Looking To Hire A Professional Genealoist? What Is Important To Consider?
Information On What To Consider When Hiring a Family Tree Researcher
This is part of my range of genealogy research information sheets.
Information Sheet 1—What To Consider When Employing a Genealogist?
In this information guide, I will try and highlight some of the things that you might want to consider before hiring a professional to research your family tree. As a professional genealogist myself, working in the UK, the emphasis will be on British research.
Genealogy, in its strictest form, is the study and proof of relationships. Family history is a more general term, and includes finding out about the lives of our ancestors. Both involve original research, working with historic documents to build a picture of the past. Some people enjoy piecing together their own family history as a hobby—many professional genealogists started this way—but many people prefer to get a professional to do the work.
Most professional genealogists are self-employed. There are a few large companies that offer work, but the fees they charge are often many multiples of what you would pay a freelancer to accomplish the same task. Even amongst freelance professionals, there is a split between those for whom it is their full-time career and those for whom it is a side hustle. The former is likely to be more professional, but also more expensive, as they are covering the full costs of running a business, rather than just topping up their income.
Costs and Charges
When commissioning paid family history research, most of the cost involved is to pay the researcher for their time, knowledge and experience, or direct expenses, like the cost of copies of obtaining documents or travel to archives.
The fee might be in the form of a package price, or charged at an hourly rate, depending on the goal of the project. Packages are often used for work that is predictable or general goals; hourly research is usually used for more bespoke work, or where it isn't possible to know how long it will take.
The larger the scope of a project (further back, more branches, following brothers and sisters etc.), the more time that will be required and so the greater the cost will be.
It is never possible to give an accurate estimate to work "as far back as possible", as the time required will depend on how far back is indeed possible. If a family can only be traced to the early-1800s, it will take less time than a family that can be traced back to the late-1500s. When working "as far back as possible", it is customary to commission a batch of a number of hours work, or set a maximum budget, and then review after that budget is reached, possibly commissioning further work if more progress is possible.
Most genealogists will require a deposit to reserve a research slot (50% is common), and then the balance is usually payable at completion, just before the project is sent to the client.
Goals And Scope
A professional genealogist will want to know what your goals are. These might be quite general, or very specific. If they are specific, they need to be agreed in advance. There also needs to be a solid base on which to build; building on unsound foundations risks following the wrong ancestors and climbing the wrong family tree.
For a general family history project, a good place to start is the limit to what the family intrinsically know and have documents to prove. It is rare that people know much before their grandparents.
As you are paying for all work undertaken, you will want to consider which areas of the family are important to your goals. Most clients prefer that the bulk of their budget is used in regard to the direct ancestors (great grandparents; great, great grandparents etc.), rather than tracing siblings or nieces and nephews of the ancestors. Most genealogists will be happy to search as widely as you wish, but considering the costs involved, you perhaps want to concentrate on direct ancestors only. In contrast, sometimes genealogists need to look at siblings of your ancestors, as they might be the clues to working back further.
Results and How Far Back?
It is worth emphasising that no genealogist can absolutely guarantee that the requested information will be found. If the records that give proof have not survived (or never existed), no genealogist can recreate them.
The likelihood of success will depend on many factors. As a general rule in regard to England, Scotland and Wales, most families can be traced back to the early-1800s or late-1700s, as good records survive for that period and the work is quite predictable. Many families can be traced much earlier too. The main obstacles in this era tend to be in relation to illegitimacy (children born out of wedlock), as often there is no proof of who the father was.
There will come a point in following every family that the record trail goes cold, and no further progress can be made. Various factors will influence this: survival of records, how much the family moved, popularity of the surname, and socio-economic factors. Some families won't be traceable before the early-1800s; some might stop in the mid-1700s, others might be traceable back to the 1600s or even 1500s. The very-late 1400s tend to be the absolute limit that an ordinary (non-noble) family can be traced, and even that is very rare. The reason: any earlier, and the vast majority of the population won't appear in the written record.
Amateur researchers may wrongly keep following a line back before the proper proof allows. There is a tendency to "latch on" to someone with the same name for whom records survive, rather than appreciating that the records of their ancestor no longer exist.
Original research takes time. To prove an ancestry requires document which require ordering from relevant agencies. One document might be needed back (to get the information it contains) before the next can even be ordered, and so there is a wait before the work can continue back to the next generation. This cycle may need repeating several times. A genealogists might have a waiting list before they can start.
How Can You Be Sure of A Genealogists Competence?
In England and Wales, the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA), is the organisation for professional genealogists. Members of AGRA have been through an application process in which their work is reviewed by the Board of Assessors, and so you can be assured that AGRA Members will be experienced professionals. AGRA also have Associates, who are less experienced, but have been through an interview and agree to abide by their code of conduct.
