Are you a Genealogist or Family Historian?

I recently posted a question online that had been puzzling me for some time.

“What name do we give ourselves when we refer to our hobby and what we do? Are you a Genealogist or a Family Historian, or something entirely different?”

Is there actually a difference and at the end of the day, does it really matter?

I have always referred to myself as an ‘Enthusiastic Amateur’, both in a light-hearted way, but also semi-seriously. This to me highlights the fact that I am not a professional researcher and my view is ‘what I lack in ability, I make up for in enthusiasm’. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it does show that I am not a professional researcher. As an aside to this point, I know many amateur’s that are equally as skilled as their professional counterparts, so, therefore, being classed as “an amateur” is by no means a detrimental title, I just mentally differentiate an amateur from a professional based on the fact that the professional charges for their services, whereas an amateur does not. Now I know many of you will cross over both sides of that fence, but it’s just a simplistic view of my own, that helps me sort out who’s who.

I was astounded at the response to my original question and I was literally inundated with replies, which really made me question my own views and it made me think about how we describe ourselves is far more important than I ever imagined. Of course, if you are making a living from Family History and you are already classed as a ‘professional’, then the image you might want to convey will be reflective of that, and you will want to convey an air of ‘professionalism’ and quite rightly so. For maybe the rest of us, the hobbyists, it’s a bit more fluid, and we can change our name a bit like a chameleon does to suit every occasion.

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The problem that I find with labels, whether you give them to yourself or you are given them, is that they can actually be slightly misleading. My original tongue-in-cheek title that I gave myself, at the start of the blog; ‘Enthusiastic Amateur’, although only meant as fun, can actually have a negative impact on how people might view you. The word amateur can imply either a lack of experience or level of expertise and can also suggest a lack of quality. I am sure many of the amateurs amongst us, including myself, would feel slightly aggrieved at being thought of in that way. So, therefore, the name that we give ourselves can potentially be more significant than we actually realise. You could also consider at what point and what level of experience do you consider it reasonable to give yourself a “Title”. My good friend Gem, of Quirky Gem’s Podcast fame, suggests that a person should really “earn their stripes first”, before actually calling themselves something, which is certainly another very valid point.

Quirky Gem’s Podcast

The results were quite revealing. The two most common replies were indeed ‘Family Historian’ and Genealogist and there was a noticeable difference between the replies from UK ‘Genies’ compared to my American friends. It does appear that there is a divide of opinion across the pond. It might well be a cultural difference in language? I would love to hear your views on the subject.

In my view, a ‘Family Historian’ is someone that researches people, places, cultures, heritage and the context of where and when our ancestors lived. Whereas a Genealogist implies somebody who just researches pedigree’s (family tree’s), of course, I am sure that some of you will disagree with this.

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There were certainly lots of variations of both these terms, some humorous and others, just a subtle variation of the original two;

Here are just a few examples of the alternatives;

Genealogy Geek, Collector of Stories, Family Researcher, Historical Researcher, Story Teller, Armchair Genealogist, Story Keeper, Family History Keeper, to name but a few.

So, has my own opinion changed from my original thoughts?

Whilst I am still very much ‘enthusiastic’ and I am still not a ‘professional’, I have opted to change my title to ‘Story Teller’, which best describes what I am trying to achieve, but Family Historian also ‘fits’ rather nicely. Does any of this really matter and is it really that important? Yes, if you hope to make a living at Genealogy or Family History, but less so if you are a hobbyist, such as myself.

If you have your own thoughts, I would really love to hear from you and maybe you call yourself something entirely different. Over the years, I have also affectionately referred to myself as ‘The Happy Reaper’ because of my obsession with trying to find the final resting places of as many of my Ancestors as I can, but that’s an entirely different story.

Just for fun, I have created a few new titles for you all to enjoy. Maybe you fit into one of these categories instead?

Tree Harvester – Someone who collects and ‘hoovers up’ trees and people from anyone’s tree they find on our favourite Genealogy website, probably has a tree that contains over 50, 000 names on it.

Cut and Paste King – Someone who thinks in Genealogical terms that GPS means Global Positioning System. Somebody that is quite happy to cut and paste any relative facts from someone else’s tree and thinks that as far as verifying the details are concerned, they are happy that “it must be a fact, because I saw it online”.

The Magpie – Who hasn’t been attracted by that ‘Bright Shiny Genealogical Object’? We all have to a certain degree, but it takes strong willpower and discipline not to spend all day, every day, chasing ‘Fools Gold’.

