Sunday, November 6, 2011

Why I Want to Remain an Amateur

Our genea-blogging community has an amazing range and combination of people from all demographic groups (even young people, thank God!), all walks of life, many different countries and just about every state of the United States, and, what is quite impressive and interesting, all parts of the professional-to-amateur spectrum as well as genealogy newbies and old hands that have been doing genealogy for 50 years.

As the genealogy blogging community has gelled, developed, and assumed an increasingly recognizable and well-defined identity, it has been joined by an increasing number of professionals, and, if I am not mistaken, the proportion of “semi-pros” (extensive background in research, solid skills, but not yet certified and/or only engaged in research for pay on a part-time basis) has always been fairly high. Add a good share of keenly interested and often very experienced amateurs to this mix, and the result is an eclectic group that in the aggregate covers almost every possible genealogy-related subject and possesses a huge fund of erudition and skills.

I note with interest that many of the “amateurs” are interested in pursuing some of the formal tracks of study such as ProGen study groups and genealogy institutes with the goal of eventually becoming professionals, and that many “semi-pros” are working toward certification. I haven’t really noticed any significant friction among the groups, although occasionally there does seem to be some concern about non-professionals feeling left out of discussions of topics of interest primarily to professionals such as certification and building a genealogy research business.

When I read posts or discussions on these subjects, I never feel left out or that I am being condescended to by the pros or the semis. But I have no intention of ever joining their ranks.

Don’t get me wrong: when I say that I want to remain an amateur, I certainly do not mean that I’m happy with just “amateurish” skills; like many other keen amateurs in our midst, I would definitely love to achieve professional-level skills and am doing whatever I can to learn as much as I can.

But, for a number of reasons, I have no desire to make a living at, or even earn money from, genealogy research. And while I love to help my fellow researchers - through translations, lookups, etc. - even if I could afford to, I do not want to be a full-time genealogy volunteer.

In no particular order, here are my reasons:

1. I already have a profession/vocation. I am good at it. I earn a living from it. I don’t want to give it up.

2. I like security. Some professional genealogists are able to earn a decent living, but getting to that point obviously takes a huge amount of sustained effort - in acquiring the skills, getting the certification, getting the experience, and getting the word out. Then comes the part where the professional must decide what kind of a professional/paying job or combination of jobs to pursue: his or her own business (and what areas that would cover), employee of one of a handful of genealogy-related companies or publications, archivist/librarian, educator/speaker, writer/editor/publisher, and so on. While any of these individually or in combination can be quite enjoyable and even somewhat remunerative, none of them really offers significant security. When the economy is poor, there is less money available to hire a professional researcher or pay for a genealogy class, and we all know that archives and libraries are some of the first items to go on the chopping block when budgets are cut.

3. I enjoy travel - but not all of the time. A professional genealogist does not necessarily have to do a lot of travel, but for many it seems to be a regular part of their job. I am a bit of a homebody and after a certain point, the hassles of constant travel would get to me.

4. I am not the greatest at marketing myself and would not be terribly skilled at or enthusiastic about the commercial/advertising aspects of being a professional genealogist.

5. I’m not sure I would be so good at handling poorly informed clients. “I want you to prove that I am related to Conrad Plinkelpoint.” “I can do the research that may prove you are or are not related to him.” “I want you to show that I am related to him.” “Can’t do.” You all know where this leads.

6. This one is something Sheri Fenley of The Educated Genealogist and others have addressed: When your client has contracted to pay for a certain number of hours and the research you have done has filled that number of hours, but you know that there is somewhere else you could search. In other words, the temptation to do extra work for no compensation - not a good business practice. In short, I am a good worker, but not a good businessman.

7. I want genealogy to be fun. That means no pressure. That means not having to put my own research on the back burner while I do research for clients. That means being able to keep my own work days to a manageable length (okay, workdays often get out of hand in my current job, but that’s another discussion) and to be a flibbertigibbet when I feel like it. When I discovered genealogy back in 2005, it met several real needs, mainly the need to learn about my family’s history and to do something that is incredibly enjoyable but enriching and educational at the same time. I was working very hard at my day job and at my rest-of-the-time job as a wife and mother, and genealogy sort of saved my sanity (no comments from the peanut gallery!).

It is still saving my sanity, and that’s what I want it to continue to do.


  1. Once again, Greta, you've done a great job articulating what many of we "amateurs" believe and practice. There's room for all of us in the genealogy world. Thank you!

