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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 8/1/2001 


Seeking Professional Help, Part III: Choosing Your Professional

Note: This is part of a series by Michael John Neill, on hiring a professional genealogist. Part I and Part II are also available.

Deciding to hire a genealogist is the easy part. The more difficult decision is who to hire. There are advantages to hiring an accredited or certified genealogist. However, for many reasons this is not always possible, and many genealogists choose for legitimate reasons not to go that route. 

In the United States anyone may call his or herself a professional genealogist. There is no national or state regulation of those who practice genealogy as a profession. There are many things I cannot do without a license. Genealogy is not one of them. Because of the unregulated nature of the profession, there are many ways that a genealogist comes into contact with the researcher they hire to work on their problem.

Places To Find A Genealogist 
There are many ways in which one can find a genealogist. The main ones will be discussed here. Do not hire someone simply because they sent an unsolicited e-mail to your account. The following are places to get names of genealogists; afterwards we'll discuss narrowing down your choices.

Referral From A Friend
This is perhaps the best way to locate a researcher and it is how many of us locate mechanics, plumbers, and doctors. The difference is that mechanics, plumbers, and doctors frequently are geographically close to the client. Our neighbors may have enough experience hiring these professionals that they feel comfortable recommending one to us. Genealogy is different. Your neighbor may not be a genealogist in the first place and if they are, they might have very different ancestral problems. Recommendations work best when your friends have ancestors from the same place as you. In some cases, attending ethnic based conferences or workshops may expose you to people who share similar ancestral problems. But just because the friend had success with the researcher does not mean that the researcher will able to solve your problem. 

Mailing List Postings? 
If you are on genealogy mailing lists for the area where your ancestral difficulty is located, you may already know a person who could solve your problem. While most mailing lists forbid (for good reason) direct solicitation of clients via the list, fee-based researchers frequently read messages and post to the list. Reading posts over a period of time may give you an idea of someone familiar with records in the area. However, not all fee-based researchers post extensively to the mailing lists. Posting answers is laudable, but it does take time from doing work that brings income. You could post your desire to hire a private researcher to the mailing list and see what kinds of responses you get. You may get unsolicited research offers from researchers whose skill levels range from very qualified to unable to find the most common name in an index. You may also get recommendations from subscribers to the list. Try and learn just what the person had the researcher do and how that task was performed. A two-word recommendation without specifics is not helpful. Negative recommendations may not be on-the-mark either. One side of the story is never enough. The person complaining to you might not have provided the researcher with adequate information, might have expected the problem to be solved in one hour, or might not have realized that not all problems can be solved.

Library, Courthouse, & Archival Lists 
Some research facilities maintain lists of fee-based researchers who use their facilities. Generally speaking they try and keep these list free of "problem" researchers, but it is virtually impossible to guarantee the accuracy and thoroughness of any individual's research. A disclaimer is normally included with these lists for good reason. Smaller facilities do not always maintain such lists, but may provide names of researchers if asked. When I was researching professionally, I received several clients through referrals from the courthouse staff, all of whom had seen me spend countless hours researching the courthouse's old records.

Online Directories?
Many fee-based researchers have Web sites of their own or are listed in online directories of researchers. Using search engines or lists of links may locate people offering fee-based research services. Other genealogists may advertise their services on genealogy or family history related sites. Remember that anyone can put up a Web site and say they perform genealogy research.

Do You Read Print Publications?
Many professional genealogists advertise in periodicals, but there's more you could potentially find in these genealogical quarterlies than advertisements. Researchers may submit articles for publication in these local, state, and national journals. Sometimes the authors work for hire and sometimes they do not. The author of an article on a problem similar to yours may be willing to research on your family. This approach has an advantage: you've seen their final work.

Certified Or Accredited? 
To help re-mediate the fact that there is no regulation of genealogists, two bodies were formed that regulate membership based upon research performance. These organizations are the Board for Certification of Genealogists and the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists.

The Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) is based in Washington, D.C. The majority of BCG certified genealogists perform research in the United States and Canada.

