Geni Podcast: Hiring a Professional Genealogist

Posted March 24, 2011 by Geni | 4 Comments

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Show Notes:

  • When and why should you hire a professional genealogist?

The answer to this question really depends upon the person doing the hiring and their specific situation related to their research.

    • Has your research taken you to unfamiliar territory? Are you having to deal with a foreign language or a culture with which you are unfamiliar?
    • Are you in a time crunch or perhaps just want the end result (a compiled genealogy) and you aren’t as interested in the process or the “hunt”?
    • Are you unable to travel to certain locations to pull records and do research in person at certain archives and repositories?
    • Do you have a “brick wall” that needs to be knocked down?

    For the rest of the show notes as well as a full transcript of this episode:

  • What services are usually offered?

A competent professional genealogist will offer the following:

    • A document outlining services offered and prices.
    • A resume or curriculum vitae upon request.
    • An intake form for you to provide information so that the professional can create a research plan and a budget for the project.
    • An estimate of how many billable hours will be required for the project.
    • A contract or a letter of agreement outlining the agreed upon number of hours, the research plan, any additional expenses (travel, photocopies, etc.) and how the final results will be presented.
    • An accounting of billable hours and how the time was spent on the project.
    • A report listing the research findings.
  • What is the price range?

Prices have a wide range depending upon the level of expertise, the location and the services offered. I’ve seen prices anywhere from $25 up to $100 or more an hour.

Realize that most professional genealogists have made a serious investment in terms of education, research resources (which includes books, journals and online subscriptions) and other components of professional development just like any other profession.

What my mother used to say, “You pay cheap, you pay twice” could easily apply with professional genealogists. If your goal is the hire a competent professional that specializes in a specific area of research to produce the best research results possible, be prepared to pay for that service.

My concern right now is that many consumers don’t understand that genealogy is a profession and one with standards, training, membership organizations and professional development just like many other professions. People readily pay their electricians, plumbers, even accountants and attorneys the “going rate” for their service. Just because the consumer has the option of doing research on their own doesn’t mean they should seek a substantial discount on the investment the professional genealogist has made in his or her career.

  • Advantages and disadvantages of hiring a professional genealogist?

I look at leveraging the services of a professional genealogist – like any other professional – as full of advantages as well as disadvantages.


    • Most professionals have an area of expertise gained through years of education and experience. They can help you with targeted areas of research to solve specific problems. These professionals know where the best records are located and how to use them.
    • You may not be able to travel to another state or country to perform necessary research. Professional genealogists perform tasks as simple as pulling vital records and obituaries and as complex as translating documents from another language to proving specific relationships using the Genealogy Proof Standard.
    • For legal cases involving inheritance or other issues, some courts and venues may only accept research and testimony from a professional who can prove their experience and credentials.


    • The cost can be prohibitive, especially if you have limited resources and the search requires a large amount of research time and travel on the part of the professional genealogist.
    • Where’s the fun? For many family historians, the “hunt” is part of the process and what fuels our interest in genealogy. Having a professional genealogist do all the research can take all the fun out of the process. Look to use a professional to help break down brick walls or to help you understand cultural and historical issues related to records.
  • How can you tell if a genealogist is reliable?

There are several ways you can ensure that you are hiring a professional genealogist who is not only reliable but one who will be a good fit for your project.

First, look at the genealogist’s credentials and membership in professional organizations. The Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) ( is a certifying body, not a membership society. This means those professionals who carry the CGSM credential have met the rigorous BCG standards. While the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) ( is an open membership society, its members do adhere to its Code of Ethics. APG does handle complaints and violations through its Professional Review Committee. Both BCG and APG offer a directory listing free to the public on their websites.

The above organizations are mainly for United States-based professional genealogists. Each country may have its own certifying or professional group such as: the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA) ( in the UK; the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland (APGI) (; and the Australian Association of Genealogists and Record Agents Inc. (AAGRA) (

Second, while there is not yet a reputation service like Yelp ( for professional genealogists, it pays to ask around. These days it is easy to do via Facebook (, GenealogyWise ( or other social media outlets. Just post a message letting your social network know what you are looking for in terms of the type of research, etc. and someone is bound to make a recommendation. Also don’t forget LinkedIn ( which is often called “Facebook for business people.” More and more genealogists are creating LinkedIn profiles to advertise themselves and LinkedIn also has a “recommendation” feature which is helpful.

