Genealogy as a Career

It is said that genealogy is the second oldest profession in the world. Indeed, the modern genealogist can trace his or her own profession back to those who recorded the formidable pedigrees of the Old Testament heroes or, in Britain, to Celtic bards.  The recording of one’s antecedents has always been important to those who needed to prove their right to lands and titles, and to show dynastic connections.  In the 15th century, the College of Arms was instituted under the leadership of the Earl Marshal, and it became the ultimate authority for settling genealogical disputes and the registration of pedigrees and coats of arms in England and Wales.  It also brought together those who had a special knowledge of genealogy, so that their skills and learning could be consolidated and their findings recorded.  In Scotland, the Lyon Court, presided over by Lord Lyon King of Arms, exercises similar powers.

Since the explosion of interest in family history that began in the 1970s, many enthusiasts have wanted to turn a pleasurable pastime into a career.  It is true that in the course of investigating one’s own family, the amateur genealogist discovers the general principles that apply to all research, but, like any profession, proper training and credentials are necessary for good practice.  It is not enough to have dabbled in a bit of personal family history, as one also needs to have a wide experience of many different sources and areas, and have the ability to interpret and analyse evidence correctly.  One must progress from ‘looking up names’ to learning all about the records and the laws under which those records were created.  To be successful, one has to build up a reputation for excellence.

The vast majority of genealogists are self-employed, and most come into the field from other professions.  Some make this career switch in mid-life, whilst others choose genealogy as a second career upon retirement from their first one.  As with other entrepreneurial fields, most make the move gradually from their original field of employment, building up a client base before moving full-time into genealogy.  Ultimately, however, only a small number derive all or the greater part of their income from genealogical research or related fields such as teaching.  In fact, the majority work part-time and supplement a pension or other income.  Although some genealogical firms exist, they are few in number and opportunities to work for them arise only infrequently.

Traditionally, there has been a distinction between record agents and genealogists.  Record agents merely examine specific record sources, usually as directed, and their expertise is confined to the extracting of information; no attempt is made to interpret the results.  Conversely, the genealogist acts as a consultant and decides the line of enquiry.  In practice, few in the profession practise solely as record agents, and most combine both roles by directing as well as undertaking research.  Before research is undertaken, there must a reasonable expectation of what one might find in a given amount of time.  After the evidence has been found, a comprehensive and comprehensible account must be made of the material that has been examined and why, and what has discovered from it.  An estimate of the likely cost and probable success of further research should also be given. 

To contemplate becoming a professional genealogist, an honest assessment of one’s strengths must be made.  A good memory, meticulous attention to detail, excellent analytical and communication skills and a tidy and logical mind are prerequisites.  There must be a real enthusiasm for the work, but also an ability to assimilate the problems speedily, to grasp the elements of their solution and to look upon each as a challenge, which determination and persistence will solve.  The genealogist needs to be imaginative in the light of a very broad experience, with understanding of historical background, but the imagination needs to be controlled and directed by sound reasoning.  A healthy dose of scepticism is necessary to avoid jumping to unsound conclusions.

The professional genealogist has to be both a detective and a historian. An in-depth knowledge of all aspects of history - social, economic and local - is essential, as would soon become apparent in the context of any research project.  For example, the lack of parish registers during the Commonwealth period can only be understood if one has an appreciation of the religious turmoil that ensued when Oliver Cromwell came to power.  A degree in history and experience of Latin are definite advantages, but are not prerequisites.  An understanding of law, especially land law, and the principles of heraldry are also desirable.  Practical research experience is a necessity.

Many decide to specialise in the records of a specific locality to which they have access, or focus on an area of expertise such as transcription work.  However, it is likely that one will need to look at every social stratum and historical period.  In time, it may be possible to share one’s knowledge, through lecturing, teaching and writing, which can supplement one’s income.  For example, there may be opportunities for genealogists to teach a class in family history, perhaps as part of a local adult education programme, or write articles on genealogical topics for specialist magazines and local family history society journals.  Professional genealogists are records experts, research scholars, teachers and entrepreneurs, and those who are the most successful combine all of these qualities.

Genealogy is to a large extent unregulated and there are no university degree courses devoted solely to the subject.  Nevertheless one needs credentials that attest to one’s skill and knowledge.  Since 1961, the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies – www.ihgs.ac.uk/ - has endeavoured to provide a sound basis of experience and tuition through the courses it has run.  Specifically, the Correspondence Course in Genealogy has been designed to meet the needs of both the amateur genealogist who wishes to trace his or her ancestry as a hobby, and the professional who wishes to carry out genealogical research on a paid basis.  Students are encouraged to seek a professional qualification in genealogy, and the Institute offers a series of graded qualifications.  Qualifications such as the Institute’s Licentiateship, Diploma and Higher Certificate, are highly coveted because they are widely accepted as the best preparation for entering the profession.  They have been acknowledged and accredited by government and international academic bodies and independently, as a yardstick of genealogical expertise.  As such, they are recognised by The Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA) - www.agra.org.uk/ - as qualifications for membership. 

AGRA was founded in 1968 to promote high standards of professional conduct and expertise and to uphold the interests of its members and their clients.  All members have to adhere to a Code of Practice, and to be eligible one has to be a well-qualified and experienced professional.  A list of members and their areas of expertise can be obtained from AGRA.  In Scotland, a similar body, the Association of Scottish Genealogists and Record Agents (ASGRA) - www.asgra.co.uk/ - provides a similar function and in Ireland, there is the Association of Professional Genealogists - www.apgi.ie/.

The fees of a professional genealogist vary and most charge by the hour or ask for a fixed budget up front, especially if the research is open-ended.  Added to the time spent on research, there may also be travel or copying expenses.  Generally, the financial rewards are not great, and it is difficult to provide a satisfactory standard of income.  Satisfaction from doing something one loves and directing one’s own work can be expected but dedication and vocation are needed.  It is a rewarding, fascinating and challenging career.

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