Is primary information truly reliable for genealogists?

“Just how accurate are the memories that we know are true?” “All our memories are reconstructed memories.”

– Scott Fraser, in TEDtalksDirector, “Scott Fraser: The problem with eyewitness testimony,” online video, uploaded 10 September 2012, Youtube (http://www.youtube.com : accessed 12 September 2012).

As genealogists we often look for ways to categorize the records we are using. We call sources original or derivative, based on the generation of the format we are using. We call information primary or secondary, based on the involvement of the informant in the events being reported. These designations are arguably an important aspect of our analysis of facts and details that appear in the records we find about our ancestors.

But how important are these designations, really? How much do they affect a record’s accuracy?

Is primary information necessarily more reliable that secondary information?

Our first sense would be “of course.” Someone who was an eyewitness to an event would be a more reliable source that someone who did not witness the event. This may be true, but just how much confidence can we have in primary information? Can we consider the testimony of an eyewitness inherently reliable?

This is where we must be more careful in our analysis of records. As Scott Fraser explores in the video below, the memories of even eyewitnesses can be flawed in surprising ways. This is no less true in our family history research than in a murder trial. “The brain abhors a vacuum,” Fraser remarks. “The brain fills in information that was not there, not originally stored—from inference, from speculation, from sources of information that came to you as the observer after the observation. … It’s called reconstructive memory.”

Making the designation between primary information and secondary information is a useful exercise in our process of records analysis. It is important to consider the involvement of the informant in the event being reported. However, it is equally important to consider other factors, for example:

  • how much time had passed between the event and the creation of the record;
  • what was the mental condition of the informant at the time of the event;
  • what was the mental condition of the informant at the time of the creation of the record;
  • what potential biases may have affected the reporting of the event, either intentional or unintentional.

As genealogists, finding records may seem like the bulk of what we do. Yet I consider the skilled and knowledgeable analysis of these records to be just as important, if not more so. Finding a record is a small part of the process; understanding the record–what it says and what it doesn’t say, its reliability, its significance–is vital for us to achieve reliable and accurate results.

In other words, determining the reliability of even an eyewitness’s testimony is the only way to determine the accuracy of our conclusions. Part of this process is understanding and considering the nature of human memory.

Take a look at this video for a more detailed exploration of the subject:

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “Is primary information truly reliable for genealogists?,”Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 13 September 2012 (http://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

Free webinar tomorrow – “What is a ‘Reasonably Exhaustive Search’?”

There is still time to register for my webinar “What is a ‘Reasonably Exhaustive Search’?” Legacy Family Tree will be hosting this webinar, tomorrow (12 September 2012) at 2pm EDT.

The first requirement of the Genealogical Proof Standard is that we “complete a reasonably exhaustive search for all relevant records” related to our research objective. This presentation discusses what a “reasonably exhaustive search” entals, why this is necessary, and how to conduct a search. A case study explores how failing to identify all relevant records can lead to missing information and forming inaccurate conclusions about your ancestors’ lives.

To register visit http://www.legacyfamilytree.com/webinars.asp. You will receive a confirmation email after you complete the registration process.

Attendance at the webinar will be restricted to the first 1000 to sign in. There are already many more than this number registered, so it is important to sign in at least thirty (30) minutes early. If you are unable to attend the live webinar, the recording will be available to watch free on the Legacy Family Tree website for ten (10) days.

A more permanent copy of the lecture will be available for purchase on DVD directly from Legacy Family Tree here. Feel free to also pre-order the DVD  whether or not you can attend.

I look forward to seeing you there!

For more articles about conducting a “reasonably exhaustive search,” read:

You can also read any of the articles included in the category “Genealogical Proof Standard” on the right, for details about other very important research and analysis skills.

Those Genealogy Police are at it again!

Yesterday I received a horrible email from the Genealogy Police(tm).

Can you believe that they told me that I should use death certificates in my research? I don’t want to use death certificates! They are so gloomy. Genealogy is supposed to be fun!

And they said that court records would be a good source of information about my ancestors. If my ancestor was a criminal or was sued, well, I just don’t want to know about that.

