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From The Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 7/25/2001 


Seeking Professional Help, Part II: Making Contact With A Professional

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

What do you expect from your professional genealogist? It should not be the answer to your question. You may get it, you may hope for it, you may wear your lucky T-shirt every day until the report comes in the mail (or until no one in your family talks to you), but you may not expect guaranteed results. Death and taxes are certain: answers to genealogical questions are not. 

The research may very well answer your question explicitly. It may "suggest" an answer. Or it may provide no answer at all. Genealogy is like life: not all problems can be solved. What you should expect from your researcher is a listing of the sources that were utilized, what items (names, time period, etc) were searched for in those sources, what those sources contained, and what follow-up research may be warranted. 

Guaranteed Answers?
No researcher should ever guarantee that they will be able to answer your question or to find your ancestor. Research is not like a high school math book where the answers are in the back of the text. There are things that your researcher should be able to tell you though. They may be able to tell you that searching for a probate usually takes a certain amount of time, or that a census search usually takes a specified amount of time. Of course, this depends on the legibility of the records, the availability of indexes and whether or not your ancestor is named in the records being searched. Statements regarding a certain task taking a certain amount of time are reasonable. You want the researcher to set these parameters, as you probably don't want them spending an unlimited amount of time on any task. 

Note that these statements refer to a search, not to specific results. In a similar fashion, statements that so many ancestors can be obtained in so many hours should be regarded with more than gentle skepticism. When you pay someone to research, you pay for specific records to be searched, not for specific results to be obtained. Every family is different and any researcher who has done enough research to be offering services on a fee basis should know that genealogical guarantees cannot be made. 

Making Contact
The initial contact can easily set the tone for the entire research relationship. It is best to get off to a good start. The first contact should provide the researcher with at least the following information: 

  • A summary of the research problem and a synopsis of the records that have been used. 
  • The desired goals of the research. 

  • Initially it is not necessary to provide the researcher with a detailed discussion of the problem or with a comprehensive list of records that have been used (although this information should already have been gathered). You should inquire about: 

  • Fees—Other expenses (postage, copies, etc.) 
  • Retainer and payment requirements 
  • Time constraints (the researcher may have current projects for other clients)
  • Familiarity with the records necessary to work on the desired project goals 
  • References (if desired) 

  • If the details provided by the researcher fit your situation, you should then prepare to send them what information you have already located on the individuals being researched. Before you send your material to your potential researcher, find out when billable hours start. 

    Billable Hours
    A discussion of billable hours is necessary before continuing further. To reduce confusion and prevent a misunderstanding, ask the researcher when billable hours start and when they stop. It will vary from researcher to researcher and should be discussed before research begins. Billable hours may include:

  • Actual hours spent researching on-site
  • Time spent preparing an initial contract and suggested research outline 
  • Time spent summarizing, reporting, and creating a list of follow-up suggestions 
  • Time spent driving to and from the research site 

  • The summary and report are particularly important, especially for those records that are difficult to determine or are in a foreign language. They are extremely valuable when conclusions are inferred from a series of documents that do not explicitly state the desired fact. 

    Most likely you will need to clarify certain items for the researcher you hire before the research actually starts. In my case, there were several items that needed clarification and the researcher wanted to make certain that she understood the information and the structure of the family. I preferred to do this via e-mail. It was faster than writing regular letters and provided a written record that phone conversations do not leave. E-mail was also preferable to playing phone tag. 

    In some cases, submitting a GEDCOM file to the researcher may be helpful. In my case, I chose not to do this. I tried to order all copies of documents in a logical fashion, numbering each page. Then, in a cover letter, I provided citation information for each document and summarized the information contained in each document and what I thought the information meant. 

    After that, I included a list of documents that I thought would be helpful in solving my problem (visiting genealogy Web sites for the area under study was particularly helpful). The researcher suggested a couple of other record types that she thought would be helpful in this case. These were records I had not used successfully in searching other branches of my family. However in this case, given the fact that the time period was fifty years later, these records were particularly useful. This is part of the reason for hiring someone to do research—they are aware of sources that are appropriate for the time period and geographic area where the problem is located. 

    It is important the researcher completely understand the information you have sent. Having them summarize what you have sent serves this purpose very well. Then you are as close to being on "the same page" as possible. It is even possible that the researcher will notice something you have overlooked. 

    I also found it helpful to create graphic images of some documents, particularly census records. I then uploaded these images to my Web site and gave the researcher the URL where these records could be viewed. This was an immediate way to send the documents to the researcher (although she did have a fax number, uploading the files did not require a long distance call). 

    Hashing Out The Details
    The researcher and I discussed briefly her interpretations of the information I had sent and she then e-mailed me a copy of the proposed research agreement. After a few e-mails debating some minor points, we had reached an agreement. With e-mail we had a written record of our discussions and the conversations took place over a much shorter period of time. 

    Letter Of Agreement
    My researcher sent me the agreement, which I signed and returned along with a retainer. We had a list of specific goals, the approximate time each goal would take, and a total estimate of expenses, including copies and document fees. It is important to set limits of copy fees, particularly if probates, divorces, and other court records are being utilized. Some files may be huge and cost prohibitive. (Years ago, I learned an ancestor had been sued. The resulting file was several hundred pages long. Instead of paying the courthouse to copy the entire file, I hired a researcher to go through the materials and copy the genealogically relevant materials. I could not afford the entire file. The researcher's time and expenses were approximately 25% of what the entire file would have cost.) 

    The letter of agreement indicated approximately when the research report would be sent to me. The researcher also indicated that brief intermediate summaries would be sent to me via e-mail (after all, I was just dying to find out what she had learned!). 

    Next in this series: Locating a Professional Genealogist. 


    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