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Hiring a Professional Genealogist

by Eileen Polakoff and Gary Mokotoff

A Genealogist's View
A Client's View

I.  Hiring a Professional Genealogist: A Genealogist's View

by Eileen Polakoff

Genealogy is thought by most to be merely a hobby, a method of gaining satisfaction by researching one's ancestry.  To some though, it is a business, a way of earning a living.  Hobbyists may employ professsional genealogists for a variety of reasons.

  1. Because of expertise in a particular area, a professional may be able to solve problems that stump the hobbyist.

  2. Some work can be done by a professional in significantly less time than a hobbyist can do it.  Those with little time for genealogical pursuits, or for whom speed in gathering information is important, may find this a worthwhile expenditure.  A professional may have more experience with specific records or repositories and will, therefore, be able to do the research much faster.

  3. A professional may live closer to the source of records; perhaps he or she may be in a different country.  It is less expensive to hire a professional genealogist than to travel to the site of the records.

Many different services are offered by professionals.  They include record searching, analysis of problems, compilation of full family histories, computerization, translations, oral histories/interviews, tours of ancestral towns, editing and preparing a family history for publication, etc.  The primary services provided are record searching and complete family history research.

Costs vary according to the nature of the work requested.  If it is a specific task, such as to locate and make a copy of a specific record, the cost may be as low as an hour or two of time at the professional's established rate.  If the task is to do a complete genealogy of a family, which may require hundreds of hours of time, the cost can easily amount to thousands of dollars; it is not unusual to exceed $10,000.

How a professional operates depends on the amount of information provided: no clues versus some clues.  It is the responsibility of the person doing the hiring to direct the professional by knowing and communicating exactly what is wanted.  When uncertain, the customer should discuss the problem with the researcher.  Most professionals have experience in many areas and will assist in defining goals.  In addition, one may reasonably expect an ethical professional genealogist to say if, in his or her professional opinion, research has hit a brick wall or if it may be too expensive to realize specific goals.

Usually the professional genealogist charges an hourly rate plus out-of-pocket expenses.  Some establish a minimum number of hours and require retainers.  Hourly fees range from $20 to $75 depending upon experience, credentials and areas of specialty.  In most cases, one pays for time and will be charged for all time used to meet a specific genealogical request.  This will include time to study and analyze the request, execute the research and report the results.  In most cases, the customer also pays for travel time, as well as calls to the researcher for discussions.  By combining jobs and research locations, the active professional researcher will save a client money by pooling travel expenses on more than one job.  Both telephone time and research time are considered billable.

Each professional has his or her own method of reporting, depending on the agreement with the client.  If a researcher specializes in obtaining documents, clients will receive a copy of a document.  Other genealogists will send a summary of research completed, an analysis of the document including a translation, if necessary, and suggestions for additional research based on the information in that document.  Customarily, clients are given a list of all sources and repositories used for the research, including sources that did not produce results.

When hiring a professional, supply all known information about that person or branch of the family and all the sources already used.  Otherwise, the professional genealogist may duplicate work already done by the client.  Be clear about what is wanted, and obtain an explicit statement that the professional will do the requested search or supply other services.  Genealogists should not promise delivery of information, but rather, indicate that it is a familiar area that he or she researches on a regular basis.

After having obtained the name(s) of a professional genealogist, write a brief letter outlining research goals and some family information applicable to the goal.  If any special services are desired, such as translation, travel, fast results, etc., make the researcher aware of these needs as soon as possible.  Include a self-addressed stamped envelope with your letter.  Expect a professional to respond indicating if he or she is prepared to take on the assignment; a summary of services and rates should be included.

There are no guarantees in genealogical research, whether done by amateur or professional.  No one can be certain that information about any specific family will be found.  However, time used by a professional to search for the requested information may produce new details about a family or, if nothing else, a list of sources where no information exists.

Copyright ©1993 by Eileen Polakoff.  All rights reserved.

II. Hiring a Professional Genealogist: A Client's View

by Gary Mokotoff

My name is Gary Mokotoff.  I am a medical doctor.  I am a lawyer.  I am a professional genealogist.  None of these statements are true, but only two will send me to jail.  The first two professions require an individual to meet minimum standards before being permitted to hang out a shingle.  Anyone can claim to be a professional genealogist.  This demonstrates the problem that exists in trying to evaluate someone to hire as a genealogist.

Described below are some guidelines that can assist in the selection.


Standards do exist in the genealogical profession.  Professional genealogists may take a rigorous examination and receive a number of certifications as developed by the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG).  Most significant to a client is the title Certified Genealogist (CG).  According to literature published by BCG, to achieve CG status, a genealogist must demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the principals of genealogical research and an ability to apply such knowledge to problems as they develop.  They must be able to differentiate between the various classes of evidence, to know the weight to be given to each, to select the best evidence, to draw logical conclusions from this material and to evaluate properly the quality of any printed work that is used.

Another title is Certified Genealogical Record Specialist.  To achieve this certification, a person must be well informed about the various resources that might hold records, know of alternative locations for resources and must be able to read and interpret documents accurately.  Fewer than 25 percent of professional genealogists have certification, including some who are very competent, which illustrates how difficult it is to achieve this level.  Only two persons doing Jewish research are Certified Genealogists: Kay Kole and Miriam Weiner.

The LDS (Mormon) Family History Library also accredits genealogists.  It has a certification called Accredited Genealogist (AG).  Unlike the CG, an AG is accredited only to a specific geographic area of expertise, for example, Germany or Poland.  A six-part examination includes a handwriting section, document recognition test, familiarity with LDS Library resources, pedigree evaluation, pedigree problem solving and knowledge of general genealogical research.  Daniel Schlyter, an AG for Poland, noted that persons with his accreditation must have a knowledge of the Polish language with some ability in German, Russian and Latin.  (Records from Poland can be in any of these languages.) There is no accreditation for Jewish genealogy, but persons with German or Polish-Jewish ancestry can find AGs with accreditation for those countries.


One measure of the commitment an individual has to being a professional genealogist may be membership in the industry's professional society, the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG).  Eleven members of APG list Jewish research as a specialty.  One advantage to retaining a member of APG is that a client with a problem about the conduct of an APG member can file a complaint with APG, which will arbitrate the matter.  The organization publishes a directory of its members and their specialties.


Another assessment of the qualifications of a professional genealogist is whether it is a means of earning a livelihood or a part-time vocation.  Much new business in genealogy is by reference and word-of-mouth; an incompetent full-time genealogist soon experiences the need to find a different livelihood.  This does not mean there are no qualified part-time professional genealogists.  It does mean, however, that a person who makes a living at genealogy, and has practiced for a number of years, must have a large number of satisfied clients.


In the final analysis, one can always ask for references.  The professional, of course, will only supply a list of satisfied clients.  One technique to evaluate the prospective researcher is to not only ask what the satisfied client liked about the genealogist, but ask what the client disliked about the genealogist.  What one client might consider unimportant (for example, the genealogist took a long time to complete the work but did a great job) might be significant to you.

Copyright ©1993 by Gary Mokotoff.  All rights reserved.

[The above articles first appeared in the Summer 1993 issue of Avotaynu, and are reprinted with the permission of the authors.]

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Information originally provided 5-Aug-1995, Revised 7-Dec-2000.

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