Hiring a genealogist

Please read before hiring a genealogist!

There are a lot of great genealogists out there, but they are not all equal. No one, even the best genealogist around, can possibly know everything there is to know about all potential resources and methods. Some genealogists are great generalists, some have developed a deep expertise in a particular geographic region, record type or repository, or ethnic or religious origin, to name just a few of types of specialities. Some genealogists have gone through the laborious process of certification or accreditation to show that their work has been rigorously evaluated by their professional peers. Others never seek such credentialing, but they may be every bit as capable as their credentialed peers. So how do you decide whom to hire? Decide the same way you would when hiring any other type of contractor (I hope), by being an educated consumer. Consider the recommendations of the Association of Professional Genealogists.

Have a clear understanding of what you want from a genealogist.

I am not suggesting that you have to have all the knowledge of a professional genealogist, but the more clearly you understand what can possibly be done–and what cannot be done–the better off you will be. For example,

  • Understand that there are increasingly few records for most countries as you progress back in time
  • If a genealogist makes a guarantee that they will find information for you, you are dealing with a fool or a cheat. Genealogists can guarantee the quality of their work but they have cannot guarantee results.
  • You want a family legend proven? Realize that depending on the legend it is may be more likely the the genealogist will DISprove the legend.
  • You want more information on a family connection you found on an online tree? Realize that many (most?) online trees are filled with inaccuracies.

Tracing a particular surname in a given time or place, or identifying the place of origin of an immigrant, or a myriad of other goals are much more realistic. Bottom line, learn about what you are really trying to find out. It might just become so interesting that you will change your mind and decide to do the research on your own!

Select an appropriate genealogist.

There are many genealogists out there, it can be difficult to know who is right for your research project. But there are a number of ways of finding an appropriate genealogist. Word of mouth from others is frequently the best way. Other professions have Angie’s List, but genealogists have genealogical societies and genealogical listservs and discussion forums. If you cannot get a reference from someone directly, you can always find people who have made a commitment to the genealogical profession, by authoring books, giving lectures, joining and supporting professional organizations, or becoming credentialed. One point on credentialed genealogists–whether certified or accredited–they both are required to conduct themselves according to a set of ethical standards in performing research. Thus beyond knowing that their work has been positively evaluated by professional peers, this also means that you should have greater confidence because these credentials can be taken away should the genealogist be adjudged as not meeting these high standards.

Have a realistic expectation for what you will receive from the genealogist.

Once you have identified the problem you want researched, and found a genealogist that can capably do this work for you, you have to make sure that you set your expectations appropriately. Understand exactly what the genealogist will provide to you. The best genealogist in the Universe cannot provide you with a specific record if it simply does not exist. A genealogist may have to spend an incredible amount of time pouring over records only to find that the sought-after document is simply not there. While the resulting lack of information may not feel satisfying, it may be a significant step in moving your research project ahead by ruling out possibilities. Furthermore, if you are afraid of skeletons don’t look in the family closet. You have them! We all do! I will guarantee that your family has illegitimate births, criminals, dead-beats, and assorted no-good-nicks. The genealogists responsibility to you is to tell you what she or he finds, how ever ugly you may think that is. One final point, make sure you provide the genealogist with all you know, or believe you know, about the people being researched. There is nothing more frustrating than the genealogist spending time (and costing you money) only to find something that you have already documented. Certainly, if you are hiring a genealogist to confirm information that you believe but have don’t have the records to prove it, that is a a different case. But the bottom line is, the genealogist is not a mind reader, make it clear exactly what you have and what you want.