The Ethnicity Expert – Takes a DNA test purely for the Ethnicity Estimate and frustratingly for you and me, has no interest in Family History or building a family tree. Never replies to a DNA message.

The Surfer – Spends many days aimlessly flitting around our favourite websites with no structure or method and repeats the same searches again and again and again……

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The Archiphobe – Someone that thinks that all records are online and has never left the comfort of their armchair, very dismissive of others who suggest that there are ‘other records available’.

The Finisher – Someone who has obviously ‘finished’ their family tree and cannot understand why the rest of us are lagging behind.

So which one are you?………………

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37 thoughts on “Are you a Genealogist or Family Historian?

  1. I consider myself a “Family Historian” however, apparently when I made up cards to hand out at conferences I called myself a “Genealogist” so I must have had a bigger opinion of myself that day as I do tend to think of professionals more as genealogists. Great topic!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The post is very funny, rather brilliantly written, really, quite apart from the question. I’m not involved in any sort of genealogy, nor am I barking up any family tree. But if you ask me, I think Family Historian is beautiful. It’s warm and rounded and it does justice to the contents of your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I have to say, I’m an avid reader of literature. And yet, your posts are a welcome addition. I find strange comfort in them. They are simple, down-to-earth, elegantly written, and really reaching out to your readership. Thank you for your blog!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. As a complete novice writer, that means the world to me. I am astounded that people read what I write and even more grateful when people say that they actually enjoy what I write. That’s definitely the most comforting and encouraging compliment that I have received so far, that’s extremely kind of you.

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  3. I’m both genealogist and family historian. I think they’re on a continuum, because who knows where exactly they kiss and commingle? Also I find my clients want to be assured I know what I’m doing, but that I also present information in an accessible way, which to me is a leg in both camps.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Absolutely it’s important that clients feel a sense of professionalism with how you present yourself but it’s a fascinating subject to hear everybody else’s opinions. As an experienced amateur I like to emphasise the story telling part.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoyed the article and the titles you made up at the end. Very clever. I call myself a family historian. Genealogy is just a tool I use in building my stories. But come to think of it, I did recently title myself a genealogist on my Facebook page. Oops! I think people “get” that word, and it’s shorter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Eilene and I’m glad you enjoyed the tongue in cheek made up names at the end. When I first began to look at this I felt that what we call ourselves wasn’t really that important. However the more I have looked at it the more I began to realise that even as an amateur it is actually more important than I realised.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I use both terms, choosing one over the other based on what I’m doing. If I’m taking a more factual tact, I’ll use “genealogist”. When I’m writing a story about an ancestor or relative, and trying to make sense of the facts, I’ll use “family historian”. I’ve acquired gobs of information over the last 45+ years. Much of it does not fit into traditional “events” in my software, but it needs preserving so it doesn’t die with me. Even when I’m telling a story, I find myself doing research to make sure the details in the story match reality.

    You mentioned a difference in the terms used, depending on which side of the Atlantic replied, but didn’t specify which term was preferred in the USA vs. UK. Enquiring minds want to know . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Christine and you are very much in the same boat as myself, I have previously bounced between titles and names to suit the occasion and audience. I initially thought that it didn’t really matter what I call myself, as an amateur I’m not being paid for my services so why does it matter? But thinking about it more, it’s about sending the right message of who you are and what you are trying to achieve, hence why I lean towards “story teller” or “family historian”. With regards the difference across the pond, the term genealogist tended to be used more by people in the USA whereas here the term used most often was Family Historian. I would be interested to hear more from my friends down under to see what their opinions are

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  6. This is the definition of genealogist from the Oxford English Dictionary “One who traces the descent of persons, or who is interested in the study of genealogies.” It doesn’t say anything about being paid to do so or differentiate between “professional” and “amateur”. (“genealogist, n.”. OED Online. June 2021. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/77481?redirectedFrom=genealogist& (accessed July 18, 2021).)