Finally, many professional genealogists write for the major genealogical quarterlies and family history magazines. Note the name of the author and look for them on the BCG and/or APG websites as well as Google.


  • Further Resources for Locating a Professional Genealogist

Besides some of the organizations mentioned above, check out these sites for locating a professional genealogist:

More About Thomas MacEntee:

  • Webinars: Thomas will be presenting a FREE webinar via Legacy Family Tree webinars entitled Building a Research Toolbox on Wednesday, April 6, 2011 at 1pm Central time. Click here to register.
  • GeneaBloggers Radio: Every Friday evening from 9-11pm Central time, Thomas MacEntee hosts an Internet radio show – GeneaBloggers Radio ( Via your computer, you can listen to interviews with interesting genealogist and companies involved in the genealogy industry. GeneaBloggers Radio also covers the most recent episode of the television show Who Do You Think You Are? and listeners can call in and give their opinions on the show or anything else going on in the genealogy world.
  • This Friday, March 25, 2011, GeneaBloggers Radio will feature a focus on Genealogy and Television as well as Black Sheep ancestors – how to find them, the many types, where they hide and more. Special guests (scheduled) will include Megan Smolenyak discussing the various shows featuring genealogy these days, J. Mark Lowe, Diane Rappaport and Gayle Gresham! Listeners will also be able to call in and share stories about their own black sheep ancestors! 

Full Transcript

Grant Brunner: Welcome to the Geni Podcast. I’m Grant Brunner, and with me today is Thomas MacEntee. How are you, Thomas?

Thomas MacEntee: I’m doing great today. How are you?

Grant: I’m very, very well. And today I want to talk about hiring a professional genealogist. And your thoughts, especially since you have experience as a professional genealogist. Let’s get right into the topic and say, when and why should you hire a professional genealogist to work with your genealogy?

Thomas: That’s a great question, a great place to start this discussion. Really, the answer depends on what you are doing in terms of, you know, the person doing the hiring, and your specific situation related to your research. Basically, you have to think about, a reason would be, your research is taking you to unfamiliar territory, an area, a region, a time period that you’re really not familiar with, and you don’t know where to start in terms of research. I’ve had this happen to me, even. If there’s a foreign language like Polish or Russian, I’m not going to take the time to learn the language, to try and transcribe documents.Very often, there are cultural issues involved, such as how did they name children in terms of progression, are they named after the mother’s mother, father’s mother, et cetera. So when you’re delving into unfamiliar territory, that’s one reason.

Also, if you’ve got a time crunch. There are some people, which I know genealogists and family historians, if they’re hardcore, they think, well, why would you want to just hand it over to someone to do the research. It takes all the fun out of it. But there are times when someone just wants to compile a genealogy, and they don’t have the time, and they’re willing to pay someone to do that.

Travel is another reason. If you can’t get to certain to locations to pull those records, to do the research, again, we’ve said over and over, not everything is online. You do have to go to archives and repositories. It may be more convenient to hire a professional genealogist to do that work for you in that location.

The number one reason is, you’ve just hit a brick wall. You basically have been hitting your head against that wall for months or years, and you need a little bit of help getting it knocked down. So those are the reasons.

Grant: So what kind of services would a professional genealogy researcher actually offer to a client?

Thomas: Well, one thing to look for, and this is really how you can judge a competent and reliable professional genealogist, is they should be able to offer the following. One, they should start off with a document outlining their services and the prices. They should also, if you ask, they should be able to give you a resume, an updated resume, or a curriculum vitae listing, maybe, what articles they’ve written, books they’ve written, areas they specialize, their education, speaking appearances, anything that could help you make a judgment as to whether to hire them or not. Major form is what I call my intake form, is if I am researching for you, I want you to provide me with some information about the area of research that you’re hiring me for.This way I can create a research plan, that’s something professional genealogists should be able to do, and also create a budget in terms of how many hours are going to be required, and what the billable rate is.

So, and that’s what you negotiate over. The next document is a contract or letter of agreement. So let’s say I’ve worked with you, you’ve given me information, I’ve come up with what I’m going to research, how many hours I’ll spend, and how much it is going to cost, and you and I would each sign that and come to an agreement.

During the process, I should be able to produce a list of billable hours and how the time was spent on the research project. And finally, and most importantly, is, what is the professional genealogist going to give you at the end? They should be able to give you a report listing all their findings. If it’s part of the agreement, they should be able to give you photocopies or scanned images of documents, photos, anything that they find.

