Applying for Certification? It's Worth It!


William M. Litchman, Certified Genealogist


William M. Litchman, a retired professor of chemistry, was an enthusiastic amateur genealogist for many years before he began the certification process. A native of Kansas, he lives with his wife in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He enjoys teaching and calling old-time American dances and plays in a folk-music band. Other interests include church work and five delightful grandchildren.

There must be a million reasons why we choose to do what we do. I've often chosen to tackle something difficult just to see if I could do it. For example, in college I chose the challenge of chemistry as a major, while all my friends were choosing history, biology, communications, theater, speech... anything but the hard mathematical sciences and particularly not chemistry!

In the same way, when I became interested in genealogy it seemed natural to make the extra effort required to put to the test all of the skills, methods, and specialized techniques I learned over the years; in short, I decided to apply for certification from the National Board for Certification of Genealogists.

Because of my training as a scientist, I looked at the certification process as an exciting opportunity to apply the scientific method to the problems of the wonderful field of genealogy. I found it especially appropriate to make this test against an established reference background of solid scientific genealogical standards with the opportunity to be judged by others in the field who have proven their capabilities. So I sent in my $25 and asked for an application form.

As I began reading the requirements for the procedure to qualify as Certified Genealogist, I was overwhelmed by and at the same time excited about the amount of attention to detail that was required. I thought I had been keeping careful notes and documenting my sources. I soon found, as I began to assemble the bits required for various parts of the application, that my note-keeping was just barely adequate, at best. What a shock! I was simply not prepared for the intensity of work that would be involved.

I think that the work required for certification is comparable to that needed to earn a master's degree. It takes about the same length of time to put things together for certification, once you have acquired the necessary basic knowledge and research techniques, as it does to complete a master's-level research project and thesis, and involves the same rigorous standards.

The application has several parts. The easy questions are things such as your educational background, instructional courses in genealogy taken, experience in genealogical research, foreign languages you read and write, and membership in genealogical societies. You are also asked your reason for making application, your areas of specialization, the accessibility of records to you, a list of articles you have published, and to sign a statement of ethics.

Next came two more difficult tasks: a discussion of secondary sources and the reading and interpretation of original documents. There are so many secondary sources that it is certainly possible to find examples showing all possible variations and differences which can be discussed for the purpose of the question.

Reading and interpreting original handwritten documents can be trying, but I'd had some experience reading such things as wills, deeds, and census records. Though I knew that my transcriptions of handwritten document samples would probably produce some disagreement between my best efforts and the impressions of the judges, I felt this wouldn't be a major problem. For me, the hardest part of this assignment was creating a research plan based on the information gained from the transcriptions.

I quickly discovered the three zingers in the whole process. These three projects--the Compiled Genealogy, the Client's Report, and the Preponderance of the Evidence argument-- absorbed most of the two years it took me to complete the certification requirements.

For the Compiled Genealogy I had to find all descendants of a given couple down through the third generation and listing the fourth generation children. The instructions say, "Include a wide range of record types, particularly for more recent generations. Vital records, newspaper obituaries and censuses are unacceptable. Support each individual statement with reliable references with full citations. Citations should chiefly be to primary sources. 'Personal knowledge' or 'Oral history' is not a satisfactory source unless it is substantially supported by primary evidence."

While this is a large project requiring meticulous detail, it's mainly a matter of ordinary but accurate searching for data, using good documentation and reporting practices. The successful completion of this project is on a par with passing the course work required in preparation for that master's degree.

The Client's Report involves reaching acceptable conclusions regarding a difficult problem in establishing family relationships. Similar to the compiled genealogy, the report also shows proficiency in using sources. Writing a client's report does not mean that you must already be doing research work for clients; a report based on a research problem in your own family will suffice. This report is very much like a term paper for a graduate course in techniques of historical research.

My approach to my clients, especially in written reports, varies for each individual situation. I try to make every report honest, professional, and complete but not necessarily ready for publication! This part of the certification process provided real heartburn for me. All my reports to the client I chose to include, an older man who has great difficulty with written matter, are oral reports, with written reports serving as a full-scale account and reminder of what we discussed. Terseness in a written report would not suit his needs. He wants to read it like the discussion went. As I repeated things for him during a discussion, so the report repeated itself. Because I knew that the reports I was writing for this client would not be clean enough for publication, it was with trepidation that I included them, as is, with my application.

The last of the three zingers, the Preponderance of the Evidence project, requires creativity, ingenuity, and dogged determination. The application booklet says, "Give an example, drawn from your own research. You should describe the problem, analyze information that both supports and contradicts the conclusion you have drawn, and adequately rebut all factors that appear to negate your conclusion."

This report was my greatest test. Preponderance of the Evidence is a sophisticated concept requiring advanced understanding and comprehensive research skills. First of all, the presentation of a proof in which there is no direct documentation requires exhaustive research. Secondly, the researcher must consider and disprove ahead of time any alternative theories or explanations that readers (and judges) may come up with.

Finally, the argument must be based on substantial circumstantial evidence and supporting documents gathered from a wide variety of sources. It must be obvious that enough of a search has been made to eliminate, in effect, all other explanations than the one presented. This project is as difficult as the creation and writing of a master's degree thesis. For my Preponderance of the Evidence project, I searched for the unknown father of a 19th century Missouri woman whose family originated in Virginia.[1]

The day that my final certification application package went into the mail, I felt the same sense of relief that I felt when I finished my doctoral dissertation defence in chemistry, with one major difference. By the time I walked out through the door after my defence, I knew the results of my work. In contrast, after the mail slot swallowed my certification application and my $125, I had to wait for four months to learn that I was (at last!) a Certified Genealogist.

Do you have to be a college graduate with a string of letters after your name to apply for certification? Of course not! The comparison which I have just given describes how my own inadequacies made me feel. The work involved is a delight to any genealogist, though if I were to do it again, I would first invest in a few courses in genealogical research techniques. So if you have acquired a good working knowledge of genealogical theories and research techniques and if you'd like to test yourself on those skills, why not send for an application and see what you can do?

[1] "Widows, Stepkin, and Support Networks: Clues to the Unknown Father of Miranda (Taylor) Morris," by William M. Litchman, Ph.D., CG, National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Vol. 84, #1, Mar 1996, pp 5-15.

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