Finding the right researcher to investigate your family tree is not necessarily an easy task. Professional genealogists are few and far between, and it can be difficult to know whether someone has the expertise, interests and communication skills you need. This decision can be a significant one: researching your family history may be amongst the most meaningful personal journeys you ever embark on, so make sure that your guide is someone you trust, respect and perhaps most importantly, like! The right genealogist will be able to bring your ancestors and the past back to life…
Here are some tips to help you identify the best family historian to guide you on your journey.
Professional credentials for a family historian
While there are no guarantees that a professional genealogist will be able to locate more information about your family history than you or a friendly amateur, if you are paying for research you want to make sure that a researcher is qualified to deliver the results you’re looking for. AGRA in the UK and the APG in the US are the only genealogy associations that vet members and offer a formal regulatory framework, if anything goes wrong. Their websites are likely to be the best places to start your search. Use them to draw up a short list of genealogists that seem to suit your requirements, based on their specialism(s), location or maybe the languages they speak.
A good genealogist combines a broad knowlege of the framework of available records with rigorous research skills. Crucially, he or she will be able to communicate the results of research to you clearly and accurately both on paper and verbally, and will be tenacious in the quest!
In theory, any good genealogist should be able to find answers to the questions you have about your family history. In practice, no one knows everything! It is likely to be most cost-effective for you to find someone who is familiar with the records which will yield the information you’re looking for, and can give you the benefit of other contacts in the field. Variables such as nationality, region, religion, ethnicity, occupation and gender will all dictate which sources a researcher will consult. Research Roots specialises in Jewish family history, for example, which is quite a distinct discipline from other types of genealogy (more about this here and here).
With new record collections being digitised all the time, it is important that your researcher is familiar with the terrain of your family history in order to save you time and money.
Does a genealogist’s location matter?
Well, yes and no. Since so many original records are now available online through sites like Ancestry and FamilySearch, your researcher’s location is much less significant than it once was. However, many more obscure local records, which may help you get real colour and anecdotal detail have still not been digitised, so it may be handy if your researcher is near relevant archives. You may also wish to consider whether it would be helpful to meet them in person, on a one-off or regular basis. Since we are based in Brighton, East Sussex, we do a lot of Sussex family history and are also within easy reach of the major London archives.
Professional genealogist costs & fee structure
Professional genealogists’ fees vary, sometimes quite considerably. This may or may not be related to their level of experience, expertise and how in demand they are! Shop around. Get a sense of the going rate, and most importantly, before you enter into any agreement with a genealogist understand what is and isn’t included in the rate. A good genealogist should have some clearly laid out terms of business (like these).
Some researchers will offer research packages for certain types of research but most prefer to work on the basis of an hourly fee, as it can be quite difficult to predict in advance how long certain pieces of research will take. It is normal for a genealogist to ask for payment in advance (or some sort of deposit), but don’t be afraid to request in advance they account for how their time is spent in the form of a diary or log. It’s good for everyone concerned to keep the lines of communication open!
Professional genealogists on the web
Most professional genealogists will have some sort of web presence. Before making initial calls, you may find it useful to do a little online research yourself using the researcher’s website, LinkedIn and any press. Testimonials and Google reviews can be a useful guide. Facebook, Twitter and other social media can be a good way of gauging what a researcher is about and whether you like their vibe!
Chat with a pro
Once you’ve narrowed down a shortlist, make some calls. As with most things in life, there is no substitute for having a conversation either face to face, or by phone or Skype. Most genealogists will offer a free initial consultation of between 30-60 minutes to discuss your research needs, realistic goals, timings and costs. If you haven’t had access to previous client testimonials, request them or ask if you can speak to previous clients. Any researcher worth their salt should be able to give you this opportunity.
It is worth repeating, it really helps if you like the researcher you hire. You are likely to be in regular contact with them, probably for weeks if not months, sometimes years – assuming you have the time, energy and budget! Depending on the project, you may be sharing some quite personal information with them. You need to feel confident that they are on the same page as you, understand (and can deliver) what you are after, and share your enthusiasm for the search.