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Hiring a Professional Genealogist Resource Guide
Hiring a professional genealogist is an excellent way to discover your family roots. If you encounter a challenging research problem, if you lack skills or the time to research, or if travel is a problem, you may benefit from the assistance of an experienced professional. These guidelines can help you find and employ a competent genealogist.
The keys to finding a good genealogist are the same as those for hiring other competent professionals. First, you need some general information about what genealogists do and the services they provide. This information can be found in Part I of this guide. Second, you need to know how to evaluate genealogists and select the right one to hire. This information is found in Part II and III.
Part I: General Information
Services Provided by Professional Genealogists
The services of professional genealogists fall into four major categories, with other minor services.
Tracing Ancestry. A professional genealogist can help you trace your ancestors. For example, a genealogist may be able to discover who your immigrant ancestors were and where they came from. Or, a genealogist can research one of your family lines back to a specific time period or individual. This is often helpful when people want to join a lineage society and must prove that one of their ancestors participated in a historical event such as the United States Revolutionary War.
Researching Descendants. A professional genealogist may help you in descendancy research by identifying people who descended from a particular individual. For example, you may be a descendant of Daniel Boone and want to start a family organization of his descendants to share genealogical information. A professional genealogist can help you identify the frontiersman's descendants so you can contact them.
Searching Records. To save time and avoid travel costs, you can employ a record searcher to find and review the records for you. Record searchers review only the records you instruct them to search.
DNA Testing. Many companies offer services to test your DNA. Professional researchers can help you track down candidates for DNA testing and consultants can help you interpret your results. Hiring a DNA Testing Company provides further information.
Other Services. Genealogists also provide a range of other services that include the following
- Consulting and counseling with you about how to solve a research problem.
- Deciphering handwriting on old records.
- Translating foreign records.
- Instructing and lecturing on genealogical topics.
- Computerizing genealogical information.
- Abstracting and publishing records.
- Finding missing people.
Methods of Professional Genealogists
Regardless of the type of research they perform, most professional genealogists follow a similar research process, which is outlined below. Understanding this process will help you know what to expect from the genealogist you hire.
Define the Research Problem. Good genealogists first review the information you already have. They discuss your research problem with you and make sure they clearly understand what you want them to accomplish.
Develop a Research Plan. Genealogists next develop a research plan that outlines what they will do to find the information you want. Most plans consist of a prioritized list of the records the genealogist will search. Research plans can be written or verbal. Your genealogist may share the plan with you.
Conduct the Research. As they follow their research plans, genealogists go to libraries, courthouses, archives, cemeteries, and other places to search for the information. As they search, they may photocopy pertinent records or acquire official copies.
Analyze the Findings. Genealogists regularly review their research and make conclusions about what they have found. They also compare their findings with other documents to confirm or disprove conclusions.
Report the Findings. Periodically, genealogists prepare reports about their research activities. The report should include photocopies or abstracts of important information. It may also include suggestions for continued research.
Prepare Forms. Genealogist can prepare forms such as pedigree charts, family group sheets, and applications to lineage societies. They can enter information into a genealogical computer program for you.
Share Results. Genealogists can help you share the results of your research. A genealogist can contribute the findings to genealogical databases such as Ancestral File, prepare articles or books, or submit names of ancestors to LDS temples.
Bill for Services. Genealogists bill for their services at agreed-upon intervals. Bills should clearly identify the time spent and expenses incurred on the project to date. Bills are often included with reports.
Genealogists are generally not required by law to be licensed or certified. However, they can receive credentials from several organizations. Each organization sets its own criteria for granting credentials. The reference section at the end of this guide includes two major organizations that grant credentials and offer arbitration if problems arise.
You should also consider other criteria as you make your hiring decision. Most genealogists are self-taught, and many competent genealogists do not seek credentials. Years of education, research experience, and satisfactory service to clients may be just as important as credentials.
