Defining Professionalism in History and Genealogy

A friend recently pointed me to a 2007 blog post by Gavin Robinson, “Gentleman Amateurs.” The post reports about the history profession and receiving serious treatment as a historian in the present market. The analysis concludes that there are plenty of differences between the amateur and the professional, but that in the end it comes down to training (read: theory). Although I am an advocate of the individual learning as much as anyone is able or capable, I agree that training (read: theory or education) make differences in final products.

I am of the professional camp in my exact field (genealogy/family history) but I am not against people making in-roads into the field or learning as much as they can, even becoming professionals in their own right. I am extremely against people hanging out a shingle and saying that they are genealogists for hire when they have only completed four generations of ancestral research and feel confident using basic online sources. My father says that being a professional means that “you get paid to do something.” In that case, nearly anyone is a professional at whatever it is that they do, and the vast majority of people are professionals without any credentials or needing them.

This is not the case in professional genealogy, and I think it is also not the case in professional history. I am not sure that I am comfortable expecting everyone in the historical field to gain doctoral degrees. There are not enough teaching positions, period. My emphasis if pursuing such a degree is not on a tenure track position. I see no reason to abstain from looking for, or accepting such a position, but my focus is on changing the daily lives of people through the public history sphere particularly through online scholarship and emerging media applications.

My research background personally goes back to 1996, and professionally started in 1997 albeit as an assistant to a professional at that time. That said, I am not fluidly current on all aspects of the profession, but I see myself as a person who renews my training methods when I immerse in the topic for a few days. I do not work on family history every day, but for the spurts, starts, and stops that happen, I follow proper methodological practices. That is because I have prior training. I never stop learning, and family history and genealogical studies are the main topics for my life now.

Instead of only focusing on only genealogical studies for my education, however, I decided on a more-broad perspective involving the topic and currently work with Public History and Library Information Science. The more I work in those fields,  I see affinities for excelling at anything to do with computers, databases, and graphic user interfaces. There is a middle ground in the field where I can learn basic programming and develop something that may work and improve the field, even if I am not an expert programmer.

Personal impressions are that the academic history and academic library fields both see genealogical studies as the charlatans of their professions and not worthy of their respect. I have received this type of treatment when mentioning my field to associates my entire life (until recently) and find it demeaning. It is a treatment borne best with patience and a comprehension that professional and personal biases run deeply and the best form of transparency is education or seeing the efforts of those so educated. Proving myself wherever I go is now a normal, albeit tiring, thought process.

The professional biases are valid when taking into consideration hyper-enthusiastic but ill or untrained genealogical researchers who lack professionalism and take anything found at face value without a critical eye for source details or other necessary precautions for passing peer reviews. Bridling the passions associated with the detective bug of genealogical research is a hallmark of being professional. It means searching with patience, but this does not require slow processes. I am not a certified genealogical researcher or have ICAPGEN or BCG certification, but have a Bachelor’s degree in the topic from an accredited university and value the certifications of others.

A previous experience with an untrained although paid “professional” during an internship in 2006 left me with more understanding about why training is important. The person in question had background in museum studies and thought that doing genealogical research would be “easy” and a natural transfer from her previous work. It is within similar spheres in the historical field profession, but it is not the same thing and her lack of experience, training, and otherwise respect for the genealogical field left her without jobs due to being fired from her clients for shoddy work. This is not to say that other museum professionals cannot do proper genealogical research, or that the museum profession is lacking. Those generalizations are not remotely implied. This illustrates that her lack of training and professionalism in trying to understand a field that was completely new to her damned her in the eyes of her clients and dropped her from cases on a regular basis.

I was only around this person for less than an hour trying to assist in a library setting and knew more about the topic as an interning undergraduate student than she did as a professional. I gave her the best customer service and assistance that I could in my internship capacity working for the library. Leaving the library that day I left with the appalled realization that there really were people out there that tried to pass themselves off as professionals when they knew nothing about what they were doing. My professors said that was a reality, but the concrete example of abstract theory occurred only when I witnessed it first-hand.

Why does anyone think that being a professional in this field is any different from being a trained and respected professional (more than simply getting paid for it) in any other field? History traditionally pays less than other fields where there is not in-depth math or science background. Pay scale also has nothing to do with inherent qualities of professionalism. A student friend of mine working at Subway made literally perfect sandwiches on a regular basis. It took him time to do it, and in his unusual talent, people waited for their honestly perfect sandwiches because they saw a true artist at work. We paid the same amount as for any other Subway worker, and we waited longer, but the man was a genius and his work excelled anything seen before or since in fast food.

Not to say that I normally want to wait a long time for a sandwich, but it is a rare person (maybe, say, a real professional?) who makes sure that their work is of best quality. Someone who lives a life of best quality, and does their best to treat others around them with the same panache and proper dignity is worthy of repute.

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