On 12 March 2011, Myles Proudfoot invited genealogists to participate in a survey, through his blog “Family History 21ster.” The survey was open until 5 April 2011, and on 12 April, Myles posted the results. Following his initial posting, he also offered the results cross-referenced by various factors. One of the most interesting was the “Amateur vs. Professional” breakdown. To view these results, read this entry.
The results may bear a slight margin of error due to the sampling size. Among survey respondents, 668 identified themselves as “Amateur genealogists,” while 54 identified themselves as “Academic genealogists” (no definition was offered), 113 identified themselves as “Professional genealogists,” and 60 identified themselves as “Not a professional genealogist but I do genealogy as a part of my job.” These three categories combine for a total of just 217, less than 1/3 of the number of amateurs. For the purposes of this overview, however, only the two categories “Amateur genealogist” and “Professional genealogist” will be compared, unless otherwise noted.
The first marked difference between amateurs and professional are revealed by two questions regarding experience. When asked, “For how many years have you been actively engaged in genealogy in total?” amateur genealogists responded with an average of 16.9 years, while professional genealogists responded with an average of 23.1 years. This by itself does not show a particularly significant difference, especially considering that the large sample of amateur genealogists certainly included a number of beginners. However, the subsequent question asked, “At what age did you start doing your genealogical research?” For amateur genealogists, the average age was 37.8 years. For professional genealogists, however, the average age was over ten years lower, at 26.1 years.
There are a number of ways one might interpret this data. My own reading is that those who begin at a younger age therefore become proficient at a younger age. Not necessarily already dedicated to a life-long career at this younger age, these younger starters would have a greater tendency to pursue genealogy as a viable career. This was certainly the case in my own personal experience.
The next insightful difference in responses comes as a result of the question, “Choose the description that best describes your approach to genealogical sources.” Five choices were provided:
- I typically rely on already compiled genealogies.
- I mostly rely on already compiled genealogies and online sources.
- I use a limited number of record types and repositories. I mostly rely on online and microfilmed sources.
- I use a wide variety of record types. I often contact record custodians to obtain copies of high-quality sources.
- I insightfully pursue research at multiple, targeted repositories, making use of a very wide variety of records and record types.
Those who had identified themselves as amateur genealogists answered most often “I use a limited number of record types and repositories. I mostly rely on online and microfilmed sources,” with a 38.6% share responding in this way. Second most often, amateurs responded “I use a wide variety of record types. I often contact record custodians to obtain copies of high-quality sources,” with 35.0% selecting this option. This was followed by “I insightfully pursue research at multiple, targeted repositories, making use of a very wide variety of records and record types,” with 19.5% of amateur genealogists providing this response.
Professional genealogists provided significantly different responses to this question. The first two options were not selected by a single respondent identifying themselves in this way. The most-selected option by amateur genealogists, a mere 4.5% of professional genealogists selected “I use a limited number of record types and repositories. I mostly rely on online and microfilmed sources.” The second most-selected option of amateur genealogists, only 18.8% of professional genealogists responded, “I use a wide variety of record types. I often contact record custodians to obtain copies of high-quality sources.” However, an overwhelming majority of professionals selected, “I insightfully pursue research at multiple, targeted repositories, making use of a very wide variety of records and record types,” an answer selected by 76.8% of the professional respondents!
The difference in these two responses is both surprising and incredibly meaningful. The response to this question may, in fact, be one of the qualifying factors between that which makes one an amateur genealogist and that which makes one a professional genealogist. One will recall that there was no significant difference in the years of experience between these two groups. However, those who become professional genealogists appear to research to a much greater depth than do amateurs.
The first factor in determining whether any genealogical conclusion meets the Genealogical Proof Standard is that the researcher must have completed “a reasonably exhaustive search” for all relevant records relating to their research problem. According to the results of this survey, over 3/4ths of the professional genealogists who responded abide by this requirement or a similar burden of proof. In contrast, less than 1/5th of the amateur genealogists who responded abide by this or a similar burden of proof.
The exploration of the results of this survey will continue in future posts…