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.
Shock and horror! Today is the fortieth anniversary of my first day of work in genealogy. Where has all that time gone?
I should add that I was a mere teenager then, albeit months away from not being one. It was a dream-come-true. A few days earlier I had my ‘interview’ with Gerard Slevin, the Chief Herald, and I tried to impress him with my meagre knowledge of the records. He already had made up his mind. The Genealogical Office had a backlog of pre-paid searches and not enough researchers. Unknown to me, my enthusiasm had been mysteriously recommended to him and he was prepared to give me a chance.
What was on offer was not a job. It was a place on the panel of freelance researchers for the GO. I would be guided in my initial steps and I would be paid for the searches I completed. Mr. Slevin’s advice has rung repeatedly in my ears over the forty years since: Get it out of your system and then get a real job (or words to that effect).
He was not denigrating the profession of genealogy, as it didn’t exactly exist in Ireland at that time. No one conducting genealogical research for a living. Third level students did it part-time as a source of income; mature married women did it to stimulate their brain; people of independent means did it for the enjoyment. I was going to do it because it was all I ever thought of as a career. Perhaps I should have thought harder!
Working in genealogy for forty years has been hugely rewarding to my soul; had it been equally rewarding in monetary terms I would be a billionaire now. I’m not a billionaire. I had no desire to be wealthy and I knew genealogy would never make me rich. That, at least, was an accurate prediction.
This day forty years ago was thrilling for me, as I stepped across the threshold of the GO as one of its freelance researchers. I experienced delight and terror in equal measure. I met with kindness and encouragement from staff members and freelance researchers alike. They gave me an excellent grounding in genealogical research on which to build over years and decades.
It was in February 1979 that I first met my fellow freelance researchers, Eileen O’Byrne and Eilish Ellis, both now gone to a better place. They were my seniors in age, education and experience but they never made this gormless eejit of a teenager feel like anything other than a colleague. How can that be all of forty years ago?
Predictive text often has us using odd words, conveying a message we never intended. Technology doesn’t always know what we’re thinking! To an extent there is a similarity with the automated ‘helpful’ suggestions we get from the websites of data-providing companies. While they may prove accidentally relevant, or even helpful, by and large they are misleading distractions.
Those I have received fall into two categories: records I already have (but haven’t displayed on an online family tree) and records of people with the same names as my ancestors (but from an entirely different part of Ireland). Luckily I can tell the difference between my ancestors and these strangers. But people starting out in family history often think that the computer somehow mysteriously knows best, and ‘adopt’ the strangers into their online family trees. The fact that the strangers may not fit geographically, socially, religiously or chronologically with their known ancestors doesn’t immediately occur to them. This is one of the root causes of ‘genealogical virus’.
That’s not a widely used expression. ‘Genealogical virus’ is a phrase I coined to describe what I feel is a damaging trend and I first used it in print last year in my book, Credentials for Genealogists: Proof of the Professional.
The cynic in me knows that the ‘helpful’ suggestions are designed to keep me engaging with the site, in case I get bored and wander off to a more ‘helpful’ data-provider. But there are more useful ways that they might engage their customers. If they would concentrate more on explaining the genealogical and historical context of databases, and less on technology, they might well provide information that is helpful to their customers, while retaining their interest.
As things stand, the explanation of sources that such sites provide is meagre to non-existent, and in some cases downright inaccurate. It is apparent that the decision making behind these sites is in the hands of accountants and technology experts rather than genealogists. Hard-nosed business decisions are understandable, but they can go hand in hand with real attempts at helping customers find their way around the records. Educating the customer is not necessarily a bad business decision.
The nature of genealogical research has changed significantly since it has shifted from the record repository to the computer. It is noticeable that a large proportion of novices are less au fait with the records and research methods. They are more inclined to accept hints at face value and ‘adopt’ strangers into their family trees, thereby spreading genealogical virus. This has an impact on my work. How is that?
When I’m approached by a potential client looking to expand on their information on a particular line of ancestry I have to evaluate their information and determine whether worthwhile research is possible. This was a fairly straightforward process a decade or more ago. More often than not they had correct information. Now I no longer can assume that this is the case: evaluation has become more time consuming. I’m sure fellow professional genealogists everywhere are having the same difficulties as I am. Now, more than ever in the past, it would be remiss of a professional simply to take a client’s information and start building on it.
Very often an enquirer will refer me to their online family tree for information. Do any professional genealogists actually base their evaluation on such shaky foundations? I don’t. An online family tree, no matter how many ‘sources’ it may have attached to it, can be riddled with genealogical virus. To evaluate its contents it needs to be picked apart very carefully. Having any number of sources attached does not indicate the research process employed, or ensure that the alleged ancestors are who the enquirer thinks they are.
I would be quite happy to be commissioned to play devil’s advocate on the contents of an online family tree. But it’s another thing to conduct a free evaluation in order to determine whether further worthwhile research might be possible.
Because I don’t know an enquirer’s level of experience in family history I have to treat all as beginners and ‘interrogate’ them as to their initial family information, their research approach and the sources that have led them to the ancestors they wish me to work on. This doesn’t always go down very well with enquirers. But, unfortunately, it has to be done because of the relationship between genealogical virus and computer-generated helpfulness!
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!