How Genealogists Are Paid
Three things affect the rate a genealogist charges:
- Competence. Rates charged by genealogists vary widely. Genealogists who charge higher rates do not necessarily do better research. Many charge to afford the ongoing training needed to provide better service. Be aware that reputable genealogists should not guarantee to find the specific information you want; it may be missing, destroyed, or otherwise nonexistent.
- The nature of the work. The complexity of research jobs varies. For example, record search may be less complex than a consultation. Consequently, a record searcher may charge less than a genealogist. Some jobs are more time-consuming than others. For example, if the census taker missed your great-grandfather's house, even the best genealogist would not be able to find his name in the census, but the genealogist would have to search thoroughly to make sure.
- Market conditions. The area of expertise as well as the physical location of a professional genealogist may affect charges. For example, a researcher specializing in an area that not many researchers are competent in may charge more than researchers whose expertise is relatively common. Similarly, genealogists who are aware of the market rate for their type of work in the area where they lie may adjust their charges accordingly.
Fee Structures. Rates and fee structures can vary among genealogists. Some genealogists simply bill as they work. Others charge a daily rate or a flat fee per project. Most genealogists charge an hourly rate plus expenses.
Hourly Rates. Most genealogists base their hourly rate on their education, training, skill, experience, and credentials and what the market will bear. Rates may be as low as $20.00 per hour, but could be over $100.00 per hour. The average rate charged by most competent genealogists ranges from $35.00 to $60.00 per hour. Record searchers often charge between $15.00 and $25.00 per hour.
Since rates vary, it is sometimes hard to know what warrants a higher rate. In general, genealogists may justifiably charge higher rates if they:
- Are experienced researchers in great demand.
- Have some unique research specialty, such as a knowledge of records in a foreign country or expertise concerning a particular set of records.
- Have credentials that reflect advanced skills.
- Have years of education and professional development.
Although the majority of genealogists work independently, you may find genealogical firms in areas where large repositories of records exist. Firms usually offer a wider variety of services and expertise.
Expenses. Most genealogists bill for the expenses they incur. Common expenses include:
- Costs of copies of records, certificates, and other documents.
- Fees paid to other researchers to search records in distant cities.
- Field travel (auto, meals, lodging).
- Admission fees paid to courthouses, repositories, and other record facilities.
- Administrative costs for items such as postage, supplies, and secretarial services.
Payment. Methods of payment vary, depending on the fee structure. Many genealogists ask their clients to pay a certain amount of money (a retainer) before work begins. The genealogist then works and bills against the retainer until it is spent. Then, another retainer is paid and work continues.
You can do the following to control your costs:
- Gather together as much information about your family as you reasonably can.
- Break a large project into smaller tasks and pay periodically.
- Request frequent reports and detailed billings to keep you informed.
- Clearly specify whether the genealogist can bill for additional services (cost overruns) and under what conditions it is appropriate to do so.
- Have other family members help pay costs.
Generally, genealogists use the first few hours of a research project to define their clients' goals, analyze the problem, and develop a research plan. This can vary considerably depending on the amount of previous research.
Allow enough start-up time on your project for the genealogist to be productive-usually eight to ten hours on most research projects. Simple tasks, such as performing a record search or evaluating a lineage, should take much less time than a research problem.
Part II: The Hiring Process
The six steps in this section are designed to help you locate several professional genealogists and then select the one that best meets your needs.
Six Steps for Hiring a Genealogist
1. Determine your research needs.
2. Obtain a list of genealogists.
3. Contact candidates.
4. Determine whom to hire.
5. Make an agreement.
6. Pay fees and provide information to start.
Step 1. Determine Your Research Needs
Before hiring a professional genealogist, clarify your research problem and determine what you want the genealogist to do. If you define your research goals early, you are more likely to be satisfied with the results. In addition, you can often save money by gathering information that already exists.
However, if you cannot gather the information needed to define a research goal, you may want to skip this step. Once you have hired a genealogist, you can let the professional decide where to begin.
Do not start with a general or vague goal (example: I want to know more about my ancestors on my mother's side). Clarify the problem by finding and reviewing as much existing information as possible. You may want to check:
- Pedigree charts and family group sheets.
- Family histories and traditions.