  2. Thanks for the shout out Greta! I am so behind on everything right now. I let myself fall to pieces over my damn cat dying and now am paying the price of frenzied catch-up.

  3. I think there are lots of tracks to becoming a "professional" and not all of them involve having clients. I do not usually charge anything for research but I am writing books, does that make me a "professional" genealogist? or a professional writer?
    I really like your post.

  4. A thought-provooking post, Greta, and I could relate particularly to points 5 and 6. I have done some research for friends (particularly those without computers),on a voluntary basis and got very caught up with it, regardless of the time I was spending. It has also crossed my mind to try and go professonal when I retire, but I am not sure, so you helped crystalise my thinking. Many thanks.

  5. Love this post. To me the term "professional" is that you get paid to do the work.

    I enjoy my research and am excited when I make a new discovery. I do not want to be a professional genealogist.

    To do it for a client would be stressful because I would want to find "all" the information. So, I read magazines and blogs to give me ideas on where my ancestors are hiding.

  6. As always you say what I would, but, so so much better than I ever could. You nailed it all, every point!

    The small disclaimer, I have done a limited amount of work for "fee" and have pretty much given that part of my life up. I did not like keeping track of hours, research reports or charging clients for 4 hours for a 4 sentence report of a death in the local newspaper from 1850something. He was a great guy, paid for his 4 hours and 4 sentences with no animosity that I could feel. But, it was like a burr under a saddle for me, really uncomfy.

  7. Greta, Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I've struggled to some degree with these same things. While I have done some research for a fee, I finally re-identified (after losing my enthusiasm for research for a time) that money is not the primary reason for being active in genealogy. I am not certified or accredited, and kicked that around, too. Then, someone said something like "the purpose of [an online research aid] is to help people." THAT helped me refocus!
    I do what I do because I love it and love helping. Some of the most wonderful people I've met are doing just the same thing. What a great community!
    Thanks, again.

  8. Very nicely written Greta! Congratulations on knowing what you want, and being able to define it. many can't do that.

  9. I totally agree and #7 is the main reason. I don't have enough time to get everything done that I want with my own research.

  10. Great post, Greta! I have a relative who keeps telling me I should go pro, but as I keep telling him, I don't know nearly enough yet to do that. Besides, I have a LOT of research still to do on my own family. I gladly help friends when they ask, but I happy playing for free in my own sandbox tyvm.!

  11. Some members of my family don't understand why I won't become a professional. I have all the same reasons you posted, so I'm going to print this and hand it to them when they mention it again. I also think if I did genealogy research with the pressure of it being my full time employment, that would take the fun out of it, then what would I do for fun?

  12. Loved this post! I recently, and reluctantly, agreed to be listed as a "paid" researcher at my local genealogy society. I've resisted up to this point because 1) I do this for free as a USGenWeb volunteer; 2) I do this for the local genealogy society (they get the $$ but it's limited look-ups, not full-blown research); 3) I have a hard time understanding why people would want to hire someone to do all their research when they could have the fun of doing it themselves. I'm meeting with my first "client" this week, with no idea what I should charge and hoping I can steer her to doing it herself, and I'd be glad to help her along the way.

    Your post just solidifies my thinking, too.

  13. When I first became involved with genealogy I considered becoming "certified". I was told that you do not have to be "certified" to be a good genealogist. For all the help that I got in the beginning from others, I do like to "pay it back". I think we all have our own areas of "expertise" and areas where we are comfortable. It takes all of us to make it work in the end. It was a great article.

  14. From one amateur to another, I really appreciate your point in Number 7! Great post!!!

  15. Greta: Having done research for over 30 years and in the past 5 or so taken courses to possibly become a professional, when I retired a year ago, I realized I now had the time to do more research on my own family tree. So I remain an "amateur" and am if that's the label attached because I don't want to hang out my shingle. I'm having too much fun!!

  16. Great post, Greta. Like you mentioned in Point #7, I too want to do this for the fun of it and learning about my family first. With the pressure of a full time job, I wouldn't want the pressure of doing genealogy professionally to take the fun out of it.

  17. Amen, amen, amen! I wish I could say you've written just what I believe, only more eloquently. But 'tis not so. Instead you have (as you often do) sparked a thought process that has clarified my beliefs.