If you are hiring a genealogist in England or Wales, I would always recommend you choose someone who is a Member of AGRA, or at least an AGRA Associate.
There is an international organisation named APG (Association of Professional Genealogists). Members of APG haven't had their work assessed as a condition of membership, although they may have from other organisations, such as AGRA.
The Society of Genealogists isn't a professional body, anyone can join.
Choosing The Best Professional Genealogist
This is a very personal question, and will depend on your goals. It could be argued that I can't answer this question objectively, being a professional myself.
If you have very specific goals, then a genealogist who specialises in that particular aspect would be best. I often inform perspective clients that I am not the right person to undertake their work, and signpost them to find a specialist.
In contrast, if your goals are more general, then someone who is a generalist will be a better choice.
Misunderstandings About Genealogy Research
The following are topics that I frequently find clients think work differently than they do.
Origins of Surname vs. True Genealogy
Don't confuse genealogy (the proof of relationships) with the origin of a surname. Surnames in England weren't hereditary until the 1300s. Before this time, people had a second name, but they weren't passed from a father to his children. Just because someone who came over with William the Conqueror in 1066 had a particular surname, it doesn't mean that it was carried forward to the modern day by his sons. If someone makes a claim that they are related to someone at such an early date, be very dubious; yes, it is likely that someone with this name was alive at that period, but it doesn't mean that people with that surname alive to day are their descendants.
Often a claim such as "our family came across with William the Conqueror", isn't based on proper genealogy, more that someone with that surname is documented in those times. They may, or may not, be an ancestor. Even if they are, the proof is unlikely to survive.
Coats of Arms and Tartans
Coats of arms and heraldry are very important in genealogy, but they don't work the way that many people think they do. There is no such thing as a coat of arms for a surname. Coats of arms are granted to individuals, and there are strict rules about how they descend, and who has the rights to use them. Also see https://www.college-of-arms.gov.uk/resources/faqs.
Modern tartans almost all date from a time long after the clan system ended, and so aren't authentic. More information can be found in the book "My Ancestor was Scottish" by Alan Stewart (Society of Genealogists, 2012). Also see https://www.tartanregister.gov.uk/FAQ.
Professional Genealogist Can Access Otherwise Closed Records
Professional genealogist can only access records, in the same way that other members of the public can. Being a professional genealogist does not give you special access to records that anyone can't access.
Where professionals are at an advantage however, is in regard to their knowledge and expertise. They will know what records might be needed to prove a relationship, where those records are, and how to access them. They will also be experienced with knowing how archives work (they aren't like a normal library), so will be effective when working in an archive environment.
It is unlikely that a photograph of your ancestor will be found by professional genealogists. Photographs tend to exist in private collections, rather than public archives. There are exceptions that crop-up from time-to-time, but don't expect a professional to find photographs.
Some members on genealogical websites share photographs of their ancestors. But, if you find these please consider if the original submitter could possibly have known that it is a picture of the person who they say it is. The pictures often get widely shared and copied, but that doesn't act as a guarantee. I have seen a member who uploaded a photograph of their ancestor who died in 1805—the camera wasn't yet invented at that time!
Family folklore can be wrong. There might be some elements of truth, but as a tale is passed from generation to generation, it might be embellished or become muddled. Sometimes a story might be changed to save embarrassment, or because of a dislike for a different side of the family.
An ancestor who you trusted might have passed the tale to you in good faith—even a carbon copy of what they were told—but the "Chinese whisper", might have happened before it reached them.
It is easy to confuse a great grandfather with a great, great grandfather with the same name, or to make a story told to children more exciting. A professional genealogist though has to work with provable facts. If they are putting their name to a research report, then they will need proper evidence.
Sometimes it is not possible to completely prove or disprove family folklore, but don't be offended if the evidence doesn't support it.
If The Genealogist Doesn't Find The Information, I Don't Have To Pay
When commissioning any professional researcher, it can't be guaranteed that the required records will survive or the goals be achieved. The genealogist can't know in advance for sure if the records contain the desired information, or even if they survive.
When hiring a professional genealogist, the fee is for their time, regardless of if the goals are met.
An experienced genealogist should be able to give you an honest assessment of the likelihood of success of a project, and in the event that the desired information can't be found, they should provide a report that explains what has been checked.
A genealogist might do a little free work to establish if they are able to help, but, as the overall charges for genealogy research are modest, will be unlikely to offer some kind of "no win no fee" arrangement.
I hope that the above has helped to explain what to expect from professional family tree research, how to go about considering your goals, and clarifies some of the misunderstandings that people have about professional genealogical research.