Jul 2, 2021

Hiring a Professional Genealogist

July 2, 2021

For many genealogists there comes a time when they can go no further with their genealogy. It may occur when they make the long-awaited “jump across the pond” only to realize that researching in an unknown language in a foreign country is nearly impossible. Or, it might be when the genealogist recognizes the reality that they’re never going to be able to research in person at that archive on the other side of the country. However it happens, most of us realize that if we’re going to progress any further with certain research problems, we’re going to need some help.


That’s the point when we start seriously considering hiring a professional genealogist. For many hobbyist genealogists, taking that step is done reluctantly, if at all. First, there’s the cost of hiring someone to help us. I recently looked into current prices and found that they range from about $30 an hour to over $200, plus expenses. Depending on what you need done, the costs could add up to thousands of dollars in a hurry.


In addition to cost, I think many genealogists tend to hesitate about asking someone else to look at what they’ve already done, especially a professional who may look at our amateur attempts with scorn. At the very least, before we can ask for help, we have to frame a specific problem and present it in a way that someone else can follow. A vague “I want to know everything I can about my third great grandmother” probably won’t suffice. Hiring someone also usually doesn’t mean that we can hand over the huge stack of notes and papers we’ve been collecting for years and magically get back the answers we need. Before we can hire someone we need to do some work organizing what we’ve already have. For lots of us this is a daunting prospect.


Finally, I think some of the reluctance genealogists feel about hiring a professional is losing the excitement of doing the research, analyzing the results and coming up with a conclusion ourselves. How many of us have done “the happy dance” in front of a microfilm reader or a computer at a repository when we found that long-sought record that finally proves an elusive ancestor? Once you’ve had the experience, it’s hard to give it up – even if a professional might be able to find the record more quickly or efficiently.


Reluctantly, or not, many of us will probably sooner or later hire a professional to help us with our genealogy. I use the word “professional” rather loosely when I talk about hiring someone. I know that the modern view is that only board certified professional genealogists should be considered when hiring professionals. While that is probably true for major projects such as full family research, I don’t think it’s as necessary for smaller, more specific projects.


For example, I wanted to have someone check a microfilmed, non-digitized newspaper from a small town in Illinois. I was interested in finding articles about a specific company who served in the Civil War from the town. One of the soldiers in the company had been the editor of the newspapers before he joined up, and I learned he was my own ancestor’s good friend, so I expected to find mentions of him among the articles. I knew I’d probably never be able I contacted the local genealogical society who referred me to one of their members who did research for folks. For a modest fee, she found and copied a series of articles from the summer of 1864 which detailed the company’s experiences during the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. My relative was wounded in the battle, and the newspaper articles described his wound and even quoted his comments about his subsequent amputation. I never would have gotten to that small town library to access those newspapers myself.


A few years later, I learned that one of my Swedish ancestors had shot and killed one of his tenant farmers. He was later arrested, tried and beheaded for his crime. Sweden keeps good records, and I knew that there were court records of the trial. Those records, of course, would be in Swedish, which I don’t speak. In that case, I did hire a certified Swedish genealogist who was even the editor of a well-respected Swedish-American genealogical quarterly. I paid accordingly, but she was able to follow the story of my ancestor’s crime through various courts and to his execution in prison. She sent me copies of the original court documents (in Swedish) as well as English translations of all of them.


As an added bonus, over the years since the Swedish genealogist did the research for me, she has contacted me a couple of times when she ran across references to my family in her other research. In one case, she put me in contact with another genealogist who had written an article for a Swedish genealogical which referenced my family. All of this provided stories and additional sources I never could have found on my own.


For some of us who were raised to “do it yourself”, it’s not always easy to turn over one of our cherished mysteries to a stranger. But, in my experience, if you do your homework in advance and have a specific, limited project in mind, hiring a genealogist can be a great way to get the answers you need.


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large