The way that I do genealogy is perfectly fine. It makes for a great hobby! I can trace my family tree all the way back to Moses through Charlemagne, King Henry VIII, and I’m third cousins with Brad Pitt. (That explains my good looks.)

I don’t cite my sources for any of this because the “genealogy police” actually think that a citation should provide detail about my sources to an extent that would allow me or someone else to actually know what we had looked at. If I can’t do it their way, then I just won’t do it at all!

Besides, I’m just doing this for my kids anyway. I’m not a professional, and all I care about are the stories.

Now that I got all of that out of the way…

Obviously all of the above was written with tongue firmly in cheek. And I am sure that I have ticked a few people off. I apologize to all who are offended. But I felt that this was the only way to make my point.

Over the past two or three years I have read several blog posts that–believe it or not–are very similar to what I wrote above. These posts of course do not complain about someone telling them to use death certificates or court records (or any other record group). They complain that someone emailed them about a lack of documentation or faulty analysis or some other “standards” issue. Why is it that what I wrote above seems so over-the-top ridiculous, but these other posts get dozens of “likes” on Facebook and “attaboy” and “attagirl” comments? There is no difference.

When genealogists write about the need for standards in genealogy—yes, even for non-professionals—they are usually doing so to try to help.

Meeting standards does not suck the fun out of genealogy.

Meeting standards in your research—even if no one other than yourself ever knows it—increases your own personal confidence in the accuracy of your research. Whether you are in it as a professional or in it just for yourself (or your kids), you should care about the accuracy of your research. Do you want to research your family tree or someone else’s? Do you want to honor your ancestors or someone else’s?

Meeting standards in your research makes you a better researcher. The standards were written by professionals with decades of experience—those whose research skills have been repeatedly demonstrated and found to excel. Becoming a better researcher, in my opinion, makes genealogy even more fun. It opens doors. It breaks down brick walls. Becoming a better researcher allows you to identify with confidence far more ancestors than otherwise. These “new” ancestors all have their own lives and stories. If you love the stories (and who doesn’t), then more ancestors = more fun!

So who are the Genealogy Police anyway?

I’ve never seen them. I have been “doing genealogy” online since I was twenty years old. You can still find some of those old posts I wrote in 1997 or 1998 online. They don’t meet standards. I didn’t know there were standards. They don’t cite sources (though I sure wish they did so I could find some of that information now).

Despite all this, I have never been visited by the Genealogy Police. Never once have I been shot down by some genealogist with a pompous attitude telling me I was doing it wrong.

I have, on the other hand, received messages over the years from genealogists who helped me become the researcher I am today. They taught me about examining sources. They taught me about indirect evidence. They even taught me about citing sources.

But this may come down to perception. I wanted to learn. So I did not take criticism as negative, I took it constructively. I recognized my weaknesses and my mistakes, and I made the attempt to correct them.

I won’t say that there may not be some overzealous genealogists out there who attack people (always privately) about a comma or a semicolon or a faulty record or a disproven connection. They may exist. Luckily they have never emailed me.

So the next time the Genealogy Police visit you, please ask yourself: is this genealogist really attacking me, or are they trying to help?

Online State Resources for Genealogy e-book version 2.0 released!

I am pleased to announce that my popular ebook Online State Resources for Genealogy has been updated, and version 2.0 is now available for purchase.

The Online State Resources for Genealogy ebook was originally released in January 2011, containing links to online record indexes and images. Unlike many resource guides the focus of this ebook is on those websites that contain record indexes and images but are not genealogy-based sites. You will not find references to Ancestry.comFamilySearchU. S. GenWeb, or Find-A-Grave.

Instead you will find links to resources found on the websites of state and county archives, county clerks, historical societies and museums, university libraries, public libraries, and others. These sites contain many records that have never been previously digitized or made available online. Many of these have never even been microfilmed.

The first edition contained 201 repositories across the United States, featuring over 2,000 links. Version 2.0 examines 428 repositories, featuring almost 6,000 links! In addition to the new links, all of the previously-listed links have been verified and updated when necessary.

Even more exciting is the introduction of an EPUB edition of the book, for use with your favorite e-reader. This was a frequent suggestion, and I am pleased to be able to offer this new edition.

