What is a professional genealogist?

I recently read two blog posts that inspired this post.

The first was “Why I Want to Remain an Amateur” at Greta’s Genealogy Blog. This is an absolutely wonderful post. Greta loves genealogy research, and desires to develop her research skills and abilities as much as possible, but has no desire to be paid for her genealogical activities. This post explains why not.

The second post was not new, but came through yesterday on Twitter. “APG at a Crossroads,” written by Mary E. Petty at the Heirlines blog. Ms. Petty, with her husband James W. Petty, AG, CG, run the “HEIRLINES Family History & Genealogy” professional genealogical research firm, based in Salt Lake City, Utah. This post was originally written in 2006, but continues to be promoted, as its appearance on Twitter yesterday attests.

This post begins,

I think the Association of Professional Genealogisis (APG) is at a crossroads – they have to decide what master they serve. Either the hobbyist: the self designated part -timer, and / or full timer; or the career practitioner: the professionally designated genealogist, qualified by the “professional’s only” track (professional genealogy education, training, experience, credentials, membership, continuing education, standardized business best practices with licensing and ethics) to serve the public as a professional genealogist?

Right now all of these groups are trying to have a piece of the consumer pie and this does not meet the number one objective of a professional business membership organization – to support the qualified practitioners and set standardized best practices, ethics, methodology, business standards etc, and behaviors to protect the qualified practitioner and the consumer.[1]

I strongly object to two points Ms. Petty raises:

(1) She asserts that only those genealogists who follow what she deems a “‘professional’s only’ track,” including “professional genealogy education, training, experience, credentials, membership, continuing education, standardized business best practices with licensing and ethics” are qualified to be considered professional genealogists. She specifically notes throughout the post that she defines a professional genealogist quite narrowly as one who conducts genealogy research for clients as their full-time career. Implicitly this excludes those whose main source of income is writing, lecturing, or some other aspect of genealogy, or those who conduct research for clients on a much more limited basis. It also explicitly excludes “the self designated part-timer, and/or full-timer.”

(2) She asserts that the Association of Professional Genealogists exists only to serve these “qualified” (by her definition) practitioners.

Currently, only a single accredited university in the United States offers a Bachelor’s degree program in Family History: Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah. Perhaps not coincidentally the Family History Library is in Salt Lake City, Utah. With access to the microfilmed records at the Family History Library and the degree program at Brigham Young, it seems quite natural for genealogists in Utah to qualify as “professional genealogists” under Ms. Petty’s definition. On the other hand, for genealogists elsewhere in the country, is is not quite that easy. If a researcher has limited access to records, he or she has limited potential for earning income solely on client research.

I am a full-time professional genealogist. I conduct research for clients about half of my working time. The rest of the time I write, publish, lecture, teach, etc. One hundred percent of my household income stems from my genealogical activities. If I only conducted client research, I might not be able to feed my family. But my income is supplemented by other sources.

Many professional genealogists are not full-time. They may have a full-time career outside of the field of genealogy. They may be retired from another career, but choose to conduct client research on a limited basis simply because they enjoy it. They may choose to research their own families only, and not conduct client research at all. But they are skilled researchers who write and lecture prolifically in order to teach others.

All of these are professional genealogists.

According to Ms. Petty, the APG should only serve “qualified” full-time career researchers. She asks in this post, “Why are they [the APG] unwilling to set maintain and regulate the criteria for membership in their organization and set the standards for designation as a ‘Professional Genealogist’?” She compares professional genealogists to “beauticians, teachers, CPA, Lawyers, and other similarly licensed (government-regulated) or professions that are self regulated.”

Professional genealogists, as a career field, do not resemble any of these licensed or regulated career fields that Ms. Petty names. The field most like professional genealogy, in my opinion, is freelance writing.

One does not have to have a degree in English or journalism to be a freelance writer. One does not have to be credentialed to be a freelance writer. One does not have to write 40 hours a week, and nothing else, to be a freelance writer. One’s sole qualification to be a freelance writer is that one can do the job that they are hired or paid to do. You must be able to write at a high level. Some people may be able to do this with no training whatsoever. Others may need formal education. But your value as a professional is judged by the quality of the product of your work, not by any other factors.

Likewise, one does not have to have a degree in family history or even history to be a professional genealogist. Formal or informal genealogical education (be it BYU’s program, one of the Institutes, attendance at a national conference, or participation in a Continuing Education program) definitely helps one learn the best advanced research techniques, but there are other ways that one can do the same independently. A professional genealogist does not have to conduct client research full-time. A professional genealogist does not have to be credentialed.

