I’m not happy today to be removing this membership symbol from my website and mention of the organisation from my LinkedIn page. No, I haven’t left the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors (ISFHWE). No, they haven’t kicked me out. Instead, they’ve closed up shop – permanently!
This institution within genealogy began life in May 1987 at an NGS Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA. Initially it was called the Council of Genealogy Columnists but in May 2000 it became ISFHWE. It functioned as a support and networking organisation for writers on the subject, whether amateur or professional. Though its members primarily were from the USA, I felt it was worthwhile to get involved, partly for myself but also partly to support a body serving the specific area of genealogical writing. I joined in 2014.
In five and a half years of membership I had minimal involvement in the organisation, but I got the impression that most other members weren’t any more active. I did try to recruit a few members in my circle and one colleague joined. In the hope of encouraging some others to consider membership, I wrote an article for CONNECT – the online newsletter for AGI and ASGRA. These are the organisations that provide credentials for Irish and Scottish professional genealogists.
The article was about ISFHWE and a similar organisation which supports lecturers, the Genealogical Speakers Guild. I requested permission to use the symbols of both organisations as illustrations, seeing as I was trying to expand their membership. The then President of the Guild (of which I was not a member) readily agreed; the President of ISFHWE declined. Today I’m using it as a memorial of a dead society, without permission from anyone, as no one has the authority to stop me.
I have every sympathy for people who are trying to keep voluntary organisations going. Everywhere in the world, and in all types of pursuits, clubs and societies are run by a small band of people who find it hard to motivate others to get involved. I’m sure those running ISFHWE found it difficult in recent times. According to a comment I read just last night on the ISFHWE Facebook group, the organisation ‘struggled to remain viable, but just couldn’t thrive financially’. Was that the only, or main, reason for it to stop functioning?
As a member, I’m left wondering. There was no rumour, no hint, no discussion about disbanding. On 23 May I received the ISFHWE online quarterly newsletter, Columns, by email with the subject line declaring ‘Final Issue’. The email itself informed me that the issue included messages ‘regarding information on the dissolution of our Society’. That’s how I heard of it! The website (which was to disappear yesterday) had a notice on its homepage last night stating: The board members and staff regretfully announce that, as of 15 April 2020, the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors no longer exists as an active society. Looking at the Facebook group, I found a post, dated 18 May, saying ‘Fellow ISFHWE members – our Society is closing down’.
I’m baffled, and I don’t believe I’m the only one. There was some talk a while ago about needing to increase the annual membership subscription. This seemed like a reasonable idea, as the existing fee was small anyway. If finances were the only concerns they could have been addressed through consultation with members. Presumably there were other considerations, but if I were in charge of an organisation that was in danger of disbanding I would feel it incumbent on me to inform the membership of the possibility and provide the opportunity to turn things around.
There were approximately 140 members listed on the website last night. If they were told that there was a crisis and that a recruitment drive was needed to save the society, I’m sure at least some would have responded. They might have had ideas on how to make the organisation more vibrant. They might have decided to volunteer to help in practical terms.
One thing I would have suggested would have been to restructure the board of directors. The organisation had five officers but the rest of the board was made up of six regional representatives. Five of those regions were in the USA. The sixth represented the entire world outside the United States. From my time as a member I gathered that some of those regional seats were regularly uncontested. If they were not tied to geographical locations there might have been people from other regions willing to serve.
But it’s gone now – consigned to history – the only organisation of which I was a member that was dissolved without the members being informed. On 23 May I was told that the funeral had taken place, rather than being warned that the death was imminent. Do I sound tetchy? Certainly I’m sad, and I’m aggrieved that I wasn’t given the chance to help.
I would like to acknowledge the volunteerism that made ISFHWE work for over three decades and to thank Mark Beasley and Tina Sansone, two of the people who were helpful to me during the few years I was a member.
