Becoming a Professional Genealogist

Everyone’s educational path to becoming a professional genealogist is somewhat different. Here’s mine.

I’m pretty much self-taught. I’ve not attended (as a student) any week-long institutes or seminars. I have I taken any genealogical classes. I don’t see that as a limitation and there’s no reason for me to act like I have done something I have not. I am inquisitive and questioning by nature. I like to know the reasons behind things, to try and fit things into their appropriate context, and to understand (as much as possible) motivations people might have had for what they did.

I was extremely fortunate in two ways: I grew up a few miles from the courthouse in the county where many of my ancestors have lived since the 1850s and I attended a local university that housed an archive that had a significant number of local records in their collection.

Proximity to the local courthouse meant that I had easy access to the records needed to trace much of my ancestry back to the early 19th century. I literally went through every record the courthouse had on many of my direct line ancestors. There is no better way to familiarize oneself with court, land, probate, and other local records than by actual hands-on research. I looked at every record–I did not just use one type of source. Being familiar with a broad range of sources is crucial to successful genealogical research.

I also had to take notes on these records while I was using them. Copies were not cheap and I was just a kid with no income. There were no digital cameras. Information left the courthouse on the few copies I could afford to make or in my notebook. Reading materials and extracting relevant information is a good skill and one a genealogist needs, but not one that I immediately had. It took time to develop abstracting and notetaking skills. I frequently learned my lesson the hard way realizing later ¬†“I know I read that somewhere and wished I had written it down.”

For that reason, I began citing my notes. The form was rough and very “non-Evidence Explained,” but it served the purpose of allowing me to go back and find the record again if I needed to clarify what I had written in my notes. While I now know there is much more to citation than being able to go back and find it again, for me that was the original reason to cite every copy I made or note that I took. Being forced to take notes by hand taught me to concentrate on what the key elements of a document were.

My families were not homogeneous. This strengthened my research skills and forced me to develop more than one cultural reference point. My families initially fell into four broad categories:

  • Ostfriesen immigrants to Illinois the mid-to-late 19th century
  • German immigrants to urban and rural areas in several states in the mid-19th century
  • Irish immigrants to the rural United States in the 1860s
  • Early settlers to the Southern United States who eventually migrated into Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois

There are similarities to researching these families and there are significant differences. Working with these families in Illinois required slightly different approaches, largely for cultural reasons. My Ostfriesen families had naming and cultural practices that were different from my other Germans. I learned early on that what was true about one group of people might not be true about another.

Working with these families before they came to Illinois required significantly different approaches, but I noticed that there were some commonalities to the process. My varied ancestral background strengthened my research experience. Even if a researcher wants to concentrate on a certain area or ethnic group, researching individuals from other eras provides a broader perspective.

Along the way I had relatives who were full brothers that shared a same last name, an ancestor who was married five times (twice to the same man and one marriage was not entirely legal), ancestors who practiced patronymics, and numerous other “minor” problems that easily confused someone without much research experience.

The university I attended had an archives that contained a wealth of local records, mostly microfilm copies of county records, along with actual tax and other records. I was fortunate to have access to this material. At some point, I became aware of records at a more local level (church and cemetery) and state and federal records. I did not limit myself to just the “easy” or commonly used records. I also began reading academic journals that included articles on rural sociology, agricultural history, and other articles that had some bearing on my ancestral background. Developing a historical understanding strengthens genealogy research in ways that cannot always be quantified.

Those are not things that a typical college math major reads. While my undergraduate and graduate studies were not in history (or any social science), I feel that they strengthened my research as proof, logic, and analysis are crucial to the study of mathematics. I have never felt that my lack of a degree in the social sciences has hindered me in regards to performing genealogical research.

One has to be willing to admit that they have made a mistake and that there are things they do not know. One also has to be willing to learn.

At some point in the process I began reading how-to materials, genealogical journal articles, and other published works. I read sections of state statute regarding probate, property deeds and title, citizenship, etc. I also asked for help from others when I was confused. I also attended genealogical workshops and seminars when I could. Some of these were more helpful than others. I continue to read journal articles, manuals like Evidence Explained, etc.

Everyone’s path is different and that’s not what matters. What matters is that one:

  • Research families from more than one time period, location, or ethnic group
  • Learn about all the sources available for the time period, location, and ethnic group being researched
  • Read journal articles covering other families from that area
  • Be willing to admit mistakes
  • Be willing to learn
  • Choose more than one family to research completely, comprehensively, and more exhaustively than you ever thought possible




One thought on “Becoming a Professional Genealogist

  1. One other thing that matters is meeting one’s personal goals. Whether one chooses to research just a few families extensively, or to do enough to get a flavor of each ancestor’s life while tracing ancestry back to ancient times, where possible, each person’s goal is different. And it all matters!

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