    That said, I use both terms to describe myself as I both trace lines of descent and research/write about the location, social history, geography, etc. of my ancestors.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Teresa, I think there is also a difference between here and the USA which might be based on the slight language difference? I can fully understand why professionals have to convey a certain amount of credibility in their titles, but a really interesting subject to discuss

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Dear Paul, once again your post resonated for me. As I was preparing my blog post today I seemed to use either genealogist or family historian to describe what I do. Thinking a bit deeper I would also answer to Essential Genealogist and Ancestry Whisperer. Mostly what I do (after I have researched, harvested evidence and written ancestral stories) is pass on my tips for others to become successful Family History Detectives.!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Carole, it’s a great topic to discuss and we all have different perspectives on how we view ourselves. It would be great to canvas more opinion from down under, the predominance of ancestors were from the UK and USA, be good to see what your friends and colleagues think
      On the subject.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I have long referred to myself as a family historian, because for me it’s all about the broader context of our families’ lives, places and experiences. In my mind, genealogy is like the framework of a house, necessary to discover more detail about each person, but far from the whole story. It’s also why I say a family history blog is writing your family stories online.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. i agree its about the wider aspects of out ancestors lives, its as much social history as family history. i love the framework of a house analogy, we can hang the pieces of information on the framework or walls of the house

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  9. I’m an American calling myself a “passionate genealogist” because I’m rather obsessive about building out my family tree, but I am not, at this point, a professional, although I would like to be. I don’t have the money to put into the training I think I would need to become a professional.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. My card says Genealogical Researcher as I am involved in both seeking more data for myself as well as finding answers to questions others ask of me. As for “earning my strips” more than fifty years have passed since I begin my quest and aside from those with an interest in DNA help I feel quite qualified to seek help in both brick and mortar as well as on the web. Doing a small search for folks in court houses, churches, cemeteries, newspapers, on-line, etc is much more different than creating a pedigree with all the facts, sources, pictures and stories. Both have been done in the past. Thus ‘researcher’ seems to sit well for me at this stage of my life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Norm it sounds like you have a wealth of experience and expertise to offer the family history community. For me it’s about bringing all the aspects of our ancestors life that tells their unique story in the best way that we can. The records are the framework with which we hang the story

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  11. Ah, great question! As for researching my family history, I am most definitely family historian, because my primary goal is to record the facts about the past generations I already know and try to verify their accuracy. I am not conducting any researches which are remotely close to what you are doing.
    But I also wanted to comment on amateur/professional distinction. I am doing a lot of volunteering in different areas. For some of these activities, I am an amateur, but some colunteering, like leading local professional meetups, require TONS of experience. If you go to my LinkedIn page, you would see that in addition to my current place of work, I proudly mention “Local organizer of Chicago PostgreSQL User Group”. That being said, I think that whether you are paid for this work or not is not necessarily a decisive factor.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a great discussion point and you raise a really good point in the distinction between amateur and professional. The way I separated the two in my own head was whether one was paid for work or not which didn’t take into account people that are willing volunteers and carry out free research on behalf of others. It’s a great and valid point that I hadn’t thought of so thanks for sharing that with me Hettie

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Reminds me of the time back in the day when everyone in the tech world called themselves an evangelist of some sort. Being an ordained minister I would refer to myself as an “actual evangelist.”

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I’ve only been doing research on my family tree since 2012, so I’m just a baby really in the community. At first, I considered myself an amateur genealogist, but as time has gone on, I’ve grown more to be a family historian as well. I wanted to know more than just the names in my tree. I wanted to know their stories. Their lives. Maybe try to understand some things that have happened so I could better understand myself. So now I refer to myself as a Family Historian and Genealogy Addict. The genealogy addict comes from the Facebook group I help admin: Genealogy Addicts Anonymous. We are definitely addicted to researching our ancestors.

    Your post was really thought-provoking for sure. Made me really consider what I do call myself and how others would perceive me. And I think, for now, Family Historian and Genealogy Addict fit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Jen I am so pleased that you found my post both interesting and thought provoking. The more I looked into this the more I began to question how I saw myself more and more and it became a fascinating and interesting discussion. I love the “Genealogy Addict” tag that’s got a modern feel to it, thanks for sharing with me your views Jen.

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    1. Thanks Jennifer, i have found it such a fascinating topic to discuss. When I first started to write this post ihad the idea that it wasn’t really that important, but more and more I began to realise that its a fundamental part of who we are and what we do, so I had to rethink my own viewpoint

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  14. I’m from UK and I always say I’m researching my family tree. My family call me the family historian. A Genealogist to me is a professional expert who is totally dedicated to the field and displays a wealth of knowledge and is able to present their findings with utmost certainty that every cross reference has been verified and sourced. Even after 30 years I would call myself an amateur as i dip in and out if it at will.

    Liked by 1 person

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