To purchase the standard (PDF) edition of Online State Resources for Genealogy, version 2.0, click here.

To purchase the e-reader (EPUB) edition of Online State Resources for Genealogy, version 2.0, click here.

If you previously purchased the first edition, please read my post, “Important notice for purchasers of Online State Resources for Genealogy.” If you have already responded as requested in that post, there is no need to do so again.

Charging for genealogy: what is it worth?

This post has been inspired by Thomas Macentee’s 2012 update to the 2011 “Genea-Opportunities” series of blog posts.[1] Longtime readers may recognize that it was this discussion that originally led to the birth of this blog in its current incarnation. The third topic Thomas has proposed for this week is “What Do You Mean It Isn’t Free?”

Despite the subtitle of this blog (“Genealogy as a Profession”), I have never discussed the central question that most aspiring genealogists struggle with: what do we charge for my services?

One resource that is often recommended is Chapter 10, “Setting Realistic Fees” by Sandra Hargreaves Luebking in the book Professional Genealogy. In this chapter Ms. Luebking puts forth a relatively simple two-part formula to calculate your rates: (1) Salary + Expenses + Profit = Targeted Income; and (2) Targeted Income / Billable Hours = Hourly Fee.[2]

Using this method, if your “targeted income” is $80,000, and you can work 20 billable hours per week (x 50 weeks = 1000 hours), then your hourly fee would be calculated as $80 per hour. Simple enough.

Unfortunately I disagree that this formula can produce a realistic figure. To me, one should set their fees based on external factors rather than internal factors. Think about every job you have ever had. You did not walk into the interview and say, “This is how much you have to pay me.” Being self-employed, of course, you have the option to set whatever rate you decide. You can base this on anything that you want.

My own rates are based primarily on a broad survey of other professional genealogists. What do others with similar skills, experience, and education charge? This, in my opinion, is the fair way to set my fees. It has less to do with what I think I need, and more to do with what the market allows.

I believe that the market should control our rates for two reasons: the dangers of overpricing and the dangers of underpricing.

The danger of overpricing

Suppose you are an aspiring professional genealogist. You have decided to quit your job and start taking clients full-time. You have never conducted any research other than on your own family. You have never completed a genealogy course of study, other than a few local society meetings and regional conferences. You use the equation above and decide to come out of the gate charging $80 per hour, in order to maintain your lifestyle.

With your first few clients, you realize that you are in over your head a little bit. You have a few unhappy clients–not because their expectations were too high, but because you could not deliver value equal to your rate. Suddenly these unhappy clients have told their friends who told their friends, and to a small but growing group of people “professional genealogy” is now considered a scam.

This hurts all of us–not just you or your clients.

The danger of underpricing

Some prospective clients will try to get anything they can for free. They will write to you for advice, asking specific questions about their family, and eventually start asking you for “favors” to pick up records, etc. Part of the problem is that many genealogy consumers are on fixed incomes and quite frankly can’t afford to hire a professional. Another part of the problem is that genealogical research skills are often undervalued even among professionals, and this attitude spreads to consumers.

Underpricing is quite often a result of undervaluing what your skill is worth. Again this is why we must conduct market research. Find out what other genealogists with similar skill, education, and experience are charging. And, equally important, be honest with yourself as to what your level of skill, education, and experience really is. If you have been researching the same family for 25 years, this is different from a professional genealogist with 25 years of experience researching hundreds (or thousands) of different, unrelated families.

Doing market research

The greatest resource for conducting market research into what other genealogists charge is the Members Directory of the Association of Professional Genealogists. Here you can read the profiles of all 2000-plus members of the APG–not all of whom take clients.

The members’ profiles provide general qualifications: education, experience, qualifications, specialties. You can search for specific locations or specialties or even keywords using the Search function of the Directory. But don’t stop there. Most profiles do not provide specific information on rates. However, many professional genealogists have their own websites. Follow the links to their sites for more information. Don’t stop at one, either–look at a few dozen. Find those most similar to yourself, and average their rates. You can make small adjustments as needed based on your local average cost of living. (Living in Manhattan is a different scale than living in Kansas.)