    I can't claim a career to occupy me, but I surely don't have the patience or interest in doing this for other people. It's all I can do to get my own "house" in order (can't tell you what you sparked with your cleansing projects - and I'm not ready to thank you for that, yet). The research is a joy, a sanctuary, a place where it is possible to make sense of lives when our own lives fail to make any sense at all. I could never risk turning it into a job.

  18. Great post, Greta. I've found I don't really like doing professional genealogy the old-school way, and I'm pursuing teaching genealogy and family history research in a myriad of ways using technology to make a business. To most professional genealogists, this doesn't make me a professional genealogist. Okay, but perhaps the definition of a professional genealogist needs to expand or maybe we need to come up with a term. Or I can just call myself an entrepreneur. You know, what? I think I like that better. There's room for all of us, and getting caught up in what this is and that is or what we want to call it allows all of our ancestors to slip further away from all of us. I'd rather be proactive. I want everyone to record their family history, and I want to help them do it. And I want to be able to put my kids through college too.


  19. Great post, Greta. I 'd just like to point out that there is no consensus on how to define a "professional genealogist." Some say you are a professional if you accept fees for your work. Others hold that if your work adheres to professional standards then you are a professional. Some even insist on credentials from ICAPGEN or BCG. Using best practices benefits both you as you research, and anyone who reads what you have created. I'm sure you are at least noting the sources of your information, using good sense in linking evidence, and creating great reports. Not every one has to be certified or accredited, or even charge money.

    In this field, the more, the merrier! There is DEFINITELY room for all genealogists!


  20. Great post, Greta! Spot-on! In genealogy there is something for everyone.

  21. Great post, Greta. I feel the same way and had thought when I retire (which I did last December) I'd work toward being a certified professional. But I'm kidding myself. Many of your points fit me, too. I'm not good with business and selling myself. Would it be as much fun researching someone else's line and it is for myself? I don't think so. However, I'm continuing to educate myself so when I do research, I act as a professional.

  22. Susan P. - Thank you for your kind comments. I'm honored to be your "fellow amateur"!

    Sheri - I am so sorry to hear about your kitty. We are such cat people in my family; each loss is devastating for us.

    James - You are one of the outstanding examples of how that amateur/professional line blurs. Professional skills, extensive involvement, and some possible profits, but not dependent on it to make a living - how do we classify that?

    Susan D. - You have also described my situation - I have helped some people out with their research and looked some things up for people, and I got as deeply into as I do on my own family. I like doing this occasionally and on my own terms, but I could never charge for it.

  23. Claudia - As I read your comment, I'm thinking that there need to be a number of subcategories of "professional" and "semi-professional" - some get paid for occasional work, some work full time and make their living that way, etc. And you are exactly right - it is the stress that I don't think I can handle (not that my "day job" doesn't have its own stress...).

    Carol - Yes, I would feel exactly the same way! Sometimes you can find gobs of information in a few minutes, and sometimes a couple of tiny bits of info take hours and hours. Can't cope with that!

    Joleen - The money part can be really nice, but it can be the source of stress, guilt, and much more. I sort of knew from the beginning that I would want to remain an amateur, but I'd love to attend some of the genealogy institutes!

    Cheryl - Thank you! I have thought a lot about how lucky I am to love my vocation and my avocation, so this post sort of wrote itself.

  24. Greta:

    Great post! I too am an amateur and will remain one. I love volunteering my time to help others in their research but to get paid would make it a "job". Regardless, I will continue my own education because I enjoy learning and it helps my personal research. I agree, I never feel less than worthy with my professional friends! Thank you for the thought provoking post!

  25. Linda - Yes, I save the biggie for the last. Gotta enjoy it; and I even try to avoid putting myself under pressure such as "You must get this project done by such-and-such a time" - even that van kill the joy.

    Bill - It is nice to have your skills recognized, though, isn't it? But I agree, it's more fun just to help out where you can.

    Becky - Exactly! There are just some things that must be done for fun alone. (Glad if I could be of help!)

    WG - I have used a "for pay" local volunteer - it was a great deal, and I really felt that she had not asked enough for her services. And library employees have also been incredibly helpful - definitely professionals!

  26. Dorene - As I wrote, activity for fun = sanity!

    Linda J. H. - Your situation sounds like the ideal one - amateur with professional-level skills having fun!

    Alana - I agree, and think that the "full" part of "full-time job" would threaten to expand to "all-the-time job"!

    Susan C. - Ha! I've always known we are kindred spirits. And just so you know, the inspiration flows both ways! And wishing you good luck with all your cleaning and organizing!