Like a freelance writer, the sole qualification to be a professional genealogist should be that one is able to perform the job that one is hired or paid to do. One must be able to perform the research. A professional genealogist’s value as a professional should be judged by the quality of the product of your work.

The Association of Professional Genealogists may be at a crossroads. But not because it should be limiting who can join. The APG should continue its policies of inclusivity rather than exclusivity.

However, the field of professional genealogy is changing. APG must be able to balance its focus. Its membership does not only consist of full-time career professional genealogists conducting research for clients. The organization now contains authors, lecturers, librarians, and many others whose income either in whole or in part comes from a field relating to genealogy. It cannot allow any one faction to control its policies, but instead recognize the diversity of its membership, and serve all of our needs.

I believe that the APG has done a fairly good job at accomplishing this goal. There is room for improvement, but I think it is moving in the right direction. It must continue to do so, and not allow narrow minds to limit its influence in the field of genealogy.

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10 responses to this post.

  1. Question: If this statement about APG was made in 2006 and you say they are still at a crossroads in 2011, are they simply treading water?

    Reply

    • I do not believe that they are treading water. To be clear, I did not say that they were at the same crossroads that Ms. Petty addressed in 2006. But what person or organization, especially in these quickly-changing times, only comes up against a single “crossroads”?

      Reply

  2. [...] Mr. Hait’s post this morning which discusses Mary Petty reminded me of my own post about her a couple of years ago. In it I pretty much dissected one of her posts about what makes a professional genealogist, and the results aren’t pretty. She is an example of someone in the genealogy pastime or profession that I cannot respect. Her posts were designed to lead other genealogists not to consult with others, but to drive business to her company by being rude to other genealogists, disrespectful of other professions, and using scare tactics. Scare tactics are an unethical business practice in any profession. Rudeness and disrespect are flat-out not nice. [...]

    Reply

  3. Thank you so much for your kind comment about my post and also for your thoughtful take on what makes a professional genealogist. One of the wonderful aspects of being a genealogy blogger is that I now know so many talented professionals, semi-professionals (by their own description), and amateurs in genealogy (some only on line, and a few in person). For some of the things I want to accomplish in the course of my genealogy research, I will quite likely need the services of a professional genealogist at some point, so it’s wonderful to “be connected.” As a translator, supervisor of translators, and tester of translators, I definitely judge the professional level of other translators by the quality of their product. The other thing that these two professions have in common is an insistence on certain style standards and on not jumping to unjustified conclusions (for us translators, this means not inserting things that were not in the original and not making comments without making it clear that it is the translator commenting and not the original author).

    Reply

  4. Hi, Michael,

    I read this same article on the Heirlines site via a Twitter link. I was so put off by the haughtiness of it. I am a professional genealogist because I follow industry standards and want to produce high quality results for myself and my clients. I am not yet certified, but am taking measures to eventually be so, but this does not make me any less of a professional. Ms. Petty lists experience as a qualifier, and though experience does help, if someone has years of experience only doing surface research adding names to his or her pedigree, then he or she is not a professional. If he or she can put flesh on the bones, however, that makes a much stronger case.

    Thank you for your calling out of this issue. I am still new to the professional field of genealogy and hadn’t quite found my voice at the time I read the article. From now forth I will take your lead and speak loud…enough for my ancestors to hear me!

    Angela Kraft
    Leaves of Heritage Genealogy

    Reply

  5. While I prefer to do all of my research on my own, I recognize that there are limitations to what I can do. Whether it’s because a repository is too far away or I don’t have the skills needed to accomplish what I want, I have considered hiring a professional genealogist for some things.

    If I had come across Ms. Petty’s post in my search for someone to hire, I would have been immediately turned away by the tone. It comes across as pompous and self-serving, like she’s setting herself up as one of the few professionals in the industry. She seems to forget that none of us were born a professional genealogist. We all started out as amateur hobbyists.

    To me, being a professional is about more than taking a specific education program, getting a degree or having certain initials behind your name. Even the best education program can’t teach you everything. They are limited by the length of the program and what the instructor chooses to teach. In some cases, a self-taught individual may actually know more than the professional, especially if they have years of experience to back it up.

