Career profile: Genealogist digs deep to unearth family roots
By John Schmid / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Genealogists — those who ca accurately trace a line of family descent through generations — are sometimes misunderstood. It’s easy to confuse them with services that sell generic information about last names and even coats of arms with dubious scholarship.
But the work of professional genealogists involves detective-like legwork and prodigious research. David McDonald, based in Madison, Wis., has needed to comb libraries across the nation, haunt courthouses, scour parish registries in Germany and tramp more cemeteries than he can count.
McDonald is certified by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, although there is no certification requirement in the trade. The work is most often a vocation of passion more than financial rewards.
Even the most dedicated typically need a day job, often as librarians or archivists. McDonald is a pastor in the United Church of Christ.
“Genealogy can be a tough field in which to earn a full-time living,” he said in an email interview.
Here’s more about his work from that interview.
Q: How do you describe what you do?
A: [I] assemble and document connections in families to help folks understand their relationships and family connections.
Sometimes it’s for a court, when there’s an inheritance or property issue needing resolution.
Other times, it’s to help a person conduct their own research. I volunteer in the national genealogical community as a board member. I lecture at conferences across the country.
Q: How did you become a genealogist?
A: As a junior high student in suburban Chicago, I had a class assignment to do a family tree. I contacted my mom’s aunt, who sent me copies of excerpts from books that others had compiled on the family.
I thought that was really neat, to be listed in a book.
That next summer, I was introduced to some of my grandmother’s extended family and they sort of adopted me as one of their own.
This connected me to a whole realm of relatives I’d never knew existed. From those two events, I’ve been off and running.
Q: Is there renewed interest in the U.S. in genealogy?
A: Genealogy resurfaces as a popular hobby every couple of years. Part of its popularity is the ease with which information can be found these days.
When I started, it was letters, stamps and envelopes, long-distance phone calls.
With the tools available through Internet search engines, and the commercial genealogical service providers working to put more and more material online, it’s a simple task to connect both with information and with others who are actively researching their families.
Of course, that’s where I often come in. When folks do a lot of digging, it’s easy to make the mistake of “the name’s the same” and misconnect people into a family who don’t belong there.
I also think that people want, as much as ever, to know who they are. We don’t live for generation upon generation on the family farm or hometown as much as we once seemed to do.
Q: Has the Internet changed this sort of work?
A: It has revolutionized the way in which researchers share material.
Used to be carbon paper, manual typewriters and thick manila envelopes filled with typed pages taking weeks to prepare and distribute were the norm.
Photographs, if they could be located, were rarely copied for others because the holders feared the originals wouldn’t be returned.
Q: Do you work full time as a genealogist? How do genealogists earn a living?
A: Most genealogists lecture at club gatherings and conferences, and while the pay is not very good, it does help build a network of colleagues. Lots of folks work elsewhere for a day job. A number work as librarians.
I know a number who work as forensic genealogists to identify military veterans’ remains, recovered from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Many work as archivists for colleges, universities and church-related organizations.
Q: Is there special training for this work?
A: I earned the credential Certified Genealogist under the Board for Certification of Genealogists in 2004.
I was required to submit a portfolio containing research reports, complete complex research tasks related to the evaluation and interpretation of evidence, and demonstrate family connections over a three-generation span for a family.
Every five years, we are required to submit a similar portfolio to renew our credential.
Q: Have you ever unearthed an astonishing secret of history in some family?
A: Oh, illegitimacy. Incest. Stolen inheritances, to name a few.
Perhaps the most presentable secret was confirming that my great-grandfather died after a night out drinking with the boys in 1903.
As they were staggering home from the tavern that early winter night, he stepped into the path of the morning milk wagon while crossing the Illinois River bridge and was run over.
The family version had it that he was waylaid while on his way home from a meeting of the Knights of Columbus, which is to say coming home from church.