Who Do You Call?

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

When I was beginning to do genealogical research seriously, I needed some Civil War information. At the time, records were not available online (access to Footnote makes life so much easier) so I asked a friend who frequently went to the National Archives if he would locate the information for me. He responded that he didn’t want to “deprive me of the joy of finding the information for myself” (although he did offer suggestions to get me started in the right direction). I have always been grateful for the not-so-subtle push to do the work myself and many years later, Civil War research is one of my favorite genealogical activities.

That being said, there ARE instances in which it is both efficient and cost-effective to hire someone to research specific information for you, or to assist with potential research strategies and resources. Employing a researcher may be prompted by time constraints, lack of expertise with a specific type of record, language barriers, or geographical distance from the original records, among other reasons. In many cases, an expert’s analysis of the facts may identify innovative strategies for leapfrogging ahead in your research.

  1. Identifying Your Research Problem. As a first step, even before looking for professional assistance, you will need to articulate your research problem clearly. What exactly do you wish to learn? What facts (and supporting documentation) do you already have? What analysis of those facts has led you to your current research problem? If you complete this thought process before you start looking for a researcher you will be better able to make an informed selection.
  2. Finding a Professional Researcher. You will want to hire someone with experience in genealogical research. Your best choice will be an individual with official accreditation attesting to his or her skills. Several organizations provide online lists of researchers.
    1. The Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG). This organization’s mission is to “foster public confidence in genealogy as a respected branch of history by promoting an attainable, uniform standard of competence and ethics among genealogical practitioners, and by publicly recognizing persons who meet that standard.” As such it provides “consumer protection and skill assessment” through a rigorous credentialing process. Its website provides access to a roster of certified individuals. You can search the roster by surname, first name, organization, state, and special interests. For example, when searching for “Scotland” as a special interest, I was able to locate four researchers. By clicking on a researcher’s name I was able to obtain contact information and learn whether or not the individual accepts clients (not everyone does).
    2. The Association of Professional Genealogists (APG). APG is a membership organization which “supports, guides, and protects all aspects of genealogy as a profession and promotes the highest standard of ethics and professionalism among [its] members.” Its website provides access to a directory of member genealogists, both credentialed and non-credentialed. The directory may be searched by name, location, geographical specialty, specialty, service (lecturer, etc.), postal code, or biography (keyword access). An advanced search allows a combination of these fields. A geographic specialty search for “Scotland” provided me with eighty-seven researchers. Actual resumés include a brief biography, research and geographical specialties, other services offered, and contact information including a map, as well as a notation of whether or not the individual accepts clients.
    3. The International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists (ICAPGen). This organization is a credentialing organization whose mission is “to advance family history/genealogy work around the world by accrediting and promoting genealogy professionals who are competent, ethical, and reliable, and to work to promote the preservation of genealogical materials.” Lists of North American or International Researchers may be downloaded as pdf files, or the lists can be searched by area of specialty, genealogist’s place of residence and name. An area of specialty search for Scotland yielded eight entries. Each individual entry provides only contact information and the researcher’s areas of accreditation.
    4. The Ancestry.com website now includes a “Hire an Expert” tab in the upper navigation bar on the homepage. This feature offers five ways you can obtain professional assistance: custom research allows you to recruit a “seasoned genealogist” to work on your project; record lookup allows you to hire a researcher to identify and locate a needed document; ask an expert allows you to pose a question to a panel of experts and then pay for the most useful answer; local photo allows you to pay a researcher to photograph a headstone, etc.; and record pickup through which you can hire an individual to visit an archive, obtain the specific document you need, and then mail it to you.

Many other organizations maintain genealogy researcher lists, including state and local historical and genealogical societies. Your state library may keep such a list. For example, the Library of Virginia publishes a brochure listing professional researchers and makes a pdf copy of the brochure available online. The current version includes fifteen researchers, all credentialed. Fourteen of the fifteen are located throughout Virginia (not only in Richmond), and one lives in Salt Lake City. Each entry includes contact information and in some cases, specializations. Cyndi’s List provides a wealth of links concerning professional researchers (if printed out the listing is forty-nine pages long).

  1. Choosing and Contacting a Researcher. After reviewing the various lists of researchers, choose one who specializes in the specific records, geographical location, time period, and/or subject of your research problem. Contact the individual, briefly explain the scope of your research problem and arrange to submit a written report that includes your research goals and the facts and documentation you have to support your project. Be very specific. Request that the researcher evaluate your report and provide you with a written research plan that includes an estimate of the time required to complete the project, itemized fees (hourly rate for research, mileage, meals, photocopying, travel, lodging, postage, etc.), and what you can expect to receive at the completion of the project (report, copies, etc.). You may also wish to request a list of references or a sample report. Once you have carefully reviewed the proposal, communicate with the researcher by telephone to review the scope of your project, the timeline and fees, and to resolve any outstanding questions. Discuss time and financial constraints. Does the researcher require a minimum number of hours? Does the researcher require a deposit? Do you have a maximum amount of money to spend? Do you want interim reports? If so, how often. How will the researcher keep you up-to-date of progress between reports? Is there a deadline for completion?
  2. Formalizing Your Agreement. For the protection of both yourself and your selected researcher, you will want a contract outlining the specifics of your working relationship. The researcher may have a standard contract that he or she uses, adapted to the specifics of your research project. An in-depth discussion of contracts for genealogical research services (and contract samples) can be found in chapter 6 of Elizabeth Shown Mill’s Professional Genealogy (Genealogical Publishing Co., reprinted 2009). Before signing, review the document carefully to insure that it reflects all of the agreements made previously.

I hope you will continue to experience the joy of your own discoveries, but when professional help will facilitate your research, now you’ll know “who to call.”

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