Leaving Genealogical Adolescence: A Prescription For Our Professionals

—Roger Scanland1

Most professional disciplines, particularly those in which reserach plays a mafor role, consist basically of a large body of practitioners who obtain edification and “currentness” from a small scattering of “frontiersment.” A frontiersman, in this sense, is one who stands at the demarcation line between knowledge and ignorance, and either pushes that line outward by performing experiments and sharing the results, or who at least is shining the light of inquiry into the darkness, searching for landmarks by which to plot a course.

The field of genealogical research, like other disciplines, also consists mainly of two groups. The composition of these groups, however, is different due to the fact that genealogical research often stems from less urgent interests than those which motivate other professions. The field of genealogy, in consequence, is composed of:

1.A large body of laymen who pursue genealogy as a hobby, or in the case of the Latter-day Saints, because of religious tenets. Normally the layman is concerned primarily with lineage research, secondarily with publishing the results of his research, and occasionally with publishing local genealogical source records.
2.A small number of professionals who specialize in paid lineage research, or who in a very few cases are engaged in related pursuits such as genealogical librarianship or the teaching of courses in genealogy at the college level.

In the United States, most professional genealogists have risen from the ranks of the layman through continuing refinement of their own research technique. There is also a smaller but growing number of younger professionals fortunate enough to have received formal genealogical instruction.

A very few of our professionals have been frontiersmen in their field. That is, they have been not only skilled genealogical craftsmen, but also Inquirers, willing to put forth the time and effort to think creatively in areas which have not seemed to lend themselves to such restructuring, and willing also to share their findings with the profession at large.

Up to this point the genealogical frontiersman has been a much rarer breed than his counterpart in other disciplines. This is a direct result of the shortsightedness common among professional genealogists particularly in the United States. Our professionals in the vast majority of cases are not meeting their potential, often do not appear to know how they can develop their potential to the fullest, and do not appear to realize that most of their genealogical contributions are characterized by a limited scope unworthy of the serious professional. This is evident when a person’s professional activity, aside from paid lineage extension, consists mainly of involvement in layman-oriented genealogical societies, or the compilation of research aids of comparatively limited significance.

We are not suggesting that the field has no need for reference works of less than universal significance. Nor are we implying that layman-oriented genealogical organizations are in any way undesireable or “inferior” or that professionals should avoid involvement in them. (One of our field’s virtues is the willingness of our professionals to so involve themselves.) Neither are we suggesting that all professionals should become genealogical frontiersmen. We do suggest the need for professional genealogists to take a broader view of what professionalism entails.

In most professions a researcher is characterized by his awareness of the need to stay abreast of current developments and trends by examining significant journal and monographic literature in his own and realted disciplines. This awareness is usually ingrained during this training, by professors who use current journal and other literature in their teaching, who require the student to make use of such literature, and who emphasize the advantages of using it throughout one’s professional life. The researcher’s education should also be characterized by an orientation to the basic needs of the profession, and a personal commitment to help the profession meet those needs.

Such an approach has not characterized the genealogical profession up to this point. Only the routine process of extending and verifying pedigrees has been emphasized in the United States, even in the few colleges and universities which offer courses in genealogy. Nor have those professionals who have entered the field from other disciplines introduced such an approach. As a result we have developed very few professionals in the fullest sense of the term. This is evident in several regards.

First, a great need exists for dialogue and cooperation between professional genealogists. In this regard the United States is worse off than any other major genealogically active country. We have no organized general association of professional genealogists.2 In this regard we would do well to learn a lesson from our laymen, who not only have organized themselves into genealogical societies with breathtaking rapidity in recent years, but who now have the Federation of Genealogical Societies,3 an organization which, like the nationwide genealogical federations in England, Germany and elsewhere, promises to give even greater focus and unity to the efforts of the layman.

Second, there is an almost utter lack of independent research into genealogical methodology, which we should be developing just as historians are developing the field of historical methodolgy.

Third, there is an obvious need for a central clearinghouse which can provide information on scholarly research projects in progress. One of the goals of the Federation of Genealogical Societies is to provide such a service in regard to the types of projects usually undertaken by the layman — compilation of genealogies, transcriptions of genealogical source records, indexing projects, etc. Some of the Federation’s proposed areas of inquiry are more specialized; however, since almost all genealogical societies are composed primarily of laymen and have their interests at heart, it is likely that the Federation will be oriented toward, and focus primarily upon the needs of the layman. For the professional another sort of catalyst is required if highly specialized or technical genealogical projects, particularly those requiring years of scholarly research, are to be completed successfully.