In general–in my opinion–your rates should reflect the value that you are able to provide based on your skills, education, and experience. Have I repeated those three factors enough yet? These three factors are among the most important when it comes to many other aspects of professional genealogy as well–not just setting your rates.

What do my fellow professional genealogists think?

SOURCES:

[1] Thomas MacEntee, “GENEA-OPPORTUNITIES – 2012 UPDATE,” Geneabloggers blog, posted 9 July 2012 (http://www.geneabloggers.com : accessed 9 July 2012). Thomas MacEntee, “GENEA-OPPORTUNITIES (LET’S MAKE LOTS OF MONEY),”  Geneabloggers blog, posted 18 April 2011.

[2] Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, “Chapter 10: Setting Realistic Fees,” in Professional Genealogy (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2001), pages 193-202.

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “Charging for genealogy: what is it worth?,”Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 11 July 2012 (http://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

Professional genealogists and genealogy professionals

This post has been inspired by Thomas Macentee’s 2012 update to the 2011 “Genea-Opportunities” series of blog posts.[1] Longtime readers may recognize that it was this discussion that originally led to the birth of this blog in its current incarnation. The second topic Thomas has proposed for this week is “Careers in Genealogy.”

How does one define professional genealogist?

The answer to this question causes great controversy in the genealogy community. This is because there is no real answer. Some believe that only those who conduct research for paying clients can be considered professional genealogists. Others believe that anyone earning income in a genealogy-related field can be considered professional genealogists. Still others believe that anyone–whether they earn an income or not–who conducts research at a “professional level” is a professional genealogist. The Association of Professional Genealogists includes members belonging to all of these groups and more.

I previously addressed 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 number of related careers focused on high-quality genealogy practice. Not just professional researchers, but also writers, lecturers, publishers, teachers, and others.

In the past few years, however, the field of genealogy-related careers has expanded even beyond this. One comprehensive list was published earlier today by Thomas MacEntee in his Geneabloggers post “Careers in Genealogy – A 2012 Update.”[2] Reading the list I noticed a few of these more recent career choices differ from other alternative (i.e. not research-focused) careers in genealogy, notably Analyst and Marketer.

How do these career options differ from Writer or Educator? It all comes down, in my mind, to the skill set/knowledge base at the center of these careers.

There is no question that a person who performs high-quality genealogy research for paying clients is a professional genealogist. Writers and lecturers use different skills, certainly, but at the core of their work is a research skill set and genealogical knowledge base. A successful writer or lecturer about genealogy subjects is necessarily a skilled researcher.

Look at Thomas’s definition of “Marketer”:

Marketer: Another growth area in the genealogy industry especially when it comes to social media. There are many genealogy companies and even professional genealogists who either want to have their social media presence set up for them to run. And there are some who actually want to hire a social media “agent” to administer their online presence for them. It helps to have an understanding of the genealogy and family history industry to do this effectively.[3]

The last sentence notes that “an understanding of the genealogy and family history industry” is necessary for this position, but genealogy research skill is not a part of the job. This is a marked difference from other “professional genealogy” career options.

Would it still be appropriate to call a marketer a “professional genealogist”? The answer to this is not quite so clear-cut.

I cannot take credit for creating the term, but I believe that genealogy professional better describes the nature of the Analyst and Marketer career options that Thomas describes. The person following these paths is clearly a professional analyst or marketer (or archivist, etc.), and the focus is certainly on the genealogy field. But this career option simply does not utilize a genealogical research skill set or knowledge base.

In examining career options and separating them, I am not judging one option as better or more legitimate than another. I myself have certain services that I offer that would more aptly fall into the “genealogy professional” category rather than the “professional genealogist” category.

For example, one service that I offer almost exclusively to other professional genealogists involves presentation design. Even though I help to design presentations that deal with genealogical subjects, my research skill does not come into play at all in conducting this work. Another example is that of website design and programming. I know at least three professional genealogists who offer website design and programming among their services (and I am working with one of them to help me with a major overhaul of my own website).