I haven’t been in a record repository for over two months. That hasn’t happened to me since the mid-1980s, when I took six months off to supervise a parish register indexing project. Even then I managed the odd trip to Dublin to feed my habit. Right now I’m blessed to have more than enough work to do at home, but soon I will start to crave the atmosphere of buildings that envelop you in traces of the past. The Registry of Deeds is my spiritual home, but any of the familiar libraries or archives would be a joy to visit in the near future. Meeting friends and acquaintances, staff members and fellow researchers, people I’ve known for decades – there is so much more to visiting a record repository than the records and the architecture.
Covid-19 has paused life and it has had an impact on genealogy in so many ways, some of which will only be apparent in decades to come. It has brought families together, at a distance, like nothing else has done in a long time. Most people are at leisure to talk remotely to parents, children, siblings and cousins. Family quizzes via video conferencing have become a phenomenon of the pandemic. I was talking to a man the other day who was telling me of the enjoyment he gets from his family’s weekly quiz, for which his children and grandchildren in Ireland and the USA get together. Two of his grandchildren, separated in age by a year but geographically by hundreds of miles – living in Colorado and Massachusetts, now chat familiarly and are getting to know their cousins in Ireland as well. In half a century today’s Great Isolation will be remembered by many as a time that created family ties.
Genealogical organisations in this part of the world also are seeing changes. I’ve attended council meetings of two such bodies recently on Zoom. One usually has its meetings in London and the other in Dublin. The London-based society has council members living in Australia, England, Ireland and Scotland. Its first two Zoom meetings had almost full attendance. The Dublin-based organisation is contemplating its first online CPD event. Of course, online events aren’t unusual for many in genealogy, with the likes of the Virtual Genealogical Association leading the way with webinars. But many of us have been slow to follow. Online meetings and webinars may well become the norm even if and when social distancing is consigned to history.
Covid-19 has imposed working from home on office dwellers all over the world, temporarily at least. This may be a welcome development for many, or possibly most. For professional genealogists, in general, there’s nothing new in this – we do much of our work this way in any case. Most professionals have a fairly extensive personal reference library as well as online resources to help in responding to enquiries. Report writing, dealing with email enquiries and corresponding with clients have been at-home tasks for most self-employed genealogists for decades. More recently the balance of research work between record repositories and online resources has swung sharply in favour of the latter. Had this pandemic happened ten or more years ago, things would have been different, for Irish genealogists anyway. Now we can do much of our research online.
‘So can your potential clients’, I hear you say! Indeed they can, but having sources available to you and knowing how to use them efficiently and effectively are two very different things. Some people who become clients are uncomfortable with technology. Others enthusiastically begin researching online and get stuck. Others get a certain distance and realise they need help. Others are long-term family historians who need advice or research in records unavailable to them.
In 1999, when I moved back to my home town of Baltinglass, after twenty years living in Dublin, I had to travel to the city two or three times a week for research. About twelve years ago a gradual change began, when the first significant Irish genealogical records went online. Now my trips to Dublin are spasmodic, but maybe once a week.
One thing I normally travel there for is the Genealogy Advisory Service (GAS) at the National Archives. This service, free to the public, is run by a panel of Members of Accredited Genealogists Ireland (AGI) on behalf of the National Archives. AGI is the organisation from which I hold my credentials. Since 2003, with one short break, AGI has been engaged by the Archives to provide this service. There is one accredited genealogist on duty each day, and I do two or three days’ duty per month. I was to be on duty on Friday 13 March, an ominous date, but that day the Archives closed due to Covid-19 and it has remained closed for the past two months.
As every good family historian knows, Invention’s mother’s name was Necessity. As a temporary measure, the National Archives decided to provide an alternative GAS by email. On Wednesday 1 April, another choice date, I had the honour and pleasure of being the first AGI Member on duty for this new venture. It’s not ideal, as at the real face-to-face GAS there is interaction with the enquirer and it’s much easier to explain the processes. Nonetheless, the email GAS is proving popular and we advisors are getting used to its quirks. It’s strange how the mind works: though I know I do the email GAS at my kitchen table, on other days I still picture my on-duty colleague sitting in the GAS room in the Archives.
This email service, with an accredited genealogist on hand to advise you, is yet another way that the world of genealogy is adapting in the time of Coronavirus. Already I’ve seen it being copied in principle by a commercial company and a genealogy magazine. We in AGI appreciate the flattery!
