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From Data to Narrative: Genealogist versus Family Historian

Lene Dræby Kottal, Certified Genealogist®
From Data to Narrative: Genealogist versus Family Historian

The titles genealogist and family historian are often used interchangeably, but some claim that genealogy and family history are two distinct disciplines with their own focus and approach to researching and understanding our ancestry.

Alleged Differences Between Genealogists and Family Historians

Paul Chiddicks, an amazing storyteller, has sparked a debate about the alleged differences between genealogists and family historians. He defines a family historian as "someone that researches people, places, cultures, heritage and the context of where and when our ancestors lived." Since I call myself a genealogist, I was saddened to see that his perception of a genealogist is "somebody who just researches pedigree's (family tree's)."1

The debate continued on social media. Though Paul and others recognize that the two disciplines overlap, many people seem to think that genealogists are mainly focused on records and raw data such as names, dates, and places, whereas family historians are focused on people and narratives about them.2

Standards for Genealogy

I hold the credential Certified Genealogist® and in all my genealogical research, personal and professional, I strive to follow the standards set out in the book Genealogy Standards by the Board for Certification of Genealogists. In the manual, genealogical researchers are referred to as family historians, who use the standards "to obtain valid results," and it is written that the standards apply to all genealogical research, including "personal research and research for clients, courts, and other employers."3

Several standards indicate that genealogical researchers of all kinds should focus on family history:

  • Genealogical research aims to answer questions of "an identity, relationship, event, or biographical detail." (Standard 10)4
  • Genealogists' "plans often include artifacts, authored narratives, oral histories, various kinds of records, and other sources concerning agriculture, demographics, DNA, economies, ethnicities, geography, government, history, inheritance, land, laws, migration, military activity, occupations, social customs and norms, religions, or other aspects of the research questions." (Standard 14)5
  • Genealogists present their assembled research results in various types of works, including genealogies, lineages, and pedigrees, which all "include descriptive biographical narrative besides any vital statistics." The biography can detail many aspects, for instance "each person's or family's ... lifestyle." (Standards 72-73)6

In my opinion, these quotes show that the standards recommend that genealogical researchers – whether called genealogists or family historians – focus on the broader study of a family's history and its place within a larger social and cultural context. And that they both use a variety of sources such as archived records, family collections, and oral histories to paint a complete picture of the lives and experiences of their own or their clients' ancestors.

Genealogist and Family Historian are the Same

To me, a genealogist and a family historian are the same. Without data there can be no narrative. Without the narrative, a genealogy does not meet the industry standards. Context is essential when we research our family history. Some genealogists, sadly even professionals, do not care about context and stories. Some of them probably fall into the category that Paul Chiddicks calls Tree Harvesters.7 However, their approach has nothing to do with the title they use.

When applying for certification with the Board for Certification of Genealogists, you must submit a portfolio for evaluation. One of the elements of the portfolio is a kinship-determination project (KDP) that could be either "a narrative genealogy, narrative lineage, or a narrative pedigree."8 In my KDP, I wrote a narrative lineage about three generations of ancestors, including my seventh great-grandmother Anne Hansdatter and her father-in-law, my eighth great-grandfather Niels Simonsen. Below is the opening paragraph.9 I would say that it is indeed a story about people and family history – even though it is written by me, a genealogist.

It was Sunday 22 June 1704. The congregation was gathered in Sanderum Church, except those who were too sick and Hans Poulsen and Rasmus Clausen's wives, who were at home with their newborn babies.a Widower Niels Simonsen was probably there with his children, and the neighbor Anders Pedersen and his wife probably sat there with their baby, as proud parents.b Anne was there, but she was not proud; she was ashamed and probably terrified. Jens was there, too, but it was over for him; he had already confessed their sin.c Old Minister Pedersend called her name: "Anne Hansdatter!" The walk to the altar felt longer than usual, but Anne had no choice. She confessed to the minister, to the congregation, and to God. She had sinned. She had sex with Jens Jørgensen even though they were not married.e "I forgive you! God forgives you!" said Pedersen, and the congregation echoed, "We forgive you!"

Do You Call Yourself a Family Historian or a Genealogist?

If you want to share your opinion about the possible differences between the titles genealogist and family historian, you are welcome to do so in the post about the subject on my Facebook page. I am also be interested in hearing if you call yourself something else. I have seen many creative titles for people who enjoy researching their ancestry, but new titles shows up regularly.


