How to Hire a Professional Genealogist, Part 1

Yelp is to finding a restaurant as ______ is to finding a genealogist

When I'm looking for a painter, or a new hairdresser, or the best laundromat in my neighborhood, I use review sites like Yelp. With tools like star ratings, filtering by location, and links to websites, Yelp makes me feel like I've made an informed decision about whom to hire, even if I know nothing about painting, or cutting hair, or running a laundromat.

Unfortunately, no such review site exists for professional genealogists. There are opt-in directories, available on websites such as the Association of Professional Genealogists, or lists of genealogists who hold specific credentials, such as the BCG Directory. Local repositories may also have lists of local researchers. We also can't forget about the big companies with lots of hard-to-miss commercials. (Exchanged any lederhosen lately?)

How do you choose a genealogist?

Full disclosure: I am a professional genealogist available for hire. Regardless, I want everyone to have the best experience possible when hiring a genealogist, any genealogist. From talking to lots of clients, new acquaintances, and fellow genealogists, I've realized that...

There is a lot of misinformation about what genealogists do, and how to find the best one for your family.

By writing this blog post, I hope that I can help someone (hey there!) hire the best genealogist, even if that genealogist isn't me. As you can see by "Part 1" in the title, I would like to turn this into a series of posts. By that time, Yelp will probably have developed a separate micro-site for reviewing genealogists, and I'll have to find something else to do.

Thing to Know #1: There are different kinds of genealogists

If you scroll through any of those lists of professionals or directories that I mentioned in my introduction, count the number of times you see the word...

*** Specialize ***

Just try it, it's a fun game! Not really.

"Specialize," "specializes," and "specialties," show up a lot because genealogists have different educational backgrounds and expertise. Some of those specialties have names, like forensic genealogist, while others are related to geographic areas, time periods, record types, or populations that the genealogist has spent a great deal of time studying.

Specialties are good.

I just saw a play here in New York City called Straight White Men (go with me on this). In it, one of the characters says something along the lines of, "Most people suck at most things." (I'm paraphrasing, and apologies if I've offended anyone with that quote.)

Generally though, I think that's a good way to think about hiring a professional genealogist. It's impossible to be an expert in everything, so look for someone who specializes in topics related to your family. If I went on Yelp and found a combination doctor-auto mechanic-architect, I'd be pretty skeptical--and rightly so. Actually, that's not entirely fair; genealogists can have diverse specialties.

Here's a better example:

If you live in Oregon, but your ancestors came from the Florida panhandle, you'll probably want to hire a genealogist who works regularly with original Florida records. And chances are, that person won't live in Oregon, they'll live in Florida, or around that area.

Same goes for me: I'm a professional genealogist in New York City. I work with New York City and State records everyday. That means several things for the consumer (you) and your experience hiring me:

  • I know which repositories (libraries, archives, museums) have which records, so I'm less likely to spend a bunch of time trying to figure out where to look.

  • Lots of New York collections aren't available online. By being local, I can make more discoveries for my clients.

  • Since I work with the same record types and collections regularly, I can analyze the records of your ancestor more thoroughly, or notice when things are missing that should be there. That kind of experience comes from years of studying lots of people's ancestors from different time periods, socioeconomic conditions, and so forth.

  • I know local archivists and librarians (hey y'all!) who can let me know if they have something new in the pipeline, or if they just found something cool in the basement that might pertain to my client's ancestor. No, really.

So what I'm really trying to say is:

Shop local. Er, whatever was local to your ancestors.

Those are good examples for how to distinguish between genealogists' geographic specialties. But what about other kinds of specialties?

Here are brief descriptions of other types of genealogists you might need:

  • Forensic genealogists are more likely to deal with living people, one way or another. They might locate living heirs for probate cases, provide affidavits or testify in court, or help detectives identify remains or locate family members. Some forensic genealogists are also lawyers. They can also be more expensive than other kinds of genealogists. If you think you might need a forensic genealogists, a great place to find one is the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy.

  • Lineage society specialists help clients to determine their eligibility for, and submit, applications to organizations based on ancestry, like the Daughters of the American Revolution. Some lineage societies have very specific requirements, so it can be helpful to hire someone who know the ins and outs of each lineage society.

  • Genetic genealogists have advanced experience with using DNA to solve genealogical problems. There are different areas of genetic genealogy--identifying unknown parentage for an adoptee vs. using DNA to confirm a 5th-great-grandparent--so read the genealogist's directory listing or website to look for examples of work relevant to your family. Full disclosure: I am a genetic genealogist.

In Summary

I hope this post has given you some helpful information about how to hire the best professional genealogist for your family. I'll be following up with more posts like this, so if you have any particularly pressing questions, please leave them in the comments and I'll try to address them in a future post.

Happy Hunting,

P.S. Check out the next installment of this series, How to Hire a Professional Genealogist: Part 2.

Full disclosure: I am a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists and I am listed on its directory. I received no compensation for mentioning them, or any other organization, in this post.