Fourth, there is a great need to determine the profession’s underlying needs and to address our efforts toward meeting those needs. When this is done, some very basic voids will be discovered. For example, we previously mentioned the dearth of critical research into genealogical methodology. One reason for that deficiency is the lack of published tools by which such research could be facilitated. Specifically, there is a crying need for a comprehensive multilingual index which deals with methodology and trends — a publication which could serve the needs of our professionals as Index Medicus serves the medical profession, or as Library Abstracts aids the field of library and information science.

Many other such needs could be cited. Yet our professionals persist for the most part in publishing works of limited or localized scope. We must face up to the need to leave the compiling of such works to those who live in areas where in-depth genea-bibliographic research is not feasable, and to those who presently lack the background for projects of greater scope. Otherwise the most basic genealogical tools will continue to be conspicuous by their absence, and both the individual and the profession will continue to suffer the consequences.

Fifth, the majority of our professionals are deficient in the area of professional advancement through continuing education. College courses in subjects such as library science, geography, sociology, history, historiography, writing, speed reading and foreign languages, not mention genealogy per se, can sometimes be taken by correspondence as well as on campus.4 Yet few of us take advantage of such opportunities.

Finally, our discipline is characterized by a lack of informal professional tradition. While not as serious, this condition too is symptomatic of professional malnutrition. An example: in all likelihood we will eventually see a Festschrift produced in momory of Karl Friedrich von Frank, Austria’s foremost genealogist and heraldist, who died in 1975. However, if a professional in this country were to propose a festschrift in honor of some porminent genealogist, most of us would have to scurry to the nearest dictionary to determine what was being proposed. The moral: ignorance of informal professional tradition causes us to lose additional opportunities to refine and share our ideas.

In this writer’s view, such are the most pressing general problems besetting our professionals. Several of the specialized needs of the professional genealogist will next be considered. We will emphasize those qualities required for the researcher to become a genealogical frontiersman, or in other words, a professional in the fullest sense.

Essential Qualities of the Frontiersman

Skill in Bibliographic Control.  

A person reaches the frontier by first learning about the already explored land and then travelling through it until he comes to the end of it. for the professional researcher, the first step in doing this is to familiarize himself with the published literature in the field of specialization, or in other words, to acquire bibliographic control. Several means of bibliographic control are often required in genealogy due to the present lack of compreshensive control tools. However, the would-be frontiersman can to a considerable degree get around this deficiency by learning of the available regional and national control tools and assembling them into a fairly serviceable intenational network of information sources. Most genealogically productive countries publish such tools in the form of annual or quarterly bibliographies which usually appear in the major genealogical periodicals.

Communication With Others.  

The second and very obvious means of gaining access to research in progress is to establish communication with fellow explorers. Many of those who “lead out” in genealogical projects are much more willing than might be supposed in regard to corresponding about serious research projects. Just as essential, but not necessarily capable of replacing correspondence, is verbal dialogue with those colleagues at hand. Researchers living in the world’s major genealogical centers are particularly fortunate, so far as they are willing to utilize such opportunities.

Participation in Conferences and Related Activities.  

Another essential aid to frontiersmanship is attending professional conferences, conventions and similar activities. Costly and time-consuming, this approach still has unparalleled advantages if the conferences and the meetings within them are carefully chosen, and in the process a person judiciously engages in conversations with other questors. If personal attendance is not feasable, the publishied proceedings of such convocations should be examined, supplemented where possible by input from others who were able to attend. The conventions do not necessarily have to be genealogical, either; helpful guidelines and “food for thought” can be obtained from meetings held by disciplines such as information storage and retrieval (particularly historiography). In fact, such an interdisciplinary approach to conference attendance will sometimes be more profitable for the genealogical frontiersman than would attending conferences in his own discipline. This unfortunate possibility is evidenced by the fact that while European genealogical conferences often include discussions on needful related topics, such as those jus mentioned, U.S. genealogical conferences consistently snub such an interdisciplinary approach and concentrate wholly on the everyday “nuts and bolts” aspects of extending pedigrees. In other words, our genealogical conferences have consistently ignored the needs of those professionals who are fully dedicated to professional growth. The only exception known to this writer is the World Conference on Records held in Salt Lake City in 1969 and supervised by Dr. Theodore M. Burton, president of the Genealogical Society of Utah, whose degree and background, significantly, are in chemistry.5

An Interdisciplinary Attitude.  

