Saturday, 31 August 2013

Are we a Genealogical Community?

Thomas MacEntee has reopened the subject of ‘the state of the genealogical community’ at: house-divided-house-doors. This is a frequent talking point with well-voiced opinions on all sides debating our similarities, differences, talents, and ethics. Despite there having been a number of recent threads on this subject, Thomas has invited bloggers to present their considered thoughts.

It has probably never been the case that genealogy only consisted of genealogical researchers. In earlier times, transcribers, archivists, librarians, etc., were deemed to have their own disciplines, irrespective of whether they contributed to genealogy. However, genealogy has many more facets now, and we have a very diverse set of participants as a result. A large number relate to the application of IT and the mushrooming technological support. This includes software designers, software vendors, data standards, those digitising records, and online content providers. A large number result from the hobbyists, and especially those taking advantage of the increased availability of data online. There are also more writers now, including bloggers and those writing for the popular magazines. Are we a community, though? This doesn’t have a black-and-white answer.

One very emotive subject that we need to move beyond is that of licensing our industry. There are those - primarily in the US - who strongly believe that genealogical research should be licensed, and that this will guarantee a more reliable level of professionalism. In all industries, though, licensing is designed purely to create a differential. In fields such as law or medicine, this is essential because of the serious damage that can be caused by a sloppy effort. This doesn’t mean that such cases can never happen but it does mean that they would incur serious repercussions. In other words, a licence comes with a huge level of responsibility. In our field, that differential would be misplaced, and it would work against the concept of a single community. You only have to look at the logistical practicalities such as researchers looking at records in other states, or other countries, and foreign researchers looking at US records, in order to appreciate that it cannot work.

Although there are grey areas, a professional (noun) is widely held to be someone engaged in an activity for financial gain, such as their main paid occupation. To be professional (adjective) is taken to be conformance to the technical or ethical standards of a profession. Someone engaged without financial gain, though, is often consider to be an amateur but then that doesn’t accurately represent people working for non-profit organisations or academics. The root of many of these discussions is the specific activity of paid genealogical research, and we should not lose sight of that focus when we make recomendations.

What we do have is a series of courses and qualifications around the world, including the BCG certification. In any field, qualifications indicate that you’re serious about a subject, and that you’ve put in time and effort to study and have reached an accepted level of expertise. It’s true that someone could have invested the same effort independently, or they may have a lifetime of experience, but without having received any qualification. In effect, a course, or wherever your experience and expertise came from, is separate from a qualification. However, those letters after your name are telling your prospective clients about your attitude to your subject. In professions where you are contracted by companies, your track record, and even word-of-mouth, can be more important than qualifications but personal clients need an upfront indication to assess you by. I strongly believe that innate talents, and especially personal commitment, also play an important role but those courses and qualifications are good things and must be supported.

An inevitable question is whether qualifications lead to elitism. In all walks of life there will be people who wear their qualifications or uniform as a status symbol; people who expect to be judged solely by these adornments rather than by what they say and do. This is human nature and cannot be avoided. Luckily, it is rare and it should not be considered an inherent consequence of there being qualifications, or it being especially associated with our field. A more likely situation works in reverse and involves people assuming that qualifications automatically mean you must be right. This can easily be interpreted as your conclusions being The Truth rather than the result of a reasoned analysis of available evidence. Just as in pure science, theories may be replaced by better theories, or revised in the light of new evidence. No one is ever guaranteed to be right.

Maybe the term ‘community’ is misleading because we are so very diverse in the parts we play. It’s really a case of circles within circles since there will always be different ways that we can specialise. What we don’t need are artificial barriers, or sleights from one of those circles to another such as between genealogical researchers and software designers. Those circles are not mutually exclusive and so unhelpful remarks can actually become totally wrong where people have a foot in more than one camp. Just for a moment, let’s try looking outwards from our ‘community’ rather than inwards. Genealogy and family history, irrespective of whether you consider them to be the same or different, are part of the bigger circle of micro-history alongside One-Name Studies, One-Place Studies, personal historians (as in APH), house histories, etc. It would be rare for any us to have never crossed into those fields. Micro-history, in turn is part of history in general. One of my first blog-posts was to recount the experiences of Dr Nick Barratt when he suggested this relationship to a conference of academic historians: Are Genealogists Historians Too?. The reaction is a perfect example of what we don’t want.

I believe there is a sea change about to take hold of genealogy, and it may take some people by surprise. I feel the traditional focus on family trees, and even family history, will be replaced by an insatiable public appetite to reclaim our public history. This will include the histories of our towns and villages, personal recollections, recordings, narrative, etc. I totally agree with Dr Barratt that these histories are essential for the general appreciation of history by ordinary people. Unfortunately, there is an absolute dearth of software support to help people in this direction. Currently in the UK, TV program makers are beginning to see that “real history” is more accessible than celebrity history or academic history. Very soon, our circles are going to get a whole lot bigger so let’s get things in perspective!