BACK TO SCHOOL
If being a professional researcher is your fantasy job, or you want to get to the bottom of a tricky family mystery, then a course could be the answer. Claire Vaughan finds out why...
Do you fancy improving your chances of discovering what happened to the family fortune, or perhaps you’d like to give up your day job and become a professional family history sleuth, solving other people’s genealogy mysteries? Whatever your dreams, a course could make them come true. There are plenty on offer – from free bite-sized options to degrees with an £8,000-plus price tag.
The Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA) actively promotes learning and continued professional development among its members and potential members. Antony Marr, chair of AGRA’s Board of Assessors, says: “Researching our family history is something many of us slip into as a hobby, and the knowledge and experience of the subject is picked up piecemeal over many years with no formal training.”
The relatively recent surge in interest in family history has generated some exciting career opportunities. Universities and other institutions now offer courses to those wishing to take a bold step into the world of professional genealogy – or just hungry for knowledge. “For a long time the educational options for genealogists were few and far between,” says Antony. “But as the growth of the internet has fuelled interest in the subject, the number of courses available to researchers (amateur or professional) has increased.”
Before you make the leap, it’s important to consider why you want to do a course and what you hope to get out of it. There are other considerations too, such as budget and time constraints, even though the internet has now made remote learning as easy as ABC.
If it’s about boosting your knowledge, the London-based Society of Genealogists (SoG) runs lectures, half- and full-day seminars, evening classes, short courses and week-long Family History Getaways to satisfy a wide range of tastes. It also offers a distance-learning programme with
The surge in interest in family history has generated career opportunities
Pharos Tutors in Family History Skills and Strategies (Certified), plus e-learning courses and modules for members via the new Learning Zone on its website ( sog.org.uk/bookscourses/events-courses).
“We always try to find interesting lecturers who look at the practicalities of genealogical research, as well as documentary sources and the social and historical contexts. The teaching is backed up by the resources in the society’s remarkable library,” says SoG genealogist Else Churchill. “Our programme is aimed at anyone with a curiosity and passion for family history.” Its timetable is packed with topics, from London street traders to French prisoners of war. “We cover what you need to know and what you didn’t know you needed to know!” laughs Else.
Learning to bust brick walls
The National Archives (TNA) in Kew is also a great place to go for brick-wallbusting courses on specific subjects. Audrey Collins, TNA’s family history records specialist, says: “Our offerings are unique in that they are based on the incredible wealth of records we hold, and the expertise of records specialists, who create and maintain our online research guides.”
TNA has free podcasts and webinars too on everything from Agincourt to Zeppelins ( media.nationalarchives.gov.uk), plus “we have a regular programme of talks and events at Kew. In August we are running a two-day family history course in partnership with King’s College.” You can find out more at bit.ly/tna-events, while TNA also has free online tutorials on Latin and palaeography on its website.
Some local family history societies run their own evening or weekend classes, and you can find the society nearest you at the Federation of Family History Societies website: ffhs.org.uk/
members2/contacting. The North of Ireland Family History Society (NIFHS), for example, has a very active programme of courses ( nifhs.
org/resources/courses). “They are unique in that we take on board topic suggestions from our members. For example we are now providing a wider range of courses on DNA because of demand,” says Martin McDowell, NIFHS’s education officer.
He notes that a sense of community has developed around the courses. “They appeal to all age groups and social backgrounds. It’s great to see different groups help each other out when they can.”
You should check out furthereducation colleges and your local authority’s adult-learning offerings too; some, like Bristol City Council, run family history courses ( bristolcourses. com/courses/family-history).
If family commitments or other obligations mean that your free time is limited, you’ll be glad to hear that there are some great online/distance-learning options. These structured programmes can include assessed coursework and regular online hook-ups with tutors and fellow students.
Professional genealogist Celia Heritage recently launched a programme aimed at students who want to learn expert research skills ( heritagefamilyhistory.co.uk/
ecourse). “Having been a tutor on the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies correspondence course, I wanted to offer people a shorter, more manageable set of modules with a less scholastic approach, but still supplying essential, in-depth know-how.”
This option is not tutor-led, but you can top-up with one-to-one tutor sessions – and work at your own pace. “It has an accompanying student-links website that acts as a portal for a host of online family history resources. It’s delivered as an e-course with downloadable modules and specially formatted clickable images that enlarge, so you can study them in detail alongside each module.” To do all seven modules costs £299.
But if you dream of working as a professional researcher, you can improve your chances of success by joining one of the professional bodies such as AGRA, the Association of Scottish Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (ASGRA) or Accredited Genealogists Ireland (AGI; formerly the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland).
One route to AGRA membership is via an accredited course. Antony Marr says: “These range from short, subject-specific courses, like those offered by Pharos Tutors, to universitylevel options that lead to recognised qualifications.” You can find a useful guide at agra.org.uk/join-education.
