Friday, January 14, 2011

Some Advice on Hiring a Professional Genealogist

First a disclaimer: This is a really long post, but I just couldn’t stand to omit any of it.

On a fairly regular basis, I get an inquiry – either by email or from someone at one of my lectures – who wants to hire me to trace their family. The short answer to this question is: you can’t. I don’t take clients. There was a time when I worked on tracing other people’s family – specifically German families – full time. But, I no longer do that. There are a few reasons for this but again the short answer: I don’t have time. I like writing too much! I spend my work time lecturing, writing for magazines- and, of course, researching my own family! This works well for me.

The next question people then ask is: could I recommend someone they can hire? What I would like to do instead of recommending a specific person is answer this question in general here on my blog. How should you go about hiring a professional genealogist?

Well, I think the first question most people ask themselves is if they should hire one at all. I can’t tell you the answer to that question. It depends, of course. However, it can be a very worthwhile thing to do. People are often surprised to learn that even professional genealogists hire other professional genealogists who may have access to records they don’t have or have needed skills in certain types of research and/or languages. A professional can save you many hours and lots of frustration. Keep in mind that you can always hire a professional to help with a certain aspect of your project, without turning the research over for ever after to this person.

So, back to the original question: who should you hire? You should hire someone with experience and knowledge in your area. Sometimes when I get an inquiry I’m tempted to reply that the person can’t hire me, but even if they could – they shouldn’t. Why would I say that? First, my expertise is in tracing German families. More specifically, it’s in tracing people who immigrated from Germany to the US in the 1800s. Genealogists have specialties because research varies depending on the place and time period in which the family lived. Could I help you with your Pennsylvania Germans who came in the 1700s? Possibly. But there are others who would be more effective. Could I help you trace your Polish family? I would probably be able to help you with the immigration part of this problem, but once we got to Poland, we’d be in trouble. Sure, basic parts of research are the same from project to project even in different locations– methodology and even some sources. I am familiar with basic sources for many places and would know where to look to figure out how to trace your Polish family. But the fact remains that I don’t have experience tracing Polish ancestors. And, I have no ability to read even basic Polish. Just because I publish articles about immigration does not mean that I have the credentials to accept money to find Polish ancestors.

As a side note: the great majority of professional genealogists would not accept a client outside of their area of expertise – and would let you know this right away. I think it’s safe to say that as group genealogists are honest and hard-working. But you should still be aware of how things work before you hire one. My point is just that nobody is an expert in everything. It’s certainly possible for people to have an expertise in more than one area, particularly if those areas share research approaches. Many US researchers specialize in regions, not just one state. Some researchers might list their expertise as including more than one Scandinavian country. However, you should be concerned about anyone who says they can do research ANYWHERE in ANY time period. You don’t want to pay someone to figure out how to research your Italian ancestors. You want to pay them to research your Italian ancestors.

Now, that leads me to another point. When I first wrote the sentence above, I wrote you want to pay them to FIND your Italian ancestors. That would be nice. That’s the goal. But, remembering you are paying a professional for his or her TIME spent searching for the family. You are not (at least not in any arrangement that I’ve ever heard of) paying him or her for RESULTS. A genealogist cannot guarantee results. She can look in the places most likely to yield results, but she can’t do hocus pocus and make your family appear there. Sometimes our ancestors just simply aren’t where they should be (which is a whole other topic….). Just because the person you hired didn’t find one single ancestor doesn’t mean she did anything wrong. Of course, people who know what they are doing are much more likely to find ancestors than those who don’t! A professional can usually tell you up front how likely she thinks it is to have success, but this is still just her best guess. Anything can happen.

There’s more to say on this topic (or at least I have more to say – but I always have more to say…) but I want to conclude with a couple of comments. First, another thing to take into consideration is what access the person has to the needed sources. This is one reason I don’t take clients. It would be difficult (but certainly not impossible) to trace German immigrants while I am living in Massachusetts. It was much easier when I lived close to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. But for other types of research, living in Massachusetts is perfect. And finally: Anyone can claim to be a professional genealogist. There are two main organizations that provide programs to test these skills. They are: The Board for Certification of Genealogists and The International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists. Their websites have lists of professionals. Should you only hire someone listed on one of these websites? I didn’t say that. What I am saying is take some time to make sure you hire someone with knowledge and experience in your area.


  1. Thanks for the post. I do short queries for our local Historical Society, and some RAOGK, but I stopped doing research. It's very time consuming and I didn't enjoy running genealogy as a business. However, your post was very helpful because I often just refer people to the ApGen website and say good luck! Now I can point them to your post for additional pointers.

  2. Excellent advice. Much the same can be said for linguists - a translator is not an interpreter is not a transcriber; some are better translating into a foreign language, some better at translating from that foreign language. There is also specialization by subject matter. And I wouldn't trust anyone who claimed expertise in too many different areas. People who are not familiar with the complexity of a particular profession tend to expect too much of the people who practice that profession.

  3. Great post Leslie. And Geta, I agree with everything you say particularly the last sentence.

  4. Well said. Your background lends validity to your comments.

  5. This is much the same as you should do any time you hire someone for the job - make sure they are the right person. You gave a great overview of the process for finding someone worth paying for help.

  6. Great post.

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