Are you stumped with your family history research? The information you’re looking for could be too far for you to travel, in another language you can’t read, or just outside of your experience to be able to tackle. So you’re probably considering hiring some outside help. Professional genealogists can be a valuable resource. But before you hire one, though, here are some tips and tricks:
1. Know What You Want. Have a specific goal in mind for the researcher, and you will more likely get specific results. Rather than asking the researcher to “Find all your Johnsons,” you might want her to determine whether your great-grandfather John Johnson was born in this country or immigrated, and from where.
2. Collect Your Information. The more information you can give a researcher, the better their search will begin. If you have documents such as birth records, obituaries, names of known relatives and children, or even family legends, your researcher needs to know it. Organize the information simply, in an email or letter, with copies of documents. Make sure to let the researcher know where each piece of information came from. Did you find it online, or was it passed down from Aunt Mable who knew the family? I once did some pro-bono work for a person; I asked for all relevant information on the ancestor. I then spent several hours to find a certain piece of information which I thought was a clue finding the goal. When I spoke to the client about it, she responded testily that they already knew that bit of information, and wondered why I wasted my time. Because they hadn’t shared all that they knew. You’d hate for those wasted hours to have cost you money.
3. Choose a Locality-, Ethnicity- or Language-Specific Genealogist. Would you ask your dentist to perform heart surgery? Of course not, nor the reverse. Genealogists have specialties too. Once you know your goal, you can find a researcher that is knowledgeable about that place, language, or the nuances of that culture’s records and customs. If someone comes to me asking for research outside of my expertise, I am happy to direct them to others with the experience they are looking for.
4. Do your homework. A search engine (Google, Bing, or Ask.com) can give you pages of hits for genealogists able to research your family. How to sort them out? Your first email or contact with a prospective researcher can help you determine if that researcher or group is right for you and if the costs seem within your reach. Use your search engine to look for reviews on any research firm. Look also for journal articles or blogs that the private consultant may have written to help you gauge their experience. As a private consultant, I offer clients a sample of work for their review or a reference upon request.
5. Make use of professional organizations. There are nationwide genealogical organizations that inspire high levels of ethics from their members. These have online searchable lists to help you find a genealogist’s field of expertise and experience. Try the Board for Certification of GenealogistsSM (BCGSM), the The International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional GenealogistsSM (ICAPGenSM), or the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG).
6. What is a CGSM or AGSM? These postnomials are indications that the researcher has passed a professional peer review of their skills through testing or submission of a portfolio. BCGSM offers the designation of CGSM, or Certified GenealogistSM. ICAPGenSM awards an AGSM, or Accredited GenealogistSM. Go to their websites to find out more about their rigorous testing requirements. Remember, however, that there are many well-respected genealogists who do not have these certifications, but are more than worthy to undertake your family’s research.
7. Sign a contract. As in any work you expect to have done, having a contract is best. Most professional researchers have contracts to help define the research goal, price, time limit set, and responsibilities of both parties. Having this in writing helps avoid misunderstandings in future.
8. Expect quality, but be reasonable. Unfortunately, until time machines are invented, no genealogist can guarantee that your goal will be met, especially with limited time. What you do want is a genealogist who is experienced, efficient, and adheres to a code of ethics such as the BCG’s Genealogical Proof Standard or ICAPGen’s Professional Ethics.
Take time to choose a professional. Ask friends for referrals or check reviews and experience online. I know I end up “falling in love” with every one of my clients’ ancestors, because I love what I do. Professionalism matters, especially to the quality of the films at Reel Tributes, and it is something we respect in the work of others as well.