Pharos Tutors courses mix online resources with distance learning, and take the form of bite-sized chunks covering many topics – each student chooses what they want to focus on.
Prices range from about £34.99 for a short unassessed course ( pharos tutors.com/coursesmainsd.php).
Helen Osborn, managing director of Pharos Tutors, says: “Our courses are friendly, affordable and flexible. Class sizes are small, and students can really get to know each other and the tutors without having to travel. They don’t simply learn about different types of records, but are also equipped to understand the complex world of genealogy sources online and offline.”
Another option accepted for AGRA membership is run by the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies (IHGS), which Celia mentioned. It offers accredited courses covering subjects from heraldry to 20th-century research as online or correspondence courses, from elementary level to a Diploma in Genealogy.
Les Mitchinson, IHGS’s director of education, says: “We supplement our courses with a programme of tutorials and one-day modules, and offer practical classes covering clientreport writing, drawing a pedigree tree and a full day on becoming a professional genealogist. We also have a specialist six-module heraldry course.
“We want students to have the confidence to visit the archives and use a wide range of records. It’s wonderful to watch an absolute beginner develop into a competent researcher.”
It’s wonderful to watch a beginner develop into a competent researcher
The correspondence course in genealogy costs £2,340. Visit ihgs.
ac.uk/courses for more details. In addition several universities run family history courses. At Aberystwyth students can work towards the Certificate in Higher Education: Genealogy – a part-time, flexible scheme – as part of the Lifelong Learning programme ( aber.ac.uk/ en/lifelong-learning/genealogy). Modules, from house history to writing for the web, take place on campus. Tutor Calista Williams says: “Students enjoy access to a wide range of facilities, and there is the opportunity to visit the National Library of Wales next door.”
Gill Rossini also teaches on the programme: “We run the courses on outreach all over Wales and are in the early stages of developing them as online/distance-learning courses. The core modules offer a solid grounding in the basics of researching and can be studied in English or Welsh, but we also have optional modules that put students’ ancestors firmly in the context of the world in which they lived.” Modules start from £55 for five-credit options.
Strathclyde and Dundee both offer postgraduate qualifications in genealogy. The University of Strathclyde’s free online course Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree is a great introduction to formal study and is offered in conjunction with Futurelearn ( futurelearn.com/ courses/genealogy) for beginners and intermediate-level students.
Seeing the big picture
“The course provides an understanding of the big picture of different aspects of genealogical research and how to get started with family history in a way that is logical and provides welldocumented results,” says the course’s director Tahitia McCabe.
It acts as a gateway to Strathclyde’s Genealogical, Palaeographic & Heraldic Studies online postgraduate programme ( strath.ac.uk/studywith us/centreforlifelonglearning/genealogy). You can do a foundationlevel Postgraduate Certificate, Diploma and MSc part time over three years or there’s a one-year full-time MSc in Genealogical Studies.
“The Postgraduate Certificate provides a thorough grounding in the theory and practice of UK research,” Tahitia adds. “We require students to work with Scottish and English records, as we feel that UK genealogists need a familiarity with both countries’ records.” The programme’s focus on genetic genealogy is unique: “We believe every genealogist should be able to advise a client about what DNA testing can tell them.”
In addition a couple of eightweek standalone beginners’ courses are available covering British records, heraldry and genetic genealogy. They can be used as entrance criteria for the postgraduate programme.
“Our programme is recognised by AGRA and ASGRA as providing some exemptions from the criteria required for membership. It appeals to genealogists who want a recognised qualification, and is useful for those who want to work with solicitors doing ‘heir hunting’.
“We focus on traditional research methods and record sets, but also provide students with information on new techniques such as genetic genealogy and family tree software.”
The full-time postgraduate diploma/ certificate each cost £3,100, and the full-time MSc £8,350.
At Dundee University you can study for postgraduate diplomas, certificates, Masters degrees or PhDs; do short accredited courses; and try taster sessions – all online and flexible ( dundee.ac.uk/cais/programmes/familylocalhistory). Postgraduate and short courses are accredited by the Archives and Records Association (UK and Ireland) and are recognised by ASGRA, while Masters students can join the Register of Qualified Genealogists (find out more at qualifiedgenealogists.org).
“Our students gain the necessary knowledge and skills to find, read and understand archives, and discover the context in which they were created. We aim to help people build up a real picture of what life was like for their ancestors,” explains programme leader Caroline Brown. “Some of our students take the courses purely for interest, but others plan to work in family and local history.”
Fees are £7,620 for the Masters, £5,820 for the diploma and £2,910 for the certificate.
Whichever course you choose, it will be time (and money) well spent. You’ll improve your research skills, enabling you to get more from the records that you use; you’ll meet likeminded people; you might break down a brick wall or two; and your studies could even lead to you turning your passion for genealogy into a whole new career.
Studying family history has changed beyond all recognition since these boys learnt about the 1931 census