Last week, DearMYRTLE wrote about a concept that was brought up in the chat for her ProGen Study Group: “Primary Care Genealogists.” This is how she described it in her blog:
Professional genealogists are quite capable in specific areas of expertise. Certification from BCG and/or accreditation from ICapGen reflect one’s focus. But if you take that genealogy professional and put him in a new locality, he becomes a newbie all over again.
The same is true in other fields, and Cheryl was spot-on when considering highly competent, educated and well-trained medical professionals. I wouldn’t think of going to a gynecologist if my heart needed a triple bypass.
So, in the world of genealogy shouldn’t we recognize “primary care genealogists” who can oversee the general health of your compiled family history and point to weaknesses in supporting documents, providing suggestions for further research? Just as my “primary care physician” refers me to a specialist for my heart, so too, can “primary care genealogists” refer us to specialists in the field.
This is an interesting concept, but I would take this quite a bit further. Professional genealogists, like all genealogists, of course have their own geographic (or other) areas of greatest experience. But this should not be a limitation. In my opinion, all genealogists should study at least two subjects: their specialty, and genealogy research.
Let me explain in a little more depth.
Suppose you specialize in New York German genealogy. You have been researching the area for 20+ years. You know about all of the available records. You are familiar with the families, the laws, the local history, etc. You become an “expert” in this area.
But you have a project that takes you out of that comfort zone, let’s say to a Norwegian immigrant family in South Dakota, or an enslaved African-American family in Mississippi. Do you throw your hands in the air and stomp off frustrated? Not if you have been studying genealogy research as well. You will understand the importance of how to conduct research.
Whether you are researching New York Germans, South Dakota Norwegians, or Mississippi slaves, the research methodology is the same. The applicable records, laws, history, culture, etc., may be entirely different, but that is all that has changed. Researching the area enough to discover the differences is relatively easy compared to the process of really learning to research.
Consider, for example, the following:
- Land records. Whether you are dealing with “state land” or “federal land,” colonial patents, military bounty land, or late 19th century homesteads, or even non-landowners, how you use land records (and other property records) to discover genealogical evidence remains a general principle applicable to all. Only the specifics change.
- Tax records. Depending on what state and what era you are researching, tax laws may be quite different. What items were taxed, who was taxed, and how the tax lists appear may vary greatly. But again, the general principles are the same, and it is only the specifics that change.
- Probate records. The probate process, and how each step was recorded, can be radically different from state to state and time period to time period. Whenever you are researching a new area, you will have to familiarize yourself with this information. But if you truly understand the general principles surrounding these records, and how to use them, you will not have to completely “start from scratch.”
- Associates. Checking the close associates and neighbors of our ancestors is another general principle that carries over, across geographic and chronological boundaries. Precisely who these associates and neighbors were will change, but the idea that you will have to research in this direction stays the same.
Learning how to research is therefore as important, if not more important, than learning about your specialty. This includes learning how to search for information, how to find records, how to identify the information held within individual records, how to evaluate the reliability of information, how to reconcile contradictory information, and how to create a proof argument from the sum total of the evidence. Learning these principles is so much more useful than learning everything there is to know about just one area of research. These principles will carry over from one state or country to another.
So in this sense, shouldn’t all genealogists be “primary care genealogists,” first and foremost? And specialists only afterwards?