    I also think there is also an implicit duty to educate. Some choose to do it through lectures or classes. Others publish articles, books or blogs. A few educate by helping at the local library or family history center. People like Ms. Petty don’t want the consumer educated because they mistakenly believe if the consumer knows what they’re doing, there’s no need for the so-called professional. What they fail to see is that even someone who knows what they’re doing will need help in certain areas.

    At this moment, I am self-taught. Everything I know about genealogy has come from reading books, blogs, magazines and articles; taking free courses and webinars online; attending genealogy conferences when my budget allows; and hands-on experience. Yes, I sometimes make mistakes, but every mistake I’ve made has taught me something.

    I would eventually like to take some of the professional level courses available and apply for certification, but I don’t think they are a requirement for being a professional. The caliber of my work and the way I interact with clients and other genealogists is where professionalism will show.

    Reply

  6. Michael,
    I agree 100% with what you have said. You and the commenters have made excellent points.

    Reply

  7. Posted by MikeF on November 13, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    Mr. Hait,

    A very nice post indeed. As someone who has lurked the APG lists when still public, and the TGF list, I have followed your progress to achieving your goal of a C.G., and congrats for that. In such lists one finds these professionalism debates ad nauseam, and I don’t doubt they still go on in private now. And on one side are always those like Mrs. Petty who seem to feel their own academic credentials and professionalism are marginalized by those who don’t follow the same learning path yet are able to meet the rigorous criteria set by the BCG or ICAPGEN.

    Thus it is they who seek to marginalize self-learners, when that is what the internet that they use to communicate is made for. The lamest action of a profession is seeking to use the government to erect barriers to entry. While medical and some professions may be the exceptions, genealogy, law and others should all be ones where someone can practice via passing tests alone, rather than also being paired with a certain academic path. If someone can pass the bar without going to law school and yet is not competent to practice, then something is wrong with the bar exams (although requiring a year apprenticeship with a licensed professional might be reasonable, i.e. reading the law).

    While Elizabeth Shown Mills has talked about the possible detriment of self-learning, namely lacking a systematic learning instead of one’s own deeper but narrow study of subjects, that too can be overcome by the self-learner, as she notes. ProGen + Greenwood + quarterly study + experience = same ability as a good academic program. Rather I should say, can equal. Just like an academic program can produce D students. Some people like/need/thrive on the structure of an academic program and the validation it gives them. But it is sad when they seek to impose their own choice on others.

    Re making a living full time from genealogy, you mention you might not be able to do it if you depended only on client work. Would you mind exploring that in a future post? While I realize that many pros depend on legal related work and the higher hourly rates it can command, or on lecturing and publishing as you do (which of course gives client work a marketing boost), is there really so little client work? While the economy has to impact what is for most a luxury perhaps, is it also perhaps a consequence of not adjusting hourly rates to that economy? Since I read your blog and website I have noticed that you raised your rate upon becoming a C.G., and to what is perhaps the median rate for a C.G. But if your rate were only $25/hour would you not only have 40 hours of client work per week, but even more by working more than 40 hour? I realize that this is a tradeoff and that the value of free time comes into play, but perhaps the rate/demand curve does not have a nice smooth slope but instead has a vertical dropoff from some rate range to a lower one.

    While in any business one might always be better off not competing on the basis of price, sometimes perhaps that is the only way to compete. I wonder too if there is not an unexpected consequence of professional rates charged by C.G./A.G.s being in the $35-50+ range, namely that those who charge in the $25 range (what seems to be the next most common range), benefiting from precisely being able to compete on price while claiming their experience and knowledge is as good as yours, albeit without a credential to show it. Note that while I think many without credentials who charge $25/hour are fully competent, there also seem to many who are not but charge $25 just because they can. Maybe if more credentialed pros competed on price the ranks would thin allowing a gradual rising of hourly rates again (and a profession with a larger percentage of credentialed pros). I realize that this economic subject is much more complicated that I make it out to be here. But it is interesting.

    Reply

  8. Very nice post and comments. We all have our comfort zone and will find our niche in the genealogy world, whether professional or amateur. Receiving a degree and becoming an AG are only stepping stones in a process that will make me a better researcher. We all have different styles of learning and that learning needs to be continual. Being a professional is as much the way we interact with others as the knowledge and skills we use in the work that we provide. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

    Reply

  9. [...] the inclusive definition of professional genealogist in my (once again aptly-titled) post, “What is a professional genealogist?” In the post I stated my opinion that the field of professional genealogy entails a large [...]

    Reply

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