I have lately being taking stock of what I have been doing with respect to family history research. When I got started many years ago I just really wanted to know more about my ancestors and where they came from. My mother’s sister had spent many decades looking for information – in courthouses, government archives, museums and libraries, and from corresponding with many relatives. By the 1970s she had compiled an impressive amount of information about her ancestral (my maternal) lines, much of which has stood the test of time and more detailed analyses.
I wanted to do something similar for my paternal side, starting with my grandfather and great-grandfather who had emigrated from England in the early 20th century. A great deal of data was just becoming available online which helped. Joining the Devon Family History Society gave me a boost in knowing where information was stored and who to talk with. I bought numerous publications about the areas where the family originated and dozens of microfiche of parish records that would allow me to actually see the BMD and other entries. That stuff was not online then and, with the help of several other people, we have transcribed thousands of BMD entries and hundreds of census pages. I volunteered as an Online Parish Clerk (OPC) for four Devon parishes. An OPC is someone who collects information about a parish and assists others by providing such information to help them in their family research. I still use the fiche and the transcriptions as part of that service.
I took several courses dealing with data sources and the how-tos of analyzing information. I thought about becoming a professional genealogist. I even set up a consulting business and helped a few people flesh out their family lines and answer some questions they had about their origins. But it has never become a serious, full-time occupation.
I started writing articles for publication in various journals, based on my own research, case histories, methodologies I had used and my experiences as an OPC. I have had the responsibility of editing two local genealogical society journals, in the process coming into contact with many others engaged in genealogical activities and learning even more about data gathering and evaluation. I have met many friendly and knowledgeable people, both locally and internationally, who are dedicated to research and assisting others.
Unfortunately I learned, too, about problems common to many volunteer societies:
· declining enrollments due in part to the expansion of databases online and the lack of relevance of local societies to modern-day researchers;
· management problems in the organizations resulting from people being in controlling positions for too long and not attracting new faces to join or replace them;
· the usual cliques of people used to associating only within their small groups and unwilling to look at changes or improvements to their larger organizational structure; and
· the slowdown of activities associated with an aging membership and a burnout from people taking on too many jobs.
Too many of the negative aspects, a resistance to new and progressive initiatives and a basic lack of overall support and acceptance of ideas resulted in me leaving my latest post as a journal Editor.
I have read a lot about the growth and development of activities and work associated with genealogical research. Many people have commented on the subject in numerous blogs and articles – highlighting the fact that two main groups seem to have developed:
· those that wish to pursue their searches as a hobby but with a serious intent to uncover stories about their ancestors; and
· those that see such activities in a more professional light, commenting on the need for rigorous rules concerning search methods, references and citations, and writing up results.
The President of a local society, in his recent report, commented on the “science” of genealogy, a term that really surprised me because I am a scientist by training and practice and, while I have been able to put to use many of my analytical skills, learned over decades working as a geologist, genealogy is not comparable with chemistry or physics, and their rigorous elemental relationships and rules.
Doing family history research is more correctly aligned with social studies – reading, compiling and analyzing what some people have written about other people and events in the past. Only one tool – DNA – is related to scientific enquiry and even the use of that information must also fit with data gained from historical records to be of any value. I am sorry but all this family history stuff is interesting and sometimes complicated, but “it ain’t rocket science!”
Other comments that struck me as defining where genealogical activities might be going were those of Billie Stone Fogarty, the President of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG). In a column in the latest issue of Quarterly, she commented about the need for and movement toward implementing requirements for APG membership specifically concerning continuing education. Up until now I thought that taking courses, reading articles and attending conferences was something that people should or might do to learn more about how to get the most out of their own family history research.
As a member of the APG I found their information of use with respect to projects I worked on for others but, again, mainly for the contacts and viewpoints of members in analyzing and evaluating information from historical records. This is not, to me, a professional organization along the lines of our own government-mandated association of engineers and geoscientists that has a role in maintaining the professional standards of those that work in those positions. The APG President’s words seem to reinforce the dichotomy that is growing in genealogy between those that work at it as a career and those that are just curious about their past.
I suspect the majority of people are in the latter group. While we like to know our information is accurate and most of us record our sources so that we can find them again or tell others, we are not necessarily going to publish them in a peer-reviewed journal or charge others fees for research services. More likely we are going to enjoy our efforts and use our knowledge and experience just to help others do their own research.
All of this leads me back to the subject of this piece. Where am I going to go now that I have no current or formal involvement with a family history society?
In my next post I will offer some thoughts and ideas on where I think my future is with respect to genealogy.