When you’ve taken your family history research as far as you can on your own, it may be time for expert help. Follow our five strategies for working with a professional genealogist.
Over the past two decades, new technologies have revolutionized the way genealogists discover ancestors and their stories. Online records have replaced most microfilm searches and “shaky leaves” and other automated hinting systems practically drop genealogical documents in your lap. Google searches bring up old photos and digitized county histories. DNA matches and social media help you make connections that weren’t possible even a few years ago.
But eventually, even the most accomplished do-it-yourself researcher hits some type of roadblock. You may be puzzling over a complex pedigree chart, a missing maiden name or a foreign-language document you can’t read. You may find that records you need are on paper only in a far-off repository. Or you may admit that your goals for writing a big family history book or applying to a lineage society are a little too ambitious to accomplish on your own.
In these instances, you may need to hire an expert. But trusting a stranger is a big commitment, both personally and monetarily. Follow these tips to get the most genealogical benefit for your money.
1. Prepare your request
Before hiring help, have a good idea of what you want that person to do, says Valerie Eichler Lair. She’s a professional researcher who specializes in coaching do-it-yourselfers through tricky tasks. “I can certainly assist anyone in developing specific research questions,” she says. But you should try to prepare a request more specific than “finding anything and everything on the entire Jones family.” Projects generally fall into these types:
- Record retrieval: You provide the repository, volume and page number of a record you need; your pro retrieves it.
- Simple translation: You need a record translated from a foreign language.
- Small-scale research: You need someone to search for a specific record or piece of information.
- Large-scale research project: You have a brick wall or an involved research question.
For small projects, you might be able to hire a member of the local genealogical society (see the box on page 32 for more resources). For bigger projects, Lair asks prospective clients to write out what they already know about the individuals or family of interest: names, dates and places. She also asks them to share what research they’ve already done: What records have they explored? What repositories have they visited? She may also ask for copies of records, documents or photographs.
This process helps a client organize her thoughts, refine research requests and sometimes even answer additional questions herself. It also helps Lair. She can ensure she’s building on accurate information and avoid unnecessary duplicate research (though sometimes re-locating the original record is warranted). And she can better help clients identify the steps they’d like her to take.
If you keep a family tree file on your favorite genealogy website or program, make sure it’s up-to-date with your latest discoveries. Attach digital copies of all documents and photos to individual ancestor profiles. Then when it’s time to share with a researcher, send an invite to your online tree, download a GEDCOM file, or export a family tree file from your software (ask the pro what works best). If you keep track of your family on paper, review your family group sheets and pedigree charts to be sure they contain everything you know, and make copies of vital records and other relevant documents.
After reviewing your research request, an expert will help you identify what exactly you want her to do. She may send you back to do a little more homework in records you know, while suggesting that she tackle more difficult or advanced tasks—sometimes things you haven’t even considered. For example, a professional researcher in an ancestral location may be able to take photos or visit town offices or local churches. Sometimes a pro can help you make cousin connections. My own go-to research contact in Slovakia, Michal Razus, introduced me to another client of his who’s connected to me through my paternal great-grandmother.
2. Set a budget
“Quality research takes time and patience,” Lair says. A candid discussion with a professional about your budget and time constraints will help you avoid disappointments and set realistic expectations for what the pro can accomplish. For a complex research project, the person you hire may need time to review your case, formulate a research plan, carry it out and then report back to you. Even a simple document retrieval must be planned around the researcher’s workload and travel schedule.
Rates and fee structures of individual professional researchers vary. Some charge a daily rate or a flat fee per project. But most charge an hourly rate based on their education and training, skill, experience, credentials and what the market will bear. Rates for in-depth research may range from $20 to more than $100 per hour, with simple record searches or translations running from $15 and $25 per hour. In addition, some researchers will bill for expenses such as mileage, parking, photocopying and postage. To keep close tabs on the project budget, you could authorize expenditures up to a set amount, and ask the person to get your OK for further expenditures.
Hiring a genealogy firm, as opposed to an independent researcher, is another option. Firms often offer standardized services, sold in blocks of hours. For example, at Legacy Tree Genealogists, you can purchase full-service research projects ranging from 20 to 60 hours. Projects are typically completed in 10 to 12 weeks, with a rush option available. More-basic services, such as research plan development (for you to carry out) or DNA test analysis and consultation, can be completed in two to three weeks.
The payment terms and project scope should be spelled out in a contract before work begins (see No. 5). Many reputable researchers and firms offer free estimates and are happy to do an initial consultation about what you can expect from them. This leads to the next question: how do you find the right professional?
3. Find the right expert for the job
In the world of professional genealogy, one size doesn’t necessarily fit all, so you need to be sure the researcher you choose is a good fit. Analyzing DNA test results requires a different set of skills than tracking down or translating a birth registration from a records office in the Czech Republic. Expert researchers often have at least one niche. The Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) website has a member directory you can search by name, location, geographic area, research specialty (such as adoption, federal records or lineage societies), and other criteria. You also may search directories at the websites of credentialing organizations, discussed later in this article.
