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As you’re tracing your family history, you’ll at least occasionally find that you need the help of a professional genealogist to make the progress you want. This can be due to time constraints in your own life, a need for verification of your work, dealing with a foreign language, or searching for an ancestor who left little written history behind. Whatever the reason, when it’s time to hire a professional genealogist, it’s important that you find one who is trustworthy and whose work will last for generations to come.
When you’re trying to decide who to hire, you’ll want to use three tools to evaluate candidates: work samples, public reviews, and credentials.
1. Work Samples
Before you hire a genealogist, it’s very important to first review a few samples of her work so you understand what to expect. A genealogist’s core product is adding information to your family tree, and the basis of this information is communicated to you through a genealogy research report. Different genealogists and companies vary on the other products or features they offer in addition, but the report is the fundamental element of a finished product in almost all instances.
After you review a few samples from the genealogist you’re considering, there are two things you’ll want to evaluate – the genealogist’s use of the Genealogical Proof Standard, and her effective use of time.
Does the Genealogist Meet the Genealogical Proof Standard?
The Genealogical Proof Standard, or GPS, was formalized in 2000 by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, whose goal is to ensure that genealogists meet a minimum standard when seeking to prove ancestry.
The first component of this standard is that a genealogist must perform a reasonably exhaustive search of pertinent record sources before making a conclusion regarding ancestry. This means that the genealogist you hire shouldn’t spend his time only in online, indexed sources but should also access microfilmed, unindexed records when needed, and should even be willing to call up an ancestor’s funeral home or send someone to an onsite church to get information.
The second part of the GPS ensures that a genealogist has correctly cited the sources he accessed so that those same sources can be obtained and evaluated in the future. When you hire a genealogist, you want to feel certain that the work he does will be useful and accessible to your children and their children as well. The source of his or her information is as important as the actual information itself.
The final components of the GPS explore the importance of evaluating conflicting evidence and communicating the resolution of those conflicts effectively. Since many people hire a genealogist to help them break through genealogical brick walls – which likely exist because of conflicting (or sparse) evidence – hiring a genealogist who can effectively navigate those issues and arrive at a reasonable conclusion is paramount.
Does the Genealogist Use Time Efficiently?
Efficient genealogy should generally follow the same pattern: first, cast a wide net seeking helpful information in readily available records (think internet and indexed sources); second, use slower but necessary searches in microfilm and other less accessible records; third, network with others to access onsite records at repositories you don’t have access to.
Beware of a sample report that involves early ancestry (generally pre-1850) and utilizes only “easy” sources such as other online trees or compiled sources – generally this indicates a genealogist’s lack of motivation to track down clues and an improper reliance on the unproven work of others.
As you go through a genealogist’s work samples, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I feel comfortable with this researcher’s pace?
- Does she skip ahead to the next generation without thoroughly meeting the GPS?
- Or on the other hand, does she take too long to reach a conclusion and confidently move ahead?
2. Public Reviews
Social proof is powerful. You can utilize online reviews to get a view into what your experience will be like if you hire the genealogist you’re considering, based on the experiences of others.
There are several great review sites available and you may find your prospective genealogist or genealogy company there. Some of these are the Better Business Bureau, Facebook, Google, Angie’s List, and Yelp. One quick shortcut for finding reviews on the genealogist you’re considering would be a Google search of the name plus “reviews.”
You’ll see two main credentials in genealogy, an AG (through ICAPGen) and a CG (through the Board for Certification of Genealogists). Let’s talk about each of these as well as a few additional types of credentials.
An Accredited Genealogist (AG) is someone who has passed several levels of testing through ICAPGen (The International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists). This testing is geographically specific, meaning that someone with an AG after their name has tested for at least one region within the United States or for one region of the world. If you’re set on hiring an AG, you’ll want to ask about the geographic region(s) in which they were tested and make sure it covers the area you need. Receiving a genealogy accreditation also includes providing an acceptable four-generation research report (demonstrating that a person can do genealogy in earlier, harder time periods), a written and oral exam, and adherence to a code of ethics.
Becoming a Certified Genealogist involves similar requirements as the Accreditation with a slightly different focus. The CG is not geographic specific, but instead takes a closer look at a genealogist’s ability to interpret documents and resolve contradictory evidence. Since this is what a genealogist is often hired for, I find a lot of value in the qualifications required by the Board for Certification of Genealogists.
Many people don’t know this, but there is a full undergraduate bachelor’s degree program in Family History – Genealogy available at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. I completed this degree in 2003 and took numerous courses on genealogy record sources and history, paleography (reading old handwriting), writing classes, case studies, and more. This degree can provide a good foundation for a career as a quality genealogical researcher.
There are a few other types of “credentials” you may want to consider when hiring a genealogist. These are additional certificates and degrees offered through online university programs (two major ones are through Boston University and BYU-Idaho), genealogy institutes (usually week-long courses), and years of experience. These things can also help in evaluating a genealogist’s involvement and ability
As you try to predict the success you’ll have with a particular genealogist or genealogy firm, the three main categories we’ve talked about – work samples, public reviews, and credentials – can help you feel more confident that you’re hiring someone who will give you quality results. Keep in mind that what you are buying isn’t a straightforward product; sometimes for a variety of reasons (record loss, privacy laws, and other restrictions), the answers are legitimately not available despite the genealogists’ best efforts. Rather than a guarantee of certain information, you’re getting a pledge that a genealogist will use paid time effectively and search for information in the best way possible.
What you can expect after hiring a quality genealogist is detailed information on your family’s history that will be treasured for generations.