  27. Caroline - I agree absolutely. I see so many different ways to be a genealogy professional, and I think that it is the ability to choose among so many different paths to a profession in genealogy that makes it a much richer pursuit for all.

    Polly - As I mentioned, I absolutely want to have professional-level skills and am doing what I have within $ and time constraints to sharpen my skills. I have Evidence Explained and Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian. I keep track of my sources as completely as possible, and when I write up certain points of my research (more for specific research problems than in general family portraits) on my blog, I try to use proper citation format. And you are right about the more the merrier (I think I wrote something about that in "Toward a Genealogical Democracy").

    Jenny - "Something for everyone" - yup, and we all benefit from that.

    Lisa - The other part of this equation is that pursuing an education in genealogy is also very enjoyable.

  28. Wow, this almost sounds like exactly what I've been thinking when I weigh the pros and cons of becoming a professional genealogist. My main reasons for not doing it yet are not having enough time for my own research and being afraid that making it a real "job" will make it less fun. That being said, I am still taking classes to earn a certificate through the Natl Inst for Gen Studies, but that is mainly to enhance my skills with my own personal research at the moment. If it helps me as a professional later, that will be great too, but that is not my main reason for pursuing the formal education.

  29. Wow, Greta, you must have been reading my mind because you have put into print exactly how I feel. Folks ask me all the time if I am a professional genealogist, and I proudly say "No, I'm a professional volunteer genealogist." No pay, no contracts, no deadlines, no pressure, just fun!

  30. When I was an obsessive gardener, I was playing "Johnny Appleseed" in many others' yards. Several people thought I should "go pro." I had the same kind of thoughts you expressed about genealogy.

    I actually started out with a similar mindset in genealogy, but then realized I could facilitate growth in the discipline by promoting expertise and leaders, a shy, introspective yet personable folk.

    In the process I learned a thing or two hanging out with pros and highly skilled "amateurs."

    I am heartened to see that this symbiotic relationship is growing by leaps and bounds. Everyone benefits. The discipline is evolving. It is still fun in this genealogical frontier.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post.

    Now I have to go plant some spring bulbs in my brother's yard :)

  31. Jennifer - I like your idea - go ahead and get the education and the certification, and then you can go either way - the knowledge will benefit you in both cases.

    Heather - You are the very best example of the "professionally skilled - super volunteer - amateur by choice" genealogist! This is the wonderful flexibility we have in this pursuit.

    AncestralManor - OMG, gardening is the other thing I have seriously pursued, and I even did a bit of (very amateur) landscaping once. Never gonna try that again. I, too, love that symbiotic relationship in our community - I think everyone benefits hugely from this.

  32. You're so right! I'm more than happy to help out others, but I'd be reluctant to ask for any payment, apart from, let's say, a nice cake, or even information in return. So no business sense in that regard. I have a job, that keeps me clothed, housed and fed, I have many hobbies that keep me sane.

  33. Wow, Greta you really touched a chord with this post. I, too have no desire to become a professional genealogist, but I'm in awe of those you do. I'm having enough trouble just keeping track of my own family!

  34. I have truly enjoyed this post and each comment and entry. Although I am a full-time (all the time) professional genealogist,and love it, I struggle to carve out time for my own research. There are so many ways to be apart of a community and volunteering and helping other is a virtue. I say follow your heart!

  35. Taco - Your mention of the cake reminded me of a time some years ago when we used to drive a neighbor's son to and from preschool along with our daughters - our payment was a really fabulous dessert every Friday - I always thought we got the best of that deal!

    Linda - Like you, I am in awe of the people who have the dedication and courage to be pros - they are definitely great examples.

    Kathleen - Well, you are one of the pros I was thinking of in the above comment! I feel the same way with language sometimes - I know a lot about the subjects I translate, but sometimes I would like to build up other areas of my language knowledge, too - but find the time? That's a whole 'nother matter.

  36. Extremely well written post Greta! Even though I want to become a professional (someday), I agree with what you wrote and have some of the same concerns (don't know how good of a business woman I would be).

    Always great to read your blog!

  37. I am totally obsessed with my own genealogy and my husband's and spend so much time at the computer that I'm sure it can't be healthy. I've been doing this for 16 or 17 years now and I see no end in sight. I make new discoveries every single day still and I can't imagine putting my own fun research aside for something as trivial as MONEY. LOL!

  38. Great post! Your list is wonderful!