In order to maintain vitality in research, the genealogist must be somewhat interdisciplinary as just indicated. He must be such at least to the extent of being willing to learn from other disciplines and to apply that learning in creating new approaches to old problems. He can do this in part by the means just discussed, and by examining journals and monographs in related fields. Four “outside” journals which quickly come to mind are Prologue (the journal of the U. S. National Archives), Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Reference Quarterly or RQ (a library periodical), and Historical Methods Newsletter.6

This rule about being interdisciplinary has a rather obvious corollary: to remain at the fore front of research, a person must remain interdisciplinary. For example, if a person pursues only one phase of computer application, such as computerized indexing of genealogical records, he will soon find that the frontier has shifted and that other information storage, linkage and retrieval techniques have come to the forefront. This is not to say that a person, to be progressive, must always lead out. Many or most leaders in research eventually settle down to explore the ramifications of one promising line of research. Their subsequent contributions, arising from such a “secondary line of leadership” are often just as helpful as their initial discoveries, if sometimes less spectacular. We simply encourage such leaders in the field of genealogy to remain aware of what is going on outside their immediate sphere of interest, and would encourage the many gifted genealogical craftsmen who are not now conductiong independent research in critical areas to consider advancing both themselves and the profession as a whole by involvement in such research.

An International Attitude.  

Most professional genealogists, particularly the better ones, tend to specialize in the records of one particular country, or in the records of the U.S. and of “the fatherland.” Such specializatioon is desirable if specific lineage research problems are to be effectively solved. However, just as a frontiersman in medicine would not think of ignoring research being conducted in other countries, likewise the genealogist, whether a frontiersman or one who devontes himself to being a skilled craftsman, will suffer if he ignores genealogical developments, trends, and activities as announced in the genealogical literature of countries other than his own or “the fatherland.” Without realizing it, he will develop a comparatively restricted or provincial viewpoint. The genealogist who is acquainted with one or more foreign languages will quickly understand this, having experienced the fact that some concepts are more easily or more graphically expressed in languages other than his own. A second reason for genealogists to drink at foreign fountains of knowledge is that many European countries have been refining genealogical techniques for hundreds of years. This not only means that more sophisticated solutions to some problems have been developed in other countries, but also that there are often subtle but significant differences in the basic approach toward a given type of genealogical problem. The genealogist who assimilates these differences will more easily develop the ability to restructure his own approach to genealogical problems, whether they be lineage research problems or more general problems affecting the entire structure of genealogical endeavor.

Commencing the Quest

How does a person choose and pursue an area of independent research? What research topics are truly worthwhile? How can a person select an area suited to his own knowledge and capabilities? Although the answers to these questions will be essentially personal, we can give an example which demonstrates how one’s thinking can evolve in this regard.

An individual can begin by asking two questions: “What does the field of genealogy need the most? What can I do to help fill this void?” Many answers to these deceptively simple questions will come to the surface, and one’s answers to these questions will chage over a period of time. Several years ago this writer began compiling a bibliography of U.S. census indexes. This project was later abandoned when another person published a fairly good list. Consideration was then given to creating a guide to the major types of U.S. genealogical records, arranged by political jurisdiction (state, county, and major cities). This long-term project proved more than his budget would bear, as extensive trips throughout the country would have been require, and he next considered creating an in-depth guide to genealogical research in his home state. However, after doing some groundwork in that regard, he sat down one day and attempted to “think through” the basic genealogical research process as practiced in the U.S. This was response to a problem which American professional genealogists have long bewailed; the tendancy of laymen genealogists to compile lineages based largely on often unreliable printed genealogies, family tradition and other secondary sources, since these types of information are often more accessible than more reliable records. He then considered compiling a bibliography of published U.S. church records; one of the most worthwhile projects considered up to that point, and one still badly needed. However, he finally chose to compile an international union list of genealogical magazines (a union list is one which lists the libraries having compies of the periodicals, indicating which issues are available in each library).

This decision may seem unusual inasmuch as such a project may sound too specialized or esoteric to benefit many genealogists. The decision was made for the follwoing reasons: 1) such a list, being international in scope, would be of value to more people than the other projects considered, 2) this type of list is badly needed to help provide bibliographic control of genealogical serials, 3) it should encourage the compilation of other much-needed research tools, such as a cumulative index to U.S. genealogical periodicals, and 4) it was felt improbable that anyone else would create such a work in the foreseeable future due to the complex combination of background and resources required.

