When, Why and How to Hire a Professional Genealogist

by Natalie Cottrill, ProGenealogists, Inc.

People hire professional genealogists for many different reasons. We're hired for short record searches, breaking through a difficult lineage, helping a client join the DAR, complex multi-year book projects, and more. If your project has to do with historical research of people, then our professional genealogists can help you. We customize our research services to fit your needs. If you lack either the time, knowledge, tools, expertise, or access to records, in order to research your family tree, then you will really enjoy working with and engaging the services of our professional genealogists.

What is it like to hire a professional genealogist, in general? When would I know it is time to try a professional? Well, you'll probably want to consider hiring a professional genealogist if you:

  • Do not have the time to do research,
  • Do not have the temperament or patience to do research,
  • Do not have the appropriate skills to conduct research,
  • Have research requiring a specialty or other expertise,
  • Have research requiring access to a particular set of records,
  • Have research requiring fluency in foreign language and culture,
  • Have a difficult stumbling block that needs another point of view,
  • Have time and money, but prefer to have a trusted professional genealogist perform the research.

Once you make the decision to hire a professional genealogist, in order to have the job done well and accurately, you'll probably make your decision in the same way you do when you hire other professionals -- whether it is your accountant, doctor, or household electrician. You'll want to measure professional genealogists's experience, education, apparent skills, and number of years in practice, and then weigh those factors with the references they provide and how well you can communicate with them.

Specifically, here are some items to review when deciding which professional genealogist, or professional research firm, to hire:

  • Number of years conducting professional genealogical research,
  • Type of training and education,
  • Applicability of the professional's specialties (foreign language skills, etc.) to your needs,
  • References or referrals,
  • Certification or accreditation showing that the professional's skills have been peer reviewed,
  • Professional's published works (articles, books)
  • Professional’s lecture and teaching experience

What is a Professional Genealogist?

As you go about looking for help, and especially on the Internet, you'll find that a lot of people call themselves "professional genealogists." It can be confusing. One of the biggest factors to consider, when you're hiring someone, is professional experience. There is a big experience difference between someone who spends only a few hours each weekend doing a couple of searches, and a career professional genealogist. A career professional genealogist is one whose sole means of support comes from their genealogy income, particularly from research endeavors, so they usually work 30 to 70 or more hours each week. So, it stands to reason that career professionals will have many more research hours "under their belt" than occasional or weekend researchers have.

In fact, during the course of fulfilling my job duties at ProGenealogists, Inc., I review many hundreds of professional genealogists' reports every year. It ends up being pretty clear to me and my colleagues that the number of years genealogists have conducted full-time professional client research makes a BIG difference in the number of clever methodologies and knowledge that they can and will put to use in order to solve a tough genealogy problem. Experienced professional genealogists are better able to make faster analyses, too. By engaging the services of a career professional, you can be more assured that you'll be working with someone who has all the experience and skills necessary to effectively help you.

Another reason to select career professionals is because they are fully invested in their work. In fact, professionals have to be invested in their work, in order to stay competitive among their peers and to earn a living. Successful professional genealogists work hard to be well trained and educated. Most have advanced college degrees or college level instruction. Their writing will likely be clearer and more articulate. You want to be able to understand what your professional genealogist has done for you, so you can enjoy the results. So, look at their educational background. If possible, take the opportunity to read a few research reports, or published articles by the professionals you are considering. These will tell you some important things about their writing skills and abilities. Professional genealogists will work hard to make sure that the research results and writing that they offer to you are the best they can be. This is the way they earn your trust so that you'll hire them again, and/or recommend them to your associates.

When selecting a professional genealogist, make sure that he or she has the special research skills needed to accomplish your goals. For instance, if your research is in France, then it is important to hire a professional genealogist with experience researching within the French culture, language, and records. You don't necessarily need to hire someone who lives in France. If you need help with known Native American ancestry, it would be best to consult with a specialist in Native American research.  

Finally, when discussing some of the ways you can differentiate among professional genealogists, you will find that career professionals aren't afraid to have their professionalism reviewed. So, these professionals will belong to professional organizations, like the Association of Professional Genealogists, the Board for Certification of Genealogists, the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists, or the Better Business Bureau, and/or they will work for a professional research firm with internal quality control and review procedures. Professionals who regularly please their clientele will have a ready supply of references or referrals to present to you. So, you can always ask for referrals.

Availability

After reviewing all the above information about professional genealogists with whom you are interested in working, you'll want to check on their availability. Ask professionals about their turn-around time. Keep in mind that the best professional genealogists are in high demand. You will find that the best career professional genealogists WILL be booked several weeks and sometimes months ahead of time, so you'll have to decide whether or not your research can wait on their availability.

What do You Need?

Do you need only a single record (a naturalization, a marriage record, or a birth record)? If so, then your financial risk is probably relatively low. In cases like these, an extensive contract is probably not necessary. An email or letter describing the desired record search, sent with the appropriate sized retainer, could be sufficient. One word of caution on single record searches: Make sure the records you want searched really exist. It is not unusual for a client to ask for the birth record of John Doe, who was born in 1832 in Ohio, when, in fact, birth records weren't kept in Ohio until 1867. If you're not sure what record you need, in order to get the information you want, the best thing to do is hire your professional genealogist for a consultation. That way, he or she can look at your research goal, and help you decide what records will answer or meet that goal.

