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.
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. :(
Gorry has done a service to the genealogical community.
That was one of a number of complimentary remarks in a review of my book in the latest (September 2019) edition of the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly. A copy of the review was sent to me the other day by Mary Penner, CG, the APGQ managing editor.
Almost a year on from the Facebook launch of the book, Credentials for Genealogists: Proof of the Professional, its subject has been back on my radar again in recent weeks, and having a bit of an impact in different parts of the world. Just over a week ago I addressed an event run by the Association of Scottish Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (ASGRA) at The Dome in New Register House, Edinburgh: a wonderful and extraordinary room in which to lecture. The ASGRA Professional Day was an information seminar for Scottish genealogists thinking of transitioning to professional research, or already in the early stages of a career.
My topic at the event was ‘The Importance of Accreditation’ and I emphasised my opposition to the creation of career barriers in the field of genealogy. What I mean by this is the attempt from some quarters to limit access to the profession to people completing courses on the subject. As I said on the day, there are many routes to becoming a fully functioning genealogist and restricting most of those routes would be detrimental to the profession. Ultimately, receiving accreditation (or credentials) is what proves the genealogist’s ability. Accreditation is not a ‘barrier’, as it is not mandatory; rather it is enabling to the accredited professional as it guarantees their all-round ability.
Some time ago I was asked by the editor of the Australian heritage quarterly, Traces, to write about how to become a professional genealogist. Lo and behold, on the same day as the APGQ review arrived I also received a copy of my article, ‘Turning Genealogy into a Career’, published in the latest issue (No. 8) of Traces. While it concentrated on Australasia, much of what I said in it might relate to anywhere in the world. One such thing was:
People who have not been in a formal education setting for years, or decades, may find it daunting to sign up for a course that involves essays or exams … Learning may be at a different pace, in a different format and without the formality of a certificate or diploma course.
The review of my book in the APGQ was by Paul K. Graham, who holds both the American credentials – Accredited Genealogist (issued by ICAPGen) and Certified Genealogist (issued by the Board for Certification of Genealogists). To be honest, I was not expecting APG to appreciate the forceful opinions I expressed in the book about recent trends in the profession, which included criticism of APG’s open membership policy.
Months ago my forceful opinions elicited social media comments about the book such as:
From what I've read so far he doesn't pull any punches
Whew, that was a challenging read!
My aim was not to shock or offend, but rather to make people in the profession pay attention to how fragmented it has become. This was appreciated by Stuart A. Raymond in his review in the June 2019 edition of the Genealogists’ Magazine, the quarterly journal of the Society of Genealogists (London). He wrote:
This book ought to be read by all professional genealogists, and would be useful for anyone seeking to employ one.
Paul K. Graham’s review in the APGQ nodded gently at the forcefulness of my views but also understood my aims:
The book creates starting points for conversation through untempered opinions and is an enjoyable read.
As someone credentialed by two organizations, I found much to agree with, a good amount to disagree with, and even more food for thought.
His final comment was:
[Gorry] advocates strongly for the value of credentialing in our field, but without sugarcoating problematic issues. Those who wish to understand professional genealogy today will find Credentials for Genealogists: Proof of the Professional a must-read text.
I’m grateful for the impartiality of Graham’s review and for APGQ ’s editorial openness to my ‘untempered opinions’.
My book, Credentials for Genealogists: Proof of the Professional, is available to purchase online (see the link from my website: https://bit.ly/2ztcI3t).
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!