious. Fear of doing something stupid myself has kept me from submitting an online pedigree! Though since I am LDS and my pedigree is automatically on FamilySearch I am attempting to clean it up.

Regards a faithful reader

Carleen Foster

Cousin Russ said...

Carleen Foster,

You can always leave a comment on the Person profile of to the owner about your concern. They may or may not do anything, but your comment will be there.


Unknown said...

I read it all the way to the end and loved the article! I would have to echo what others have mentioned...I've never run into any "evil elites" or for that matter, anyone who wasn't willing to offer at least a little help. I have to say that as a community, I actually think that genealogy is one of the most accessible in terms of getting help and assistance from those who have the expertise!

gophergenealogy said...

This is a great post and response to the other posts mentioned. My feelings are we spend way too much time on this and need to get back to the basics of researching. Along the way you are sure to run into someone who appears to be elistest, but they can have a bad day just like anyone else. Your comments are appreciated and respected. I did read to the end.

Wendi said...

"We can't make people learn until they realize that they need it" - that's the statement and the attitude I take issue with. I don't want to be a professional genealogist. I do it for fun. I don't "need" to do anything. It's a hobby, for my own entertainment only. If I'm satisfied that my source of information is legitimate, that's enough for me. I don't need to master genealogical proof, or anything else genealogical - I'm an amateur, and that's fine with me. I don't need to explain my evidence to anyone but me. I know a lot of people who've been put off genealogy because they go on the internet and read all this stuff about the "right" way to do it. To each his own, I say. If you want to be an expert, great! More power to you. I salute you. Good for you to have the time and energy to take it to that level. I don't have the time, the energy, or more importantly, the desire, to be an expert. I just want to know who my folks are, and have fun finding out. Certainly there is room in this wonderful world for all of us, at all levels, without making some of us feel like we "need" to be doing anything other than what brings us satisfaction and pleasure in the endeavor. Just my .02. :)

T said...

Well said, Wendi. I have learned to be more careful with citing only because I have had too many occasions where I wanted to see the information again and I had no idea where I had gotten it. I learned to cite well enough that I could find it.

The online trees. Some are good and some not so good. Even if it isn't cited but I recognize all the names, I'm likely to use it to help me. I do have to say there are very few that I have used. But when you hit that bonanza! Yowzers! Jackpot! I will always be grateful to who ever posted their tree all over the internet that included George and Elbridge Walker. I still run across it at new places. I have a little updated info I would like to share with them but no way to do it.

Diana Ritchie said...

Absolutely read it all and loved every word. This is my favorite post on the subject. I, too, find that being a life-long learner the way to go. We are all at different spots along that path and I've always found that those ahead of me to be so willing to help.