- Birth, death, and marriage certificates; obituaries; funeral programs; and so forth.
- Diaries, journals, old letters, and photocopies of family information from Bibles.
- Military records, naturalization certificates, photographs, and so forth.
After deciding what you want to learn, summarize your research problem and state how the genealogist can help you.
At this point, determine if you really need to hire someone. Maybe you can get help from friends or a genealogical society. If you decide to employ someone, try to determine what expertise the genealogist needs.
Step 2: Obtain a List of Genealogists
Next, obtain a list of potential genealogists. The reference section in Part III of this guide identifies where to obtain lists of genealogists. You can also contact libraries, archives, or genealogical societies in your area.
Step 3: Contact Candidates
Contact several genealogists whose skills and credentials seem appropriate. If you telephone candidates, you can find out immediately if the genealogist is available and interested in working on your project. And you may also be able to gain a sense of the genealogist's competence. However, be considerate of the researcher's time. Do not expect too many ideas before the genealogist has seen your records.
Writing letters is a slower process, but many genealogists prefer written correspondence because they have time to think about the project before responding. Be sure to include your return address, phone number, and a self-addressed stamped envelope.
Discuss the following in your phone call or letter:
- Your research problem, materials, and goals.
- The genealogist's availability and interest in your project.
- The research strategies the genealogist might use.
- The genealogist's access to records required for your project.
- The reporting procedure. (You may even want to see a sample report.)
- The genealogist's areas of specialty and credentials, including language skills if needed.
- Rates and billing procedures.
Step 4: Determine Whom to Hire
After contacting several genealogists, decide which one will best meet your needs. Consider the following questions:
- Do you feel the genealogist has a good understanding of your research problem and knows how to solve it?
- Does the genealogist have familiarity with and access to the records that are most likely to solve your research problem?
- Do you sense that the genealogist is really interested in your project?
- Do you feel that the genealogist has the required background and skills?
- Do the genealogist's fees seem appropriate?
Step 5: Make an Agreement
Before the genealogist begins working on your project, be sure to make an agreement. Although verbal agreements are possible, especially when the project is small, they may be of little benefit in the event of a dispute. A written agreement can be as simple as a letter stating your expectations and authorizing the genealogist to proceed, or it can be a formal written contract. Either you or the genealogist can prepare the agreement. In lieu of a formal contract, some genealogists have a list of their research methods and policies that is modified for each project and signed by the client.
Any agreement, verbal or written, should include at least the following:
- The research goal and scope of the project.
- Frequency of reports and bills.
- Content of the reports.
- What constitutes fees and expenses.
- Payment and limitations of fees.
- How cost overruns should be handled.
- What happens if one or both parties do not or cannot fulfill their part of the agreement.
- Publication rights to the research findings.
- What forms the genealogist will prepare.
Step 6: Pay Fees and Provide Information to Start
Send whatever retainer or fees are required for the genealogist to begin working. Share any information you collected in step 1. You will avoid needless duplication by informing your genealogist of the records you found and the research that has already been done. Send good photocopies of your materials. Never give original documents or other materials for which you have no other copies.
Stay in Contact
As you work with your genealogist, be sure to communicate often. Most problems can be avoided through good communication. However, if problems do arise that you cannot solve together, get in touch with the organization that credentialed the genealogist. Many organizations will mediate or arbitrate disagreements between the genealogists they credential and their clients.
Part III: Reference Section
Accredited Genealogist® Researchers
International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists (ICAPGenSM)
P.O. Box 4464
Salt Lake City, UT 84110-4464
Telephone: toll-free 1-866-813-6729
Board for Certification of Genealogists®
P.O. Box 14291
Washington, D.C. 20044
Tests and certifies researchers in various categories of services. All certified individuals must agree to a "code of ethics."
APG Directory of Professional Genealogists
The Association of Professional Genealogists
P. O. Box 40393
Denver, CO 80204-0393
online directory of genealogists no cost
Researchers listed in the directory must agree to a code of professionalism. The brochure Are You Ready to Become a Professional Genealogist? is free with a SASE.