Source References for the Blog Post

  1. Paul Chiddicks, "Are you a Genealogist or Family Historian?," blog post, The Chiddicks Family Tree (https://chiddicksfamilytree.com/2021/07/17/are-you-a-genealogist-or-family-historian : accessed 7 January 2023).
  2. Comments to Paul Chiddicks, tweet, 17 July 2021 at 2:18 pm, Twitter (https://twitter.com/chiddickstree/status/1416371708836057091 : accessed 7 January 2023). Also, comments to Paul Chiddicks, tweet, 30 December 2022 at 9:22 am, Twitter (https://twitter.com/chiddickstree/status/1608740375249981440 : accessed 7 January 2023).
  3. Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG), Genealogy Standards, 2nd edition (Nashville, Tennessee: Ancestry, 2019), page xix.
  4. BCG, Genealogy Standards, p. 11-12.
  5. BCG, Genealogy Standards, p. 13.
  6. BCG, Genealogy Standards, p. 39-40.
  7. Chiddicks, "Are you a Genealogist or Family Historian?"
  8. The BCG Application Guide, revised edition (Washington, D.C.: Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2021), p. 7-8; PDF download (https://bcgcertification.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/BCG_Application_Guide_2021revised.pdf : accessed 7 January 2023).
  9. Lene Dræby Kottal, "Copyholders During the Absolute Monarchy in Denmark: A Descending Narrative Lineage of Niels Simonsen of Sanderum," Kinship-Determination Project, 10 November 2021, p. 2.

Footnotes for the included part of my narrative lineage:

  1. The King expected everyone to participate in all prayers and services, see Kongeloven [The King's Law], 14 November 1665, section 1. However, women should stay at home for five to six weeks after the birth, see Christian den Femtis Danske Lov [Christian V's Danish Law aka the Danish Code], 5 April 1683, book 2, chapter 8, section 9. Hans Poulsen and Rasmus Clausen's wives had probably not returned to church, yet, because they had children baptized on 11 May 1704; see Sanderum Parish (Odense County), Parish Register 1646-1749, Baptisms, p. 260, Hans Povelsen's Karen and Rasmus Clausen's Anne, Festo Pentec. 1704 [Pentecost]; image copy, The Danish National Archives, Arkivalieronline (https://www.sa.dk/ao-soegesider/da/billedviser?bsid=181056#181056,30741529 : accessed 10 November 2021) > image 128 of 278. In 1704, Pentecost was on 11 May, see R. W. Bauer, Calender for Aarene fra 601 til 2200 efter Christi Fødsel [Calendar for the Years from 601 to 2200 after the Birth of Christ] (1868; reprint, Viborg: Dansk Historisk Fællesforening, 1991), p. 14-15, Maj 11.
  2. For the baptism of Anders Pedersen's child and his Ravnebjerg residence, see Sanderum Parish, Parish Register 1646-1749, Baptisms, p. 260, Anders Persen's Karen, Domin. 2 a Pascha. 1704 [2nd Sunday after Easter]. Persen was a common variant of Pedersen.
  3. Jens Jørgensen was publicly absolved for premarital sex with Anne Hansdatter of Ravnebjerg on 9 March 1704, see Sanderum Parish, Parish Register 1646-1749, Public Absolutions, p. 534, Jens Jørgensen, Domin. Judica. 1704. Judica Sunday (the Fifth Sunday of Lent) was 9 March in 1704, see Bauer, Calender, p. 14-15, Marts 9.
  4. Jens Pedersen aka Colding was ordained as minister of Dalum-Sanderum Parishes in 1663, see Hendrich Lindenow, Jens Pedersen Colding ordainment confirmation, 30 November 1663; filed in Dalum Pastorate, Official Correspondence 1663-1881; The Danish National Archives, Odense. Also, Niels Bang, Jens Pedersen Colding ordainment confirmation, 2 December 1663; filed in Dalum Pastorate, Official Correspondence 1663-1881. Jens Pedersen remained there until November 1704, when he died, and Jacob Hiort took over the vocation; see Danske Kancelli [The Chancery], Fynske of Smålandske Registre [Copy Book of Open Letters to Funen and Småland] 1699-1707, folio 358 verso to 359 recto, 1704, no. 47; image copy, The Danish National Archives, Arkivalieronline (https://www.sa.dk/ao-soegesider/da/billedviser?epid=19982040#273438,52194614 : accessed 10 November 2021) > image 366 of 534. Jens Pedersen's burial was not recorded in the Sanderum parish register, but the handwriting in the parish register is different after October 1704; see Sanderum Parish, Parish Register 1646-1751, Burials, folio 21 verso [aka p. 204], 1704; image copy, The Danish National Archives, Arkivalieronline (https://www.sa.dk/ao-soegesider/da/billedviser?bsid=181057#181057,30741774 : accessed 10 November 2021) > image 95 of 137. See also this overview of ministers in The Chancery, Minister Vocation Book for Zealand and Funen Dioceses 1660-1790, folio 48 recto, Christiansdal aka Dalum and Sanderumb; image copy, The Danish National Archives, Arkivalieronline (https://www.sa.dk/ao-soegesider/da/billedviser?epid=20223603#297749,61114244 : accessed 10 November 2021) > image 47 of 86.
  5. Sanderum Parish, Parish Register 1646-1749, Public Absolutions, p. 535, Anne Hansdatter, Dominica 5.a Trinitatis 1704. The 5th Sunday after Trinity was on 22 June in 1704, see Bauer, Calender, p. 14-15, June 22.

Disclaimer: Views expressed in this blog post are mine, and I do not represent the Board for Certification of Genealogists. If you intend to pursue certification, please refer to the application guide.