Supposedly evenings are when television programmes have their greatest impact. Really, with so many channels now, it’s just by chance that people see any programme, unless it’s the news or Nationwide or something spectacular like Line of Duty or something addictive (to some) like Love Island.
In my childhood, rural Ireland had one television channel, so everyone saw just about every programme. I remember (or think I do) watching the funeral of Pope John XXIII. Certainly I remember seeing Charles Mitchell on the RTE news speaking about the assassination of JFK.
Even in the 60s, Dublin had the bonus of BBC and ITV. Years later Ireland got a second domestic channel and before you knew it we had wall-to-wall channels, showing all sorts. So now it’s quite rare for anyone to spot the odd appearance on tellie by someone they know.
In the autumn schedule in 2018, RTE broadcast the third series of the Irish version of Who Do You Think You Are?, a franchise that has had surprising longevity. It’s almost 16 years old now. That third Irish series was made by Animo TV. I featured for less than ten minutes in one episode of it. I was talking to Laura Whitmore about her Farrar ancestors from south Wicklow / north Wexford. Blink and you’d miss me!
A few people told me they saw it / me – maybe four or five people altogether over the space of a few months. Since then, the series has been repeated at least four times at an unearthly hour when only night owls like me would see it. Indeed, I caught “my” episode once by accident.
Last weekend I was busy at Back To Our Past Belfast. On the Saturday afternoon RTE had yet another repeat of “my” episode. Apparently stormy Saturday afternoons are prime viewing time. Despite the competition from all the channels, RTE must have done well that day. Just as my AGI colleagues and I packed up to leave Belfast I got texts from three people telling me that they had seen me on tellie. One of the texts was from Malta! Over the next three days I heard from another six or seven people who hadn’t blinked during the episode and had witnessed my appearance.
In the past few decades I’ve been on the odd programme here or there on the goggle box. This was my only time to be involved in any way with any of the WDYTYA? series. Most of the research for this Irish one was done by my colleague, Nicola Morris, MAGI, and her company, Timeline. I was drafted in for part of the research on Laura Whitmore’s ancestry and that’s why I ended up explaining some of it on camera. In fact, all the professional genealogists who appeared as talking heads in that series were Members of Accredited Genealogists Ireland. I’m pretty sure this was the only series in the entire franchise so far ever to feature only genealogists before the camera who hold credentials. That’s a good development in a profession that generally disregards the importance of credentials.
Laura was very nice, as well as being very clued-in and professional. While waiting about, I had plenty of time to wander around the empty rooms of Coolattin Park, the former Irish residence of the Earls Fitzwilliam, where “my” segment was filmed. My one regret about the episode was that my research credit went to another AGI colleague: another Paul. In a previous episode Paul MacCotter, MAGI, featured in the end credits for his research. Evidently someone copied and pasted those credits into “my” episode and my work became that of the other Paul instead! That’s television for you. :(
BTOP Belfast may not have been the biggest BTOP ever but there were plenty of people around and I enjoyed it greatly. Working with my AGI colleagues and the NAI staff was enjoyable. Meeting people (some for the first time; some catching up from before) also made it worthwhile. But the highlight for me was spending time with my retired colleagues Hazel Ervine, Joan Petticrew and Marie Wilson again after such a long time.
On my early visits to Belfast (like 30+ years ago!) they were at the heart of the vibrant Reading Room of the old PRONI in Balmoral Avenue. They were part of the small band of professional genealogists who founded APGI (now AGI) in Belfast in 1986. In the early years our annual general meeting was held in Belfast in alternate years and Hazel, Joan and Marie, along with the late John McCabe and our newest Fellow, David McElroy, were always there to greet us.
On Friday afternoon at the close of BTOP we in AGI, joined by other genealogists, had a little ceremony honouring Hazel, Joan and Marie (see the AGI news item). It was a happy event at which David recalled memories from the three ladies’ careers. His words made me think about my visits to Belfast back in the 1980s and 1990s. Whether those visits were for the AGM or for research in PRONI, my northern colleagues were always about and they were always welcoming and helpful.
