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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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 at:firstname.lastname@example.org
or visit his Web site at: http://www.rootdig.com/
Copyright 2001, MyFamily.com.