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Kimberly Powell

The Good Genealogist vs. the Educated Genealogist

By January 15, 2013

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Now I know that title may sound a bit snobbish, but please bear with me here. This week marks my third year in attendance at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, where I'm a both a student in German: Advanced Tools and Methods and a co-coordinator for the Advanced Evidence Analysis Practicum, as well as an instructor in the Internet Genealogy course. While I'm honored and excited to be here, it was only a few years ago that I paid little attention to genealogical institutes. I'm primarily a self-educated genealogist, as most of us are. I taught myself how to research my family history by reading books, such as Helen Leary's treasure North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History (the 1980 edition), writing letters, scrolling through microfilm, and asking a lot of questions (probably too many!) at various archives, libraries, and court houses. As I'm now reviewing some of my research from back then (way back then!), I'm proud to see that even without a fancy genealogical education, I was a good genealogist. My research was fairly thorough, although there were still many record types with which I still wasn't familiar. My connections between generations still hold up, although I am now having to go back and write up my genealogical conclusions. Yes, my source citations were a bit lacking (e.g. "1880 census, NC" or "story from Mama"), but I also have yet to find someone on my family tree who doesn't belong there. Even then I understood the value of land and probate records, although I only looked at the ones which related directly to my family. Yes, my family tree from 20 years ago is a bit ragged around the edges, but darn it...I was a good genealogist!

Things changed for me, however, while sitting in a classroom listening to Elizabeth Shown Mills during the summer of 2010. I was attending my very first institute course--Course 4: Advanced Methodology and Evidence Analysis at Samford's Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research--and it is in that class, I think on day 4, that the light bulb finally clicked on in my head. I learned not only how to research, but also how to analyze, to correlate, to challenge, to think... I took the leap from being a good genealogist, to being an educated genealogist, and have never looked back.

Whether you've been researching for two years or twenty, there is always more to learn. To be the best genealogist you can, it is imperative that you keep up with the latest methodology, standards and available records. Plus, there's the benefit of being continually challenged by discussions and interaction with your instructors and fellow genealogists. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a good genealogist. But, I can promise you that it is much more fun and rewarding after you take the leap to becoming an educated genealogist. It's not just about where the comma goes in a particular citation, or when to use an "em dash" or "en dash" in your genealogical writing. It's about being the best genealogist you can be.

As interest in genealogy increases, a number of degree and certificate options have become available, both online and off. When you also include individual course offerings and genealogical institutes, it's amazing how many quality genealogy education programs are available these days for individuals looking to further their education and experience. Even for those who can't afford to take a class, there are hundreds of genealogical case studies, podcasts and video presentations available for ongoing free genealogy education. Registration for the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research (IGHR) at Samford opens next week and many courses will fill within minutes - so mark your calendars!

Of course, while genealogical research is rewarding in itself, it is always nice to receive a little financial support for your endeavors. To this end, a number of genealogical scholarships, awards, grants and fellowships are available to help applicants hoping to attend a genealogical conference or institute, to honor excellence in genealogical writing or research, or to support research projects of benefit to the genealogical community. Here are a few genealogy competitions and scholarships to get you started!

January 15, 2013 at 10:42 am
(1) Anne Tanner says:

It’s already more than a full-time job. How on earth do you find the time to attend all the classes as well? Or would you advise taking your own genealogy as far as you can and then starting classes to improve it?

January 15, 2013 at 8:40 pm
(2) Kenneth R Marks says:

Interesting article, Kimberly. I think however, that there is a disconnect here. There are probably more than a million people in the US researching their family history. I think for the great majority to strive to be a “good” genealogist certainly would improve the state of family history research in this era of an abundance of unsubstantiated and poorly documented trees.

It is not everyone’s goal to be an “educated” genealogist” as you define it. That is not the mountaintop for many, if not most. They seek fun, a sense of connection with their ancestors, and the ability to share with their relatives some family stories from decades past.

Not all folks have the time, the inclination, the funding, or even the time here on earth to be at the level that you define as an “educated” genealogist. And that level is certainly an admirable goal for the few who aspire. And I am not espousing stopping learning.

And can we stop insinuating that the most learned and experienced genealogist is the “best” genealogist? It may be true in the academic sense, but show me a person who has incredible fun and passion for their somewhat “diminished” goals, one who is uncovering terrific family stories and has the evidence to back it up – and to me that is a “good” genealogist and that is “good” enough for me.


January 15, 2013 at 11:58 pm
(3) Brian says:

Interesting thoughts. I feel a bit envious that some have the time and means to attend conferences, workshops, and institutes. I’d love to do that. But with a young family, a full time job, religious responsibilities, and community roles to fill, I’m just thankful that I can carve out two to three hours a week to search out census records and vital records and to try to make sense if those. As the need arises, I hunker down and learn about a new resource. I’ll admit, I’m having a great time, but I do hope to continually improve, and in time, become a more educated genealogist.

January 20, 2013 at 6:15 pm
(4) Mike F says:

[note: part one of comment due to size restrictions]

Mr. Marks,

There is a disconnect in what you said. You denigrate the concept of equating “best” (or maybe the right term is “better”) genealogical practices with learning and education, and then espouse the view that “good” is “good enough”, which clearly acknowledges some lack of learning, whether self-learning or via formal courses.