By analyzing the evolution of this thought process we can isolate the following questions, some explicit and some implicit, which were encountered:

1. What research tools dones the field really need the most?
2. Why are they needed more than other tools which could be developed?
3. What research process can be devised to create such a tool?
4. What background or knowledge is required?
5. Am I weak in some areas where background is required? If so, must I obtain the needed knowledge or skills beforehand, or can they be gained en route?
6. Are the necessary research materials available locally or obtainable through interlibrary loan or purchase?
7. How long will the project take? Is the time available?
8. Is it likely that someone else is already conducting research in this area, and that the result of such research will be of such scope and quality as to render my project unnecessary?
9. What will be the cost, and are the funds available or obtainable?
10. Once the tool is created, how can it be marketed to most effectively reach those who need it?

Obstacles To Professional Growth

The genealogist seeking greater professional depth and scope is in a position similar to the dedicated teacher or librarian who generally has found the quest for professional growth to be an uphill road from virtually any viewpoint. Unlike the teacher or librarian, however, the professional genealogist in many cases is a part-time practitioner, obliged to support a family by outside means. Thus the author has no illusion that the actions recommended in this study will be easy for the individual to accomplish, or that the profession’s corporate needs can be solved overnight. Much depends on the willingness and ability of the indivual professional to sacrifice some time and money, neither of which are noted for abundance among professional genealogists. The individual who is fully committed to professional growth soon finds that some reordering of priorities is periodically required.

A Possible Solution

Part of the reason the obstacles to professional growth seem to loom so large is that the profession has not organized itself on a large enough scale to satisfactorily cope with them. The time obviously has come for America’s professional genealogists to set aside other interests long enough to organize themeselves into a professional body; and association of American genealogists, which could be comprised of all certified or accredited genealogists whishing to join. As a beginning, such an organization could sponsor a symposium on obstacles to professional growth. Such an activitiy could do much to clarify the problems and generate some constructive approaches. Following this the organization could help alleviated the problems over a period of time by conducting seminars in which constructive solutions to professional obstacles could be presented and refined, or by circulating such information in printed form. Another helpful step would be the periodic award of a prize, either honorary or financial for the greatest published contribution to the profession by an individual — a Nobel Prize in genealogy, as it were. The object of such an award would be to encourage the compiling of those research aids designed to help other professionals make the best use of their client-subsidized time. The end result, hopefully, would be to free professionals to a greater extent for independent serious research projects.

Such actions on an organized basis, combined with individual efforts by our professionals, may well be the only way for our profession to mature from its present adolescent state and take its place alongside the other “serious” disciplines — a position much needed, but up to this point, one which we have not entirely deserved.


1Senior Catologer, U.S./Canada Department, Genealogical Society Library, Salt lake City, Utah; contributor to various professional genealogical journals. Address: 7940 West 3320 South, Magna, UT 84044

2At present the American Society of Genealogists, headquarted in Washington, D.C., is this country’s only association of professional genealogists. This organization, which is limited to fifty members, which are elected to fellowship, has concentrated primarily on upgrading standards for professional genealogists through its Board of Certification of Genealogists. It also is sponsoring the landmark series of handbooks entitled Genealogical Research. (Two volumes have been released thus far at approximately ten year intervals.)

3The Federation of Genealogical Societies was organized in June 1975. Address: 333 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1500, Chicago, IL 60601. The first issue of their Newsletter was published in January 1976.

4For example, several correspondence courses in genealogy are offered by Brigham Young University. A catalog giving details is available from: Department of Special courses and conferences, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602.

5The annual Priesthood Genealogy Seminar held at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah since 1966, also includes some information helpful to the professional, although the majority of classes are geared toward the beginner or the advanced layman.

6At present there is no periodical or serial literature which, to any extent, addresses itself to genealogical application of computer technology. The foremost English-language data processing periodicals are probably Datamation and Data Processing. These publications, however, are primarily concerned with implementing hardware (the machinery) rather than software (application of the machinery to specific problems). Historical Methods Newsletter, already mentioned, may sometimes be helpful. In the field of library and information science, the periodicals which come closest to helping in this regard are probably Journal of Library Automation, Library Trends, and UNESCO Bulletin for Libraries. all combined, however, such publications do not provide a suitable framework within which the genealogist-turned-programmer can work to devise genealogical software. Unfortunately, the monographic literature dealing with genealogical software is likewise comparatively limited value. such material almost invariably limits itself to the methodology of producing indexes, or sometimes lists of family members, and even in these areas a broad knowledge of software is rarely evident. One exception in the related field of historiography should be mentioned. E. A. Wrigley’s Identifying People in the Past (London, Edward Arnold, 1973) provides a mind-expanding introduction to the tentative reconstruction of family units through nominal record linkage, an application of computer science which is far different (and admittedly much more experimental) than the usual genealogical application of computer technology. However, except for such material, the genealogist concerned with computer software must adapt monographic literature not designed with genealogists or historians in mind.