Grant: If somebody actually wants to go out and hire a professional genealogist, what’s kind of the price range that they’re likely to be purchasing?

Thomas: It really depends on the level of expertise that the professional genealogist has. Location actually does matter. If you’re really the only genealogist in this one area and with this expertise, very likely you’ll probably charge more. But if there are a lot of genealogists in a certain area with the same expertise, the market will bear a lower price. I’ve seen prices anywhere from $25.00 an hour to more than $100.00 an hour, depending upon those factors. People need to realize that most professional genealogists have made a very serious investment in terms of education, the research resources they have, and this includes, I have books, I have journals, I spend a ton of money on online subscriptions to various websites, and also there are other components of professional development.

It’s like any other profession. My mother used to have this saying called, “You pay cheap, you pay twice.” And that really could apply easily to professional genealogists. Your goal should be to hire a competent professional that specializes in a specific area of research, and to produce the best research results possible, and you should be prepared to pay for that service. Why would you want to have it re-done if you didn’t pick the right professional?

So one thing that I have a concern about right now is that a lot of consumers don’t understand that genealogy is a profession. There are standards, there is training, there are membership organizations, professional development, like any other profession. People are willing to pay their electricians, their plumbers, their accountants and attorneys the going rate for those services. So just because a consumer has the option of doing the research on their own, doesn’t mean they should try and discount the investment that a professional genealogist has made in his or her career.

Grant: Can you give me kind of an overview of the advantages and disadvantages of hiring a professional genealogist?

Thomas: These are some of the advantages. Most of the professional genealogists have an area of expertise that they’ve gained through years of education and experience. They can help you with those targeted areas of research and solve specific problems. The professionals know where the very best records are located, and they know how to use them. Another advantage is the travel issue, especially with the way gas prices are these days. And even airline prices, I checked the other day and they’re going through the roof. You may not be able to travel to another state or country to perform that research. You know, it has nothing to do with your research skills, it’s a matter of access.So professional genealogists perform tasks, sometimes as simple as just pulling those vital records, those birth, marriage and death certificates and obituaries. But also, they can do the complex stuff such as translating documents from one language to another. They can provide specific relationships, and using the genealogical truths standard, they can say, this relationship is correct, or this relationship is not.

Another advantage, if you’re dealing with a legal case that might involve inheritance or other issues, realize that some of the courts and some of the administrative bodies, they will only accept research and testimony from a professional who can prove their experience and their credentials.

Now, the disadvantages. The disadvantages, the cost can be prohibitive for some people.

Especially if you have limited resources, and the search might require a large amount of research, time and travel. It’s not uncommon for a research project with a professional to cost a $1,000. I mean, if you’re looking at, $25, even $35 dollars an hour, by the time they do the travel and everything, and that’s on the lower end.

So it’s, the cost is a disadvantage. Also, for a lot of people, they say, where’s the fun? You know, part of the fun is in the hunt. That’s part of the process, that’s what keeps us interested in genealogy. If you have a professional genealogist do all the research, that can take the fun out of the process.

That’s why I advocate using a professional for a segment of your research. Maybe helping you break down the brick walls, pulling records, doing translations, transcriptions, helping you understand cultural and historical issues related to certain records and resources.

Grant: So here’s a big question. How can you tell if any given genealogist is actually reliable?

Thomas: That is a good question. It’s not like lawyers or accountants where they have to take a test, they have to, you know, you have to make sure you pass the bar, or et cetera. We don’t have that, per se, in genealogy. But we do advocate, at least I advocate, looking at the genealogist’s credentials and their membership in professional organizations. The two big ones are the Board for Certification of Genealogists, also known as BCG, and they’re located at And this, it’s important to point out, Grant, that they are a certifying body, not a membership society.

So it’s not an open society that anyone can join. So they basically only accept professionals that pass their rigorous standards and basically get certified. You’ll also see that those people carry the CG initials after their name, which is a credential, which is service marked by BCG. And so very, very strict standards.

Also, you have to renew, I believe every five years, with your BCG certification. Now there’s another group, the Association of Professional Genealogists, known as APG, and they’re at It’s an open membership society. However, just because it’s open doesn’t really mean that, you know, you’re going to have a mix of reliable and unreliable.