More importantly, you make the implicit assumption that “good enough” is in fact enough to enjoy genealogical research. Which may be true for some folks for a while. But once you hit the inevitable brick walls in the usual time periods (generally Revolution to 1840 for American lines), and which cannot be completed just from an unbroken line of church records where a family lived in the same place for a couple hundred years (often found for German immigrants once you get across the sea), then it simply takes more knowledge of records and skills of evidence analysis and correlation where multiple records have to be used to prove a generational connection.

January 20, 2013 at 6:15 pm
(5) Mike F says:

[part 2 of comments]

Now if you are content to merely research your lines to a point well short of where the records give out and that is “good enough” for you, then fine. That is your choice to be happy for whatever results you can get with less effort and knowledge. But from my own perspective, the really big moments come from using more advanced knowledge and skills and busting through a brick wall that no one else researching the line has ever gotten through.

Regarding your comments about the time and travel required for attending courses, which the comment following yours also made, I am in the same boat. For reasons of family responsibilities, I cannot attend those courses and conferences though I would love to. What I do instead, and which others with the inclination can as well, is to use alternate sources to achieve the same effect. Studying Greenwood’s “Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy”, various other books on specific record types and research methodology, and through study of case studies found in peer reviewed journals like the National Genealogy Society Quarterly and others, and listening to conference seminar recordings (available for purchase on JAMB’s website) I have on my own learned a great deal of what is covered in those covered in those courses. Plus there are online mail lists that are great references as well.

Again, the choice of what is “good enough” in both learning and results is a personal one. But there is a connection between such learning and better results, once one gets past the most recent few generations, at least for typical American lines that go back toward the Revolution or earlier.

January 20, 2013 at 6:23 pm
(6) John says:

“Now I know that title may sound a bit snobbish”

January 24, 2013 at 3:51 pm
(7) Kenneth R Marks says:

Well, Mike F – apparently you totally missed my point. My point, although not explicitly stated is this habit of some of the more experienced researchers to label the less experienced, often with a negative tone. This is not a competition and that is my point.

And your big moments are yours – they are not mine. Being the first to break through a brick wall for you might be a big moment to you, but breaking through a brick wall may not be for me.

In my previous life I worked with many PHD’s. Just because they had more education didn’t necessarily make them more valuable. Some couldn’t find anything with a flashlight.

I repeat – give me someone who is enjoying their pursuit of their family history and evidencing their claims. That may be good enough for them. It doesn’t make them a lesser being than anyone else.

January 24, 2013 at 8:56 pm
(8) MikeF says:

Mr. Marks,

While I take your point as far the manner/tone in which one compares differing genealogical skills among people, it still remains on an absolute basis that there is a difference, and that it matters a lot as to what results those differing skill sets can produce. And whether someone with lesser knowledge and skills can be happy with almost certain lesser results was not the point of Kimberly’s posts, but rather that everyone can attain those skills and have better results.

Although you mention evidencing claims, for those with lesser skills that most often means only citing documents that explicitly state a relationship. Obviously it is important to make such proper citations to one’s proofs. But as I said above, to prove more complicated cases where no single document states such a relationship, it takes more knowledge and skills to produce such proof (i.e. the citation is not to one document but rather to a proof argument which cites multiple documents and contains an analysis of those records).

So while those with lesser knowledge and skills should not be denigrated for their current state of such learning, merely stating the difference between levels of education and showing a path for a self-learner to achieve better education with attendant better results, is not denigrating at all.

February 12, 2013 at 5:05 pm
(9) emily says:

Coming a bit late to this discussion. It is very sad that there are many who think education or curiosity or indeed, excellence in any form is “elitist” and therefore bad, or even un-American. Genealogy is just one field where I see it – and that baffles me. Why wouldn’t you want to do the best job you can do, to get the facts right on YOUR own family? The people who say “Well, it’s just for me, just my family” are the very ones who post their un-sourced, imaginative, and frequently just downloaded unquestioningly family “trees” on the Internet for all to see and of course, download themselves. The man who worked with the PhD’s, I sense is a little defensive. Yes sometimes people with letters after their names can be boorish or overbearing, but they probably would have been that way had they been ditch-diggers. Be the best you can be and do the best you can do, whatever you choose. There are intelligent onsite discussions of genealogy where people are not just endlessly asking for “info”, where people discuss HOW to research, WHERE to find records, and how to read them, once found. Most of the brick walls my clients bring to me are easily crumbled. And yes, it’s fun, even when not my own family.

Remember, intelligent, educated people need understanding, too. We have to tolerate the dolts.

February 28, 2013 at 9:28 pm
(10) tmcnamara1962 says:

Mark F and Emily = Sounds like Genealogy is best left to the experts. “The really big moments come from using more advanced knowledge and skills”. Wow – maybe I should stop researching my family history right now and lay my crown at your feet.

March 27, 2013 at 12:35 pm
(11) ~Kimberly says:

tmcnamara1962 — I don’t think anyone here is saying that genealogy is best left to the experts. I know that I am not. The point of my post was that we all have room to learn, grow, and improve. The skills I have obtained through continuing genealogical education (much of it self-study) have allowed me to make genealogical connections that I just couldn’t see 20 or even 10 years ago. Sometimes the answers to your brick walls are just waiting to be discovered in the research you have already done, and continuing to advance your knowledge and methodologies can only help these discoveries come faster.

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