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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill 7/18/2001 


Seeking Professional Help, Part I

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of articles that focus on Michael John Neill's experiences in hiring a professional to help him with a specific research problem.Part II and Part III are also online

I was stuck. The problem centered on a 1910 era birth in Chicago, involved several marriages, a divorce, and other information that was not fitting together. While I have used lookup requests in the past, this problem was beyond a simple lookup and was going to require the use of many records. I had done what I could via mail. I had used listserves and bulletin boards effectively in my search for information. However, in this case, given the relatively recent nature of the problem and other factors, I decided not to post my search requests publicly. 

While I live a little over two hours from Chicago, time did not allow me to be there for several days during the week. I also knew that someone familiar with the locality and the records could search them more efficiently than I could. 

I decided to hire someone to perform the research for me. 

There were several things I needed to do before I actively sought out a researcher and got the project underway. 

1) Gather all the information I had on the family. Unfortunately, I was not able to locate everything I needed immediately. 
2) Determine a budget for the project. 
3) Determine exactly what I wanted the researcher to try and prove/disprove. 

The first step is critical for several reasons. The person I hire to research for me needs to know what records I have already used and what those records contained. There is no need to pay to duplicate searches that have already been conducted. Those who cite their searches as they go are much better prepared to hire someone to help them get "over the research hump" than those who do not. The time period I searched and the name variants I used are also important as well. In some cases it is necessary for the professional to know which version of a published reference I was using as not all editions of printed materials are created equally. Nor are two indexes to the same record exactly the same. 

Additionally, gathering and organizing the material I had made me refocus on the problem. I knew that I did not want to simply "dump" the information in someone else's lap and say, "Here it is." This can be done, but it does pay to be familiar with the research problem someone else is working on for you. This helps me to be better informed about what the researcher I hire will actually be doing. 

The act of gathering what you have may cause you to notice leads that have been left to wilt. You may be able to follow up on these clues yourself. You may discover you have more information than originally thought and a quick lookup may be sufficient to get the research going again. Sometimes re-organization may make it clear that you don't need extra help. But a re-analysis of your information may make it abundantly clear that the research is beyond your ability or expertise. 

I made copies of all the records I had for my problem. I then re-read and re-analyzed all this material and typed up a synopsis. This was an excellent idea as there were several key pieces of information I had not remembered accurately. I was also able to obtain some material locally that had a direct bearing on the problem. All of this must be done before the decision to hire a researcher has been made. You should not be dribbling the information to the researcher as they are making their research plan or conducting research for you (it must be noted that it took me several e-mails to convey all the information to the researcher I hired). 

When summarizing the information, it is important to make a clear distinction between fact, opinion, and "thoughts from the gut." In my case there were several unsubstantiated family stories that were pivotal to the case and I included them in my summary as well, but I indicated that I was uncertain about the accuracy of several of these items. 

In my case I simply did not have the time it would take to do the research. I felt that if the parentage could be reasonably determined then I could pursue further information myself via a variety of means. There was my goal: discover the parents of that person born in the 1910s. 

You may need to hire a researcher: 

  • When record language presents a research hindrance 
  • When onsite research is necessary 
  • When research requires special expertise or experience 
  • When you do not have the time yourself 
  • When you need help with writing or editing 
  • Or any combination of these reasons 

  • Of course, time and education may overcome many of these problems and learning more about the records or the language may be helpful even if you decide to hire a researcher. However, if you live hundreds of miles from the location, it may take you a significant amount of time to become reasonably familiar with the records you need to utilize. When you hire a genealogist to tackle a problem for you, part of what you pay them for is experience in using and interpreting the records in the geographic or ethnic areas in which they concentrate. 

    This is perhaps the touchiest part of the whole process. The fee researchers charge will vary, but it likely is not going to be $5 an hour. This is especially true if the person you hire supports themselves entirely by researching. There are some who research "for fun" and just to "make extra cash" and frequently these fees are lower. You may also encounter researchers who charge $100 per hour. Likely what you will pay will be significantly less than $100 per hour, but more than $5 per hour. The book Professional Genealogy (2001, edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills), contains an excellent chapter by Sandra Luebking entitled, "Setting Realistic Fees." This may provide some perspective on how some genealogists set their fees for those who have never hired a genealogist. A high fee is not necessarily indicative of high quality, just as a low fee is not indicative of low-quality. 

    How much can you afford? That is a personal decision, but bear in mind that you should continue making mortgage payments and feeding dependents who live in your home if those items are currently your responsibility. Remember that billable hours often include time spent organizing material and compiling a summary report. If your material is organized when you send it to the researcher, they will spend less time organizing it for you. 

    Why have a summary report? So you know what was researched and what it was researched for and whether or not it contained information related to the case. The researcher will also need to be reimbursed for copy expenses, document fees, and postage. These fees are set by the agencies holding the records being utilized. In some cases, parking fees, tolls, meals, and other expenses may also be incurred. 

    You may want to decide on a certain number of hours instead of a certain amount. The researcher should (within limits) be able to provide you with a suggested research plan based upon your constraints. Remember that some problems are not easily or inexpensively solved. The researcher you hire should not guarantee to solve your problem in a fixed number of hours or with a fixed amount of money. You are paying him or her to search records and report results. Remember also that you may not be able to solve your problem based upon your budget. In this case you may wish to ask the researcher if they are willing to spend an hour or two providing (for a fee) a consult on your problem. Perhaps it's just direction that you need. 

    Not all researchers perform this service, nor do they have to. They know their schedules and what services they feel comfortable performing. And they do have a life outside genealogy (although some of them probably really wonder if this statement is true). 

    What Do I Want Done? 
    On this you must be clear and specific. I told my researcher that I wanted to determine (if possible) the parentage of a given person. The initial problem should be focused and not cover an entire family or group of people. The focus also allows the potential researcher to better assist you and determine if they have access to materials likely to answer your question. Even if you have other problems you would like the researcher to tackle for you, it is usually best to start small so you don't over-obligate yourself. 

    In my case the problem required the searching of several records, but every record fit into the overall goal: determining a parentage. In some cases research may simply involve one type of record, basically a lookup for a fee. I have also hired researchers to go through all the court cases in a certain county for a certain time period for a certain individual and search them for genealogically relevant information. The same can be done with other types of records. However, before you go out and hire someone to research a series of records you should gain a rough idea of what those records contain and determine if they are likely to solve your problem. 

    In later installments of this series, we'll discuss: 

  • Locating a professional 
  • Making initial contact 
  • Reaching an initial agreement 

  • We'll also see how the research went on my project. Hopefully the results will be positive and I'll have lots of new leads to follow. But I know that I'm not paying for guaranteed names, I'm paying for research. 

    Note: Please don't send me offers to do lookups to solve this problem. The research is already underway and I'm anxiously waiting for the results. 

    Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at: or visit his Web site at:


    Copyright 2001,
    Used with permission

    The Hiring a Professional Series:

    Books that may also be of help:

    Professional Genealogy--edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills. This book is geared towards those who are professionals or wish to become professionals. Those considering spending a significant sum on a professional may wish to invest in this book and read relevant portions of it before commissioning any research.

    BCG Standards Manual--edited by Helen Leary. The BCG (the Board for Certification of Genealogists) Standards Manual discusses what constitutes genealogical "proof" and what does not and also discusses how that proof should be organized. An excellent guide and introduction to genealogical report writing.

    Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historians--by Elizabeth Shown Mills. This short work provides a framework for citing genealogical sources. An excellent reference for anyone doing genealogical research.


    Back to Michael's other "Hiring a Professional" articles