The International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists accredits genealogists in specific geographic areas. Accreditation activities include: the submission of a four-generation completed pedigree; the submission of a research report; a written examination covering material in the geographic area of focus; a test of the candidate's ability to read, interpret, and analyze original source documents; and an examination over the candidate's pedigree chart and submitted reports. Applicants sign a code of ethics and must renew accreditation every five years. The Web site contains a current directory of Accredited Genealogists. Genealogists who have passed the Commissions qualifications are referred to as "Accredited Genealogists." 

— The Board For Certification of Genealogists
This organization certifies genealogists based upon the type of research or services they provide. The exact nature of the material submitted for peer review by other certified members depends upon which type of certification the researcher desires. All candidates submit a response to a set of testing materials and submit reports and other written works. There are several classifications of certification. Most applicable to this discussion are: Certified Genealogist (CG), Certified Genealogical Record Searcher (CGRS), and Certified American Indian Lineages Specialist (CAILS). Certification is for five years. The Board also provides mediation services for clients who hire certified researchers. Genealogists who pass the Board's process are referred to as being "certified." The Board maintains a Web site, which includes a list of currently certified genealogists. 

— The Association of Professional Genealogists (APG)
The purpose of the Association is to assist professional genealogists with all aspects of being in the business of being a genealogist. Members are required to sign a code of ethics and pay the membership fee and sign the APG Code of Ethics. The Association offers arbitration for clients of Association members. The Association promotes genealogy as an occupation by encouraging professional standards among its members, educating the public, and promoting access to records used by genealogists. The Society maintains a Web site, which contains a list of current members.

So Which Way Should I Choose? 
There are advantages to hiring a person who is either accredited, certified, or a member of APG. There are also advantages to the other methods discussed in this article as well. Your researcher may be someone who has spent years researching in a certain courthouse or facility and is not listed on one of the membership directories. In rural or remote areas this is more of a problem than for those with ancestral difficulties in heavily populated areas. The key is to look around in more than one location for your genealogist. However, do not expect them to spend an infinite number of hours communicating with you before you've agreed to hire them.

Getting To The Choosing. . . 
Choosing can be problematic. You may wish to contact several genealogists and ask them what their fees and services are and briefly outline your problem. Most should already have a fee and expense schedule compiled and ready to paste into an e-mail. Do not expect someone you have not hired to do free research. Expect them to provide you with a summary of their background and records with which they are familiar. You will have to review these materials yourself and make a judgment call. There's no magic formula, but letters with typographical errors and extremely poor grammar may be indicative of a lack of attention to detail. And genealogy frequently is a matter of detail.

If you have significant parameters, such as time or expense, explain this in your initial contact. Keep in mind that the genealogist may choose not to take your commission, even if you have unlimited resources. More information appears in Part II of this series: Initial Contact.

Once you are comfortable hiring a researcher, sending them all your material is the next step. The researcher should provide you with a plan (frequently an actual contract) of what sources they will check, not a vague reference to "going in and seeing what I can find." They should also be able to reasonably estimate the number of hours this should take.

There are two reasons for this. One is to minimize your losses should there be problems. The other is that initial research may point in a direction you had not planned upon. Don't expect immediate replies and immediate results.

Can't I Get All This Done For Free on the Internet Anyway? 
Some of it you may be able to, yes. There's no need to lie. I've used free lookups myself, but find they work best for tasks that are extremely limited and focused in nature. I've had lookups that were done accurately and properly. You should be willing to wait if you are not paying anything. But quick lookups cannot solve each and every problem.

Why Do These People Have To Charge So Much? 
Each genealogist decides what she can charge based on many factors. Just like plumbers and just like electricians. And all of them —genealogists, plumbers, and electricians—have to eat and pay the bills. Some researchers are supplementing their income with research. Others are supporting themselves on it.

What's Next? 
After much debate and consideration, I have hired a professional genealogist to work on one of my own problems. In upcoming articles, we'll follow the progress of the research. Hopefully I'll have lots of new information, but there's always the chance that the records turn up empty. If you are considering hiring a professional you might want to read about the experience to help with your own. Of course your results might be different. You might want to spend the time before my own progress report organizing and analyzing the problem you are contemplating hiring out. 


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 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