The members do have to adhere to a code of ethics. So along those lines, APG does handle complaints and violations through its Professional Review Committee, in terms of that code of ethics. So if you have someone that you feel is not living up to the code of ethics, they are an APG member, you can basically file a complaint.

The nice thing about both BCG and APG is they have a directory that lists their members and the areas they specialize in, and that’s free to the public on their websites. So those are the two main organizations. Those are in the U.S. and Canada.

There are other groups I do want to point out, Grant. One is called AGRA, A-G-R-A, they are the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives. They’re located in the United Kingdom. Their site is

Another one is the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland, APGI. They are at And finally, the Australian Association of Genealogists and Record Agents, Incorporated, known as AAGRA. And they are at So that deals with listing services. Also there’s, realize that there’s not a reputation service.

If you know, people know what Yelp is, Y-E-L-P, where you go in and you rate your favorite restaurants or anything like that. We don’t have something like that. So it really pays to ask around. I see people post on Facebook saying, you know, I’m looking for a genealogist who handles Oklahoma records.

So is one place to go. GenealogyWise, at, is a social media site for genealogists, and you could very well just post a query and say, I do need a professional that deals with this area. Post a message, and very often, someone will make a recommendation as to a colleague or maybe someone that they use.

The other thing I do want to point out is LinkedIn. LinkedIn is something that’s often called Facebook for business people. I am finding more and more professional genealogists are listing themselves on LinkedIn. They have profiles where it lists their education, their publications, their presentations they’ve done, webinars. You get an idea for what their background is. The nice thing about LinkedIn is they also have a recommendation feature. So they may have recommendations written for them by other people.

And then finally, you know, a lot of the professionals write for the major genealogical quarterlies and family history magazines. So what I would do, if you’ve read an article, note the person’s name, go back to the BCG or APG website or Google and look them up.

Grant: That sounds really great. And I want everybody to remember that if you want any of these links that Thomas is talking about, you can go to, and that will give you the show notes for our podcast. So what are some further resources for locating a professional genealogist?

Thomas: Yeah, actually, there are quite a few that have popped up. There’s ProGenealogist at They’re now owned by Ancestry, and this is the group that does a lot of the research for shows like “Who Do You Think You Are?” So they have rigorous standards that they use in terms of their contractors, and they specialize in forensic genealogy, family history research. The other one is called Genealogy Freelancers, You can find specific genealogy experts all over the world. Another one that’s popped up is Expert Genealogy, Again, it lists independent companies and individuals, and their services including research.

A newer one is, and they list professionals all over the world. One that’s a little bit different, and actually, based closer to me in Chicago, is GenLighten. Most of their researchers are mostly there to pull records. So a lot of their pricing is not based, some of it is based on an hour, per hour basis, but some of it is based on a document, per document.

And they’re all over the country and all over the world. It’s an interesting site. So if you do need that weird Oklahoma or Wyoming record, it’s likely you’ll find someone that has access and can pull them for you.

Grant: So Thomas, why don’t you tell us something about yourself and where we can find you on the Internet?

Thomas: Well, I just got done doing a fantastic webinar on backing up your technology data for the past hour and a half, and I’m getting ready now to do another one on April 6th, will be one called “Building a Research Toolbox.” And this is at You can find it there under “Training Webinars.” And for “Building a Research Toolbox,” what I’m going to show people, and this is really through a live demonstration on the Internet, is if you’re, if you’ve been keeping all your research links under Internet favorites or bookmarks, a way to build a toolbox that’s portable, that can serve you almost anywhere, any place, so that would be a good webinar to try and attend.The other one is, I’ve got a radio show now, if you don’t know about, and we’ve got a great radio show at GeneaBloggers Radio, that’s at And this week, that starts at 9:00 Central Daylight Time.

I’m psyched because our guest this week is Megan Smolenyak, the one and only Megan Smolenyak, and she’s going to be talking about genealogy and television, and how we’re seeing more and more references to family history pop up on the TV, including places like “Top Chef.”

Then we’re also going to have other experts like Mark Lowe, Diane Rapaport, Gayle Gresham, talking about black sheep ancestors. Those rogues and rebels and rapscallions in your family, and how to find them, and how to write their stories. So that’s what’s going on with me lately.

Grant: Thank you again, Thomas, for your time. It has been quite an experience. So, with the Geni Podcast, I’m Grant Brunner, thanks for listening, and have a good one.