The difference is one of semantics only. I believe that both groups fill their own very important roles in the field of genealogy. Professional genealogists–who may be great researchers but horrible marketers or presentation designers–can benefit greatly from the different skill sets brought into the field by genealogy professionals.

And of course, as aspiring professional genealogists will often hear, very few genealogists outside of Salt Lake City can support themselves by relying solely on research. Most of us must offer multiple services: not just research, writing, and lecturing. The current trend in the genealogy profession is that many new professionals are bringing their “outside” skill sets into their genealogical practice. As this trend continues, we will likely see many more career options created, and a growing percentage of “genealogy professionals” among the professional genealogists.

What do you think?

SOURCES:

[1] Thomas MacEntee, “GENEA-OPPORTUNITIES – 2012 UPDATE,” Geneabloggers blog, posted 9 July 2012 (http://www.geneabloggers.com : accessed 9 July 2012). Thomas MacEntee, “GENEA-OPPORTUNITIES (LET’S MAKE LOTS OF MONEY),”  Geneabloggers blog, posted 18 April 2011.

[2] Thomas MacEntee, “CAREERS IN GENEALOGY – A 2012 UPDATE,”  Geneabloggers blog, posted 10 July 2012.

[3] Thomas MacEntee, “CAREERS IN GENEALOGY – A 2012 UPDATE,”  Geneabloggers blog, posted 10 July 2012.

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “Professional genealogists and genealogy professionals,”Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 10 July 2012 (http://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

Genealogy blogging for fun and profit

This post has been inspired by Thomas Macentee’s 2012 update to the 2011 “Genea-Opportunities” series of blog posts.[1] Longtime readers may recognize that it was this discussion that originally led to the birth of this blog in its current incarnation. The first topic Thomas has proposed for this week is “Genealogy Blogging – For Fun or Profit?”

I previously discussed the reasons for my own blogging in a post entitled, aptly enough, “Why do I blog? Why do you blog?” The reasons I expressed in that post remain relevant for me, but now I would also like to discuss the general nature of blogging as a professional genealogist.

There are a number of professional genealogists who have been blogging for many years. These blogs have different focuses and their own unique strengths and weaknesses–as do most blogs of any kind. But these blogs are also among some of the most read and recognizable blogs in genealogy.

In the past year or so, I have seen quite a few professional genealogists begin blogging. Part of this, I believe, is due to the “social media” mantra that is prevalent throughout every part of our lives in the 21st century. Businesses–especially small businesses–are expected to have a social media presence.

Unfortunately quite a few of these blogs are not born out of passion. And so they do not develop a voice. The writing is sporadic and doesn’t really say anything special. In other words, it is content marketing–without the content.

This blog has developed to have two main purposes: (1) to discuss important subjects in professional genealogy; and (2) to help educate genealogists toward performing professional-level research, even if genealogy for them is “just a hobby.”

Notice that I did not include a purpose (3) to help “drum up business.” Simply stated, I do not expect to bring in research clients through this blog. It has occasionally happened, but that is not among my reasons for writing. I write because I am passionate about it–I am passionate about genealogy and passionate about writing.

For my fellow professional genealogists, I would offer this advice: If you would not otherwise have any interest in blogging, do not do so just because someone says you should. You do need a website to compete in the online world, but that website does not need to have a lackluster blog. Your blog should be how you communicate your thoughts to the world. It should mean something to you, first and foremost. Write because you feel you have to do so, not because someone else says you have to do so.

Blogs can certainly be a source of income–through affiliate marketing (i.e. advertising) or through promoting your lectures or publications. I have been known to do both of these on occasion. But the revenue generated through these means is not much.

What do my fellow professional genealogists think?

SOURCES:

[1] Thomas MacEntee, “GENEA-OPPORTUNITIES – 2012 UPDATE,” Geneabloggers blog, posted 9 July 2012 (http://www.geneabloggers.com : accessed 9 July 2012). Thomas MacEntee, “GENEA-OPPORTUNITIES (LET’S MAKE LOTS OF MONEY),”  Geneabloggers blog, posted 18 April 2011.

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “Genealogy blogging for fun and profit,”Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 9 July 2012 (http://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

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