At the APG website, click in the left sidebar to search by specialty or a place in the United States, Canada or internationally. To search by multiple criteria simultaneously, use the Other Searches option and fill in the fields you want. Or you can click on a name in a search result to read more about that person’s areas of expertise. For example, Rich Venezia offers research for Italian and Irish dual citizenship applications, in addition to other services.
Another way to find researchers based overseas is to consult with ethnic or foreign genealogical societies such as the Society for German Genealogy in Eastern Europe, Polish Genealogical Society of America or the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (for English or Welsh research). I found my Slovakian expert, Michal Razus, through a recommendation from the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International.
If you want to do the research yourself but you need someone to point you in the right direction, there are pros for that, too. Lair provides fee-based one-on-one consulting and coaching for researchers needing help determining their next steps. A service called GenealogyDOTcoach helps clients schedule one-on-one help sessions with experts who can walk them through a specific task or research problem. (Disclosure: I’m one of these experts, offering help with eastern European research, publishing and more.)
A full-service research firm may be a better option for those who can’t find the right expert themselves or who desire comprehensive assistance requiring the input of multiple experts. For example, you might hire a firm for an international inquiry that requires onsite access to records, or if you need an extensive heir search as part of a probate settlement process. You also might consider hiring a firm to create a detailed research plan, complete with a DNA testing strategy and directions on records to consult to complete the research yourself.
Full-service firms include the previously mentioned Legacy Tree Genealogists; Ancestry ProGenealogists, which requires a minimum 20-hour commitment; and Genealogists.com, which offers a low-price guarantee and has a network of more than 1,500 researchers worldwide.
4. Ask around
Before you enter into a contract, make sure you’re working with a reputable researcher. Many professionals obtain certification through the Board for Certification of Genealogists or the International Commission for the Accreditation of Genealogists (ICAPGen). Credentials aren’t required to become a professional genealogist and they don’t guarantee top-level services, but they do provide a measure of reassurance that your expert has professional-level research skills and has committed to providing responsible services. You also should consider the researcher’s knowledge of the subject matter as well as her work experience, personality, ability to meet deadlines and other factors.
Try to speak with your prospective expert’s past clients. Word of mouth is often the best way to learn about a researcher’s reputation and work ethic. Read testimonials on the researcher’s website or on social media. Ask for references (and contact them), and ask the pro for a research report produced for a previous client. Solicit the opinions of other genealogists in your genealogical society or, discreetly, through social media. A Facebook search for the pro’s name might yield helpful information about his working style.
If you work with a research firm, multiple researchers might be involved with your project. Ask about their experience and areas of expertise. Legacy Tree, for example, chooses researchers with degrees, accreditation and/or extensive research experience. Each project undergoes a review to check for accuracy in research and presentation.
5. Know what to expect
You want to believe an expert can solve your deepest family mystery or unearth records that have eluded you. But that may not be the case. A pro can’t produce records that don’t exist or aren’t legally accessible. And she can’t guarantee the evidence will say what you’re hoping it will.
For example, a marriage license application may be missing the parents’ names. A court case may tell an unwelcome family story. DNA results may contain surprises. “I explain to all my clients that we may come across some surprises about their ancestors,” Lair says. “We can’t make any assumptions, and we can’t read into any evidence what we want it to say.”
Set your agreement with a professional in a written contract, and keep a copy you’ve both signed. It should establish concise goals for the research project and what the expert will do to meet them. For example, if your research goal is to find an ancestor’s death information, the contract might specify that the expert will search for obituaries in the local public library’s newspaper collection. Or you might stipulate that the person will spend up to a certain amount of time searching in a particular county for all available evidence relating to an ancestor’s death, beginning with obituaries, civil and church records, tombstones and probate records.
The researcher should work with you to confirm that your plan fits the agreed-upon budget and time frame. “We’re very transparent with our clients about what is and is not possible within the constraints of a project,” says Amber Brown, marketing manager for Legacy Tree.
Your expert should get back to you within the agreed-upon time period, providing a report that documents all the services performed and the outcome of each one. You should receive copies of any records found and the citations for information or records discovered.
Reports also should include “negative results,” or unsuccessful searches. A lack of findings after diligent effort does give you information: it tells you what’s conspicuously absent from the records. These negative results still fulfill the researcher’s responsibility “even if the outcome is disappointing or not as anticipated,” states Brown. She adds that Legacy Tree’s reports go a step further to include recommendations for how to use the results to keep pursuing your research goals.
In my experience, a well-designed research project with a qualified expert is worth the expense. In challenging research situations, it’s often more practical to hire a professional researcher who’s familiar with an area—and who can access records in person—than to continue spending time and money on fruitless research. It’s also usually far less expensive than traveling across the United States or going abroad yourself.
My parting advice: First do as much research as you can yourself, reading how-to guides and asking genealogy contacts for advice along the way. But when you can get no further, consider reaching out to an expert. Asking for professional assistance isn’t a sign of weakness. At one time or another, even the most experienced researchers may need to hire a little help.
Professional Genealogist Resources
Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy: Researchers for projectswith legal ramifications
Genlighten: Find a freelance researcher
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 2017 issue of Family Tree Magazine.