Genealogy can be an entirely solitary pursuit if you only sit in front of your computer to research: even if you engage with people to an extent through forums or social media, or even Skype. Meeting people face to face, in the flesh, is an entirely different experience. I met people over the weekend I had corresponded with online or had heard of. Events like BTOP are among the few opportunities we have now for meeting in the flesh. The experience of genealogical research has been altered entirely by online availability. Record repositories are victims of their own success in responding to the demand for remote access. Their reading rooms are devoid of the hustle and bustle they once had. Going into Dublin’s repositories now you might see a few familiar faces, but meeting colleagues on a daily basis is a thing of the past.
It’s sad really, and David’s words on Friday made me acutely aware of what we have lost in gaining easier and faster access to information. As I said, spending time with Hazel, Joan and Marie was the highlight of BTOP Belfast for me.
Over the weekend my AGI colleagues and I were busy at the annual Back To Our Past (BTOP) event at the RDS in Dublin. We were running the AGI (Accredited Genealogists Ireland) stand, providing free 20-minute consultations, answering queries and promoting members’ publications. Among the publications was my new book, Credentials for Genealogists: Proof of the Professional, and I was very gratified by the response from professional genealogists and aspiring professionals.
While we were working away voluntarily at BTOP, promoting our accrediting and representative organisation, one of my colleagues was alerted by a friend to a slur in an Irish genealogy group on Facebook. In reply to a query about how to find a professional genealogist, the friend had posted a link to AGI’s website. A response was posted along the lines of ‘I wouldn’t trust any of those accredited genealogists: I’ve heard they’ll just take your money’.
My colleague followed this up and it transpired that versions of the same rumour were doing the rounds on various groups, all emanating from a genuine complaint made by one person. When my colleague tracked down that person they were happy to explain the real story and they asked: Is there anything you can do to stop her [the ‘genealogist’ who they engaged] from doing this to someone else?
The complaint was not about a genealogist accredited by AGI or any organisation. It was about an individual in Ireland operating a research and tour service under a business name. When told about it I recognised the name, as I had been contacted about this person a few years ago. It was a similar story – a client from overseas had paid this person for research, the research was not fully completed and / or there were mistakes, emails received delayed responses and then none at all.
The individual’s research / tour service has a website on which it is claimed that the business has membership of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG), New England Historic Genealogical Society, the Irish Genealogical Research Society and the Irish Genealogical Society International. This sounds impressive, but it is misleading as there is no actual membership of at least two of the four organisations. Three of them are general membership organisations that anyone can join. The other, APG, is a support or networking body for people working as professional genealogists but it provides no accreditation, and membership is open to anyone who undertakes to pay an annual fee and abide by its code of ethics. Evidently the research / tour service person does not abide by any code of ethics and it appears that she is not currently a paid-up member of APG.
So what can Accredited Genealogists Ireland do about this? The answer is simple: Nothing! AGI provides credentials for Irish genealogists whose work is approved by an independent board of assessors. It represents the interests of those genealogists and it will investigate any complaints made about their practices. AGI does not control the activity of practitioners outside of its membership.
On the other hand, AGI and its membership suffer the consequences to the profession’s reputation of the behaviour of people calling themselves professional genealogists who have neither ethics nor ability. AGI Members and Affiliates, as well as respected practitioners outside the organisation, are victims of the fly-by-night ‘genealogists’ just as much as the people who part with their money to these characters. And to add insult to injury, we have to deal with the utterances of third party rumour-mongers who blithely spread stories they only half understand about ‘accredited genealogists’ taking your money.
My advice to anyone stung by a fly-by-night is to complain to any organisation of which they claim membership, complain to any publication or social media outlet in which they promote their services, complain to any record repositories they mention in their publicity and complain to the relevant tourism and consumer affairs authorities.
My advice to anyone wishing to engage a genealogist is, as always, to look for someone with credentials from one of the world’s regional accrediting organisations. They’re all in my new book!
I'm a genealogist by profession, with credentials from AGI. I also dabble in local history and the history of Irish golfers, and I'm always writing something!