Genealogical Standards – Building Blocks of the Profession

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

I was a public librarian for over thirty years. I was referred to as a professional librarian because I had my Masters in Library Science (MLS). Individuals without that degree were called, at one time, “nonprofessionals” and later, para-professionals. (I have always had a problem with such labels in librarianship as they imply, no matter how unintentionally, that the individual being described performs substandard work.)

In the field of genealogy, some individuals, those with certification postnomials, are commonly referred to as “professional genealogists.” On the other hand, many individuals equate being a professional genealogist with accepting client work and thus do not consider themselves “professionals” no matter the level of their expertise.

In the broadest sense, being a true professional is someone who brings his or her knowledge and application of standards and ethics to that work. Degrees or certification notwithstanding, we must learn and continually apply best practices in the conduct of our research. Luckily there is an organization whose purpose is to assist us in our pursuit of excellence: the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG).

The Board’s mission is to “foster public confidence in genealogy as a respected branch of history by promoting an attainable, uniform standard of competence and ethics among genealogical practitioners, and by publicly recognizing persons who meet that standard.” As stated on its web site, BCG has a three-part vision:

  • of genealogical practice: a profession or avocation that is of value to society’s understanding of its history; and requires training, experience, and advanced skills;
  • of genealogical clients: those who benefit from the practitioner’s efforts, regardless of whether the results are delivered in writing, orally, or online; work is done for a fee, or for a salary, or without compensation; or the practitioner’s own or another person’s ancestry is the subject of study;
  • of certification: an important step in one’s personal growth as a genealogist and a vital part of maintaining quality and public confidence in the field. For genealogists, certification says “I care about the quality of work I compile for posterity.” For consumers, certification offers reassurance and a recourse as they seek professional help in a field that is still, for the most part, free of governmental regulation.

The first two vision elements support the accessibility of the organization’s mission and espouse everyone’s need to become educated in methodology, resources and communication best-practices. BCG articulates the essence of what I believe it means for each of us to be a professional: “Success in almost every field of endeavor is built upon four cornerstones: specialized education, practical experience, a desire to be the best one can be, and a determination to do a superior job of every task.”

Here are five building blocks for becoming a “professional genealogist”:

1. Read and understand the standards for quality research. First, you will want to purchase a copy of The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Washington, D.C., The Board, 2000). Of prime importance is the chapter on research standards, specifically the discussion of the genealogical proof standard, the high standard of proof promoted by BCG. This standard includes the elements of a reasonably exhaustive search, complete and accurate citation of sources, analysis and correlation of the collected information, the resolution of conflicting evidence, and a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion. Other standards include those for data-collection, evidence-evaluation, and compilation, as well as standards for lecturers, instructors, and educational writers. Familiarize yourself with the Genealogist’s Code that is included in the appendix. This code outlines our responsibilities to protect the public, to protect the consumer (client, correspondent, or relative), and to protect the profession and as such, is an essential building block for the truly professional genealogist.

2. Build a home research collection to support application of standards to your research. In addition to The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual, you will also want to add the following titles, all but the last written or edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills, to your home collection:

In addition, read genealogical journals regularly. Even the articles that deal with topics other than your primary research interests will provide exposure to methodologies, resources, and well-reasoned and documented arguments. Your local library may provide convenient access to issues of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, or The American Genealogist.

3. Attend continuing education programs. I have written about the value of continuing education on many occasions in this blog. By attending institutes, conferences, workshops and seminars, you learn about genealogical standards and their application to your own research. For example, at the National Genealogical Society’s upcoming Family History Conference in May, BCG will present a series of skill-building lectures that will be among the best in genealogical education today. Among these programs are Research Reports: Meeting Standards; Building Better Citations; Top Ten Tips to Concluding Effective Research; Reporting the Facts: Record as You Go; What Exactly is a “Reasonably Exhaustive Search?”; Analyzing Deeds and Wills: I See What It Says, but What Does It Mean?; Solving Genealogical Problems by Isolating Errors in Records; When Sources Don’t Agree, Then What?; Telling the Tales: Writing Your Family Narrative; Convincing Your Audience: How to Construct a Proof Statement, and several others. These lectures are presented by experts in the field and you will gain much insight through your attendance.

4.       Practice your skills. Once you have heard a lecture or read about a particular genealogical standard or research skill, it is important to integrate it into your work. For example, research reports are as important for the family genealogist as they are for the researcher who accepts clients. They provide a simple method by which you can organize, analyze, and summarize your findings, and develop your plan for continued research. Everyone should take the time to write these reports.  The BCG website provides several opportunities to practice your skills. The Test Your Skills section provides two deeds, one from North Carolina and one from Wisconsin, with which you can practice your skills in transcription, developing a research objective that might apply to that document, abstracting the important elements of the record, writing a brief commentary explaining its genealogical significance, and compiling a “first-steps” research plan for further work on your objective. Examples of successful exercises are provided. The Work Samples section provides examples of successful case studies and proof arguments, compiled genealogies and research reports. A linked list of skill-building columns from OnBoard: Newsletter of the Board for Certification of Genealogists is also provided. Written by experts, these columns cover such topics as analyzing documents, using resources effectively, producing quality research notes and citations, and development of proof arguments.

5. Consider becoming a certified genealogist. The four previous building blocks require a significant commitment of time and effort. BCG notes that “certification serves as a ‘seal of confidence’ for careful consumers…[and] says that a practitioner has met the rigorous standards of that field for knowledge and competence.” You may wish to acknowledge your commitment and expertise by taking that formal step and becoming certified. The process is described in “How to Become Certified” which discusses the benefits, submission requirements, genealogical proof standard, judging process, application strategies, and ten tips for success. The frequently asked questions (FAQ) section will answer many of your questions about the process. To further assist you in your decision, you may wish to attend the BCG Certification Seminar scheduled for Thursday morning, May 12th at the NGS Conference in Charleston, South Carolina.

I believe that a professional genealogist is defined by his or her commitment to building blocks one through four as outlined above (read and understand genealogical standards, build a home library, attend continuing-education programs, practice your skills). Not everyone will take the final step and become a certified genealogist. The important issue, however, is that each of us learns and applies the standards of excellence in research, analysis, and the clear presentation of our findings, whether we are researching primarily for our family members, or researching for clients.


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