‘Digital communication and information technology have revolutionised how genealogists work’: Else Churchill on her work at the Society of Genealogists


Else Churchill, Head Genealogist of the Society of Genealogists, tells
London Oral History‘s Marése O’Sullivan about what it’s like to tackle case studies, lead the SoG’s education programme and – of course – how the SoG can help oral historians.

How did you first realise you enjoyed genealogy?

Photo courtesy of The Churchill Centre.

Photo courtesy of The Churchill Centre.

Growing up with a famous surname and being asked the inevitable ‘are you related?’ question meant I had some background interest but I never really pursued my own family history until I was earning my living in genealogy. My first love has always been history. Eventually I established my Churchills had nothing to do with Sir Winston Churchill (you can find out more about the latter’s ancestry here).

Who or what originally inspired you to pursue family history at a professional level?

Coming out of university in 1982 (at least two or three recessions ago) and at a time of growing graduate unemployment there weren’t many opportunities to make a living in a historically-related sphere. A chance introduction led me to the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies (IHGS) in Canterbury where I was going to train as a straight genealogist, but their former librarian had just died and they needed someone to take over their extensive professional working library. So I stepped up and did my postgraduate library training on the job. I ran the library for 11 years with genealogy research in the background.

Can you tell us more about your experience prior to working for the Society of Genealogists (SoG) and how you turned from librarian to genealogist? Did you want to combine both professions?

When I left the IHGS I worked with a team that set up their own professional research practice. But I did discover there that I didn’t really enjoy professional case work, which to my mind can be quite pressured. I enjoy wandering off tangent and that’s not always practical when you are trying to make the most cost effective use of your time – in the professional sphere (at that time) it was more likely to be directing the work out to local field agents rather than doing it yourself. I much preferred helping other people do their research and found I really enjoyed teaching and writing rather than everyone else’s case work.

How did you get involved with the Society?

Having run the IHGS library the SoG knew me and, after I left IHGS, the SoG wondered if I would come and help them out by providing the maternity leave cover. I stayed working in the library at the SoG from 1994 and when the former Director Anthony Camp retired I applied for his job. Although I didn’t get that, the jobs at the SoG were recast and they developed my job as the genealogist responsible for an extended education programme, along with publications, outreach, PR and external liaison, which I’ve been doing since 1999. The CEO of the SoG actually administers the Society.

Else Churchill at Who Do You Think You Are? Live preparing for her guest talk. Photo courtesy of WDYTYA? Live.

Else Churchill at Who Do You Think You Are? Live preparing for her guest talk. Photo courtesy of WDYTYA? Live.

What has been your biggest challenge in the role?

Leading the Society through the changes in our community. Digital communication and information technology have revolutionised how genealogists work, but the SOG’s principles of sound and rigorous research applied to everyone’s family history still apply.

What is a typical day like for you?

The job is very diverse and I often have several projects on the go, but it usually involves a lot of writing and editing. My team and I answer lots of email enquiries in the morning and try to manage projects in the afternoon. Recently I’ve been teaching one of the Family History Skills and Strategies Intermediate Genealogy modules, which the SoG has developed in partnership with Pharos tutors. We are developing the advanced stages to take this further. I’m responsible for the talks and workshops that the SoG puts together and we are looking at the next show in Glasgow this summer as we speak, as well as putting our own diary of events together for next year. I’m also putting some programmes together to take to the USA and overseas courses. I lead on external liaison and we are active in trying to get the GRO in England and Wales to be more efficient in providing information from birth, marriage and death certificates.

What can the Society offer in terms of resources for oral historians?

Photo courtesy of the Society of Genealogists.

Photo courtesy of the Society of Genealogists.

Interesting question. Our resources are mainly documentary and source driven, but we do have an active family history community, busy asking their relatives for family information and stories. We encourage them to use the guidance of the Oral Historians in asking the right questions and recording their material. I’m not sure how many of our members have thought of recording their life stories but I bet they wished their parents had.

Can you give us some of your top tips for our readers to preserve their family history and/or record oral history?

There are some useful tips on our website along with record guides and information leaflets.

What websites do you find very useful for family research?

I use the main sites like Ancestry, Findmypast and FamilySearch every day, but at the moment I adore using the 19th century newspapers on The British Newspaper Archive site.

In your opinion, what has been the most exciting development in the field of oral history – or, indeed, genealogy in general – in recent years?

The Internet, pure and simple. Genealogy was possible before, but I can’t imagine being without it now.

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