Do you have difficult ancestral research you'd like done? Do you want a family history book written? Do you want four generations of your family tree built? Do you need a family chart prepared for a reunion? The number of hours and cost for research will depend on what you need. Some professional genealogists will provide you a cost and feasibility evaluation at no charge. Certainly, it doesn't hurt to ask. It probably is wise to have a professional genealogist provide you a brief evaluation, even if you are asked to pay for it, before you invest hundreds or thousands of dollars into research. This evaluation will give you some idea of the feasibility and likelihood of success for your project. Finally, make sure you prioritize your research goals when you hire your professional. This is important! Even when a feasibility study has been done, sometimes the research time will run out before the professional can reach all your goals. When you prioritize your goals, your professional will work on the ones that are most important to you, first.

Contracts

If you're engaging a professional genealogist for something more than just a simple record search, please make sure that you and the professional genealogist have worked out a written contract and budget. A contract can be simple - a list of your research goals, the time and money you're authorizing for research, and then when you and your professional have agreed that the work should be done.

Just like experts in other fields, you'll find that career professional genealogists charge hourly rates that are commensurate with their skill level, education, experience, and demand. The best genealogists will ask whatever fee they can command and still have adequate work. Genealogists with unique research abilities or specialties could charge premium rates. Professional genealogists are generally engaged with the understanding that you are paying them for their time, with them using all their expertise to work toward or meet the goals you've given them. Determine your needs, set your goals, and your budget, and then communicate with your professional. These are keys for success.

One other thing – there are often other fees that come into play during the research process (cost of copies, travel expenses, certificates, government documents, and postage, etc.). So, when evaluating the cost of your research, make sure you understand what other fees your research might incur.

Budgets

Some research will be more expensive because it is harder. Since most professional genealogists charge hourly, the total cost of reaching your research goal will vary. For instance, if you want a specific record found and copied, it will probably take only a few hours and be done relatively quickly. But, if you want a family book written, there will likely be thousands of hours of research involved, so the cost could be well into the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, and then take several years to complete. 

Modern (post 1900) research is generally easier, because there are usually many genealogically informative records to study. So, it will be relatively less expensive. But, genealogical research becomes more and more difficult and more specialized as it moves farther back in time, or moves to other countries. Since more difficult research takes more time, it will naturally cost more. For instance, discovering the ancestry of Richard Bruce, who was born 1927 in Great Britain, will be far less costly than working to discover the ancestry of a Richard Bruce, who was born 1279 in England! In fact, don't be surprised to find that the work is exponentially more expensive, because for the Richard Bruce born 1279 in England, you'll need a professional genealogist who specializes in medieval research. Since this is an eclectic specialization, their research skills will command higher rates. It takes years of training to be able to decipher old English handwriting, and to evaluate the meaning of records in relation to the laws and culture of the time.

In summary, you'll find that career professional genealogists are often among the finest experts in the field. So, you should expect to pay an hourly rate at least equivalent to professionals in other fields (e.g., what hourly rate do you pay your plumber, computer technician, accountant or lawyer?). In the end, it is up to you, now a well-educated genealogical consumer, to evaluate your research needs, and consider the amount that you want to spend on your research, then decide how to proceed.

Communication

Historical research is often unpredictable. Who can predict what is specifically recorded (or not recorded) about your ancestors in old documents? So the results of even the best professional research may not always be positive or high-yield. Even when a professional genealogist's professional experience, education, skills, or background are the best available, research might discover that historical records don't say much about your ancestors. Or, it could be the case that the records needed to answer your research goals no longer exist. In cases like these, skilled and successful professionals will try alternative research methods in order to try to find answers for you. But, keep in mind that it is possible that those answers will not be found, no matter how much time and money is invested in research. If you're concerned about this, you can certainly ask the professional to let you know if their research for you hits any unexpected snags.

Especially for anything other than a single item record search, please make sure an agreement or contract is made in writing. This is repeated from an earlier paragraph, to stress its importance. This will protect you and the professional genealogist from misunderstandings. Also, be fully forthcoming with the professional genealogist and let him or her know everything you know about the family being researched. Let the professional know the records sources you've already studied. No professionals want to be told that their work only duplicated what you've already done. But, they won't know what you've done, unless you tell them. Professionals want to cover new ground for you, so that they have a better chance of getting you the information you want. That way, you'll be impressed with their efforts, and they can feel good knowing that they helped yet another person find family.

Done right, historical research can take time. So, while the research is going on, please be patient. Your professional is not going to have reached any conclusions about the research until they have used up all the hours you gave them. So, dropping them e-mail every week asking for an update will only take up your billable time, because they have to stop everything, analyze the records, and write up a summary. So, if you want them to commit all their billable time to actual research and then the final report to you, then trust your professional to get the work done on schedule, and trust that they will contact you, if something out of the ordinary arises. Professional genealogists want you to enjoy the results, and come back to hire them for more! So, they are going to do the very best they can for you. Ultimately, it is critical that you trust that the professional genealogist you've chosen will do the best work they can for you, so that you can both enjoy a rewarding relationship, working together to discover your family history.

Thanks for taking the time to learn more about professional genealogists and how to find, and work with, the very best one for your needs. May you have many wonderful relationships with your future professional genealogists, and may you find every ancestor you seek!

About the Author

Natalie Cottrill is a professional genealogist who, for the past 20 years, has concentrated upon researching North American and English-speaking family histories. She specializes in solving research problems involving difficult pre-1850 lineages, immigration, heir and estate research, 20th century, and common surnames.

Other Articles on the Same Topic

 

Natalie Cottrill, "When, Why and How to Hire a Professional Genealogist," ProGenealogists.com (Online:  ProGenealogists, Inc., 2004) [First publication rights originally granted to Genealogy Today. All other rights reserved. Any republication of this article requires the consent of the author.], http://www.progenealogists.com/whentohire.htm.

 

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