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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Use of Record Agents and Genealogists

A Record Agent is a person whom you instruct to look in an archive at a certain record for a certain time period for a particular piece of information. S/he will then report exactly what was searched and what was found.

A Genealogist is one to whom you say “Research my genealogy” or “Help, I am stuck at this point” and who will decide which records need to be examined and proceed from there.

Most professionals and amateur family historians from time to time employ record agents located in the town from whence their ancestors or research subjects came. It is far cheaper than going there yourself, and the ‘locals’ know the archives and are thus efficient in their use of time. The professional should be aware of local records unknown to those outside the area.

Sometimes the amateur is wise to invest in an hour of a professional genealogist’s time for advice on which records could be profitably studied.

Sources for locating professionals include local archives and libraries, family history societies and advertisements in their magazines. The bigger companies tend to charge more if they have office expenses to cover. Individual professional rates vary―not always with the quality of their work! Ask about their qualifications, years of experience, membership in a recognized professional body, and whether they have done your particular type of search before. You don’t want to pay them to ‘learn on the job.’ Ask for references from previous clients, and to see a copy of a recent client report to assess its quality. Client identifiers would be removed, of course.

Professionals do not charge by results but by time and costs expended. You may certainly ask for an estimate beforehand, and you will probably be asked to provide a percentage up front to indicate goodwill. It is important to Instruct 'Your Agent Clearly and Carefully (including asking for photocopies of relevant documents) in writing and to Set An Upper Limit Of Expenditures so that you are protected as well. You should get a neat report including all positive findings as well as negative searches; the latter will help to focus further research efforts.

Try out a new agent with a small assignment first, especially if they do not have any certification in the field. There are those who call themselves genealogists, have expensive ads in magazines, but are less than competent! If you decide to employ a professional for extended work it is wise to ask for a report after each 10 or 15 hours work at the most. This protects the customer by allowing a periodic check on the direction of the research, ensuring that the professional doesn’t go off on unwanted tangents.

A good professional will want to keep the customer informed on progress and to have guidance on which ancestral lines are of most interest to him. A good professional will keep an eye open for information on other lines and will report occasional items of interest. However, the customer should be informed immediately of any serendipitously-discovered mother-lodes of information on other lines, so that s/he can decide whether the professional should spend time collecting this information. It is, of course, the customer’s duty to inform the professional immediately of any new relevant information. It is unwise, and can be expensive, to interfere unduly with the professional’s investigation programme—you would not do this to a plumber or a doctor!

There is an excellent FamilySearch guide entitled Hiring a Professional Researcher which has much sensible advice and can be viewed online in the FamilySearch Wiki

Hiring a Professional Researcher

Several accreditation bodies have lists of people qualified in certain areas of research who abide by a set of ethical standards, including:

It is important to distinguish between these lists and those provided by archives of researchers who have simply handed in their names as available to carry out research.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.

  • This page was last modified on 22 April 2014, at 22:32.
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