When to Hire a Professional Genealogist

By Sunny Jane Morton Premium
As a young laborer, my husband, Jeremy, framed homes, ran electrical cable, hung drywall and laid floors. When it came time to remodel our house recently, he tackled the project with confidence and skill.
Despite his expertise, Jeremy quickly encountered several tasks he couldn’t—or didn’t want to—do himself. Like hooking up the electrical box (an explosive task if not done correctly) and plumbing, which he can’t do without yelling.
Many of us are like Jeremy when it comes to our genealogy. We’re skilled enough to DIY but occasionally we want—or need—expert help. So when do we call in the pros? What can they do for us? What do they charge and how do we find them? Find out in this handy don’t-do-it-yourself guide to genealogy.

Genealogical general contractors

Is there a brick wall on your father’s side you need to demolish? Newly unearthed Norwegian ancestry you don’t know how to research? Call in the general contractors of genealogy: professional researchers.
“We have a group of specialists who really can take on almost any research question or problem,” says Brenton Simons, president and CEO of the New England Historical Genealogical Society (NEHGS). You can hire NEHGS researchers for $70 an hour ($50 for NEHGS members).
“We have the largest genealogical manuscript collection in the country: more than 200,000 printed volumes, tens of thousands of reels of films and 28 million manuscript items,” Simons continues. “We’ve been collecting since 1845. That forms a really amazing collection that our researchers can use.
“Our researchers are [also] very adept at tapping into all manner of online resources and finding things in other collections that members wouldn’t know about or easily find,” Simons says. “Even with a relatively modest investment, people who use our research services can yield great dividends. Having someone to guide you can result in tremendous discoveries that might otherwise take years to happen—or might never happen