Shouldn’t we all be “Primary Care Genealogists”?

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?

9 thoughts on “Shouldn’t we all be “Primary Care Genealogists”?

  1. Michael, I would suggest that the answer to your question is “no,” for two reasons.

    First, to use your example, if someone can make a living doing only New York German genealogy, he or she can refer other issues to others who are competent in those areas.

    Second, it’s my firm belief that the ugliest words in the English language are “you should” (unless, of course, advice was asked for). One size seldom fits all, and what’s right for one person isn’t necessarily right for another.

    Personally, I’m happy being the General Practitioner (I don’t like Primary Care Provider, since that implies a control not appropriate to this profession), but if someone else wants to be the Neurosurgeon, that’s fine. Someone who makes that choice shouldn’t be expected to treat a common cold; on the other hand, neither should he complain if the business isn’t there.

    • I understand the point that you are trying to make. However, without the basic skills that underlie all competent research, the reliability of the conclusions of even those practicing a “specialty” come into question. The flip side of this coin, and ultimately the argument that I put forth here, is that once one has these basic skills refined, then they can be applied to any specialty or any location equally.

      To put this in terms of the metaphor proposed, the Neurosurgeon has to understand Biology just as much as the General Practioner (or Primary Care Provider). While they choose to further their education toward one specific part of the body, should they have the need to do so, their knowledge in Biology can be applied to any other part of the body. Would they have more to learn in this new area? Of course. But they would not have to re-learn that basic biological knowledge.

  2. Totally agree, Michael. The way I see it, becoming an “expert” in any time period, geographic area, and/or records set (ie, military), etc. would require you to be more than a little familiar with “general” genealogical research; you have to possess more than the fundamentals in order for the skill set that goes along with having a specialty come to you. In other words, by getting to the point where you have a specialty (especially one that would be marketable in a professional format), you probably would have already gained a mastery, or close to it, of the skills from fundamental genealogical research. So rather than a specialty being a limitation, I see it more as a supplement, or as an add-on that goes hand in hand with those skills that would fall within the terminology of “primary care” genealogy.

  3. You seem to contradict yourself in every sentence. You keep saying it’s all the same, except for the details; it’s the same except for the difference in culture, history and geography. Well, yeah, that why you need experts and when you aren’t in your comfort zone, you need to ask for help. You can be a generalist, but even using land records in New England v. Midwest needs understanding.

    I’m not sure what you’re aiming at. Genealogy is specific.

    • Let’s use your example about using land records in New England as opposed to the Midwest.

      What are the differences? State land (with metes and bounds descriptions) is described differently than federal land (with townships, ranges, and sections). Where you would find deeds recorded in Connecticut (town level) is different from where you would find deeds recorded in Missouri (county level). The specific repository where any specific record group can be accessed in one state is different from the repository where you might find that same record group in another state.

      But the basic skills are the same. Do you know how to search for records? Do you know how to cite the records you find? Do you know how to identify the information held in a record, both explicit information and implicit information? Do you know how to correlate the information in one record with the information in another record? Do you know how to reconcile contradictory information held in multiple records? Do you know how to form logical conclusions based on all of the evidence located?

      Even beyond these basic research skills, dealing with land records in New England as opposed to land records in the Midwest are more alike than they are different. The land being sold is actual physical land existing in a specific place on earth. Most deeds provide a specific description of this land (though some refer to older deeds or patents.) Deeds record the sale of this land from one person or group to another person or group. Money changes hands in most cases. The deeds are recorded in a register by a government official. The original deeds usually remain in the possession of the buyers and/or sellers. We access these deeds, in most cases, through the recorded copies in the registers. Most of these registers are indexed either by grantee, grantor, or both. The indexes may appear in the individual registers, or there may be consolidated indexes covering multiple registers.

      The most important skills that you will learn carry over from one location to another. There are small intricacies or details that you will have to learn. But the time that it takes to learn the differences between one location and another is far smaller than the time that it takes to build the basic skills you need to effectively conduct genealogical research anywhere.

      Yes, Martin, genealogy is specific. But genealogical research skills are not.

  4. Except that you don’t know what you don’t know. You may be missing a research skill and/or knowledge that is critical.

    If you don’t know that you need to read the entire description of the land which is where a relationship may be stated [that land which my father by his deed gave to me] then you may just abstract the beginning, the who, how much, etc. and miss the most important part. If you don’t know that about New England deeds, then knowing how to research deeds in general doesn’t help you.

    • Reading an entire record is not a specialized skill. It is a general skill. A skilled genealogist would always read all of every document he located. (And family relationships can be stated anywhere in a deed anywhere in the country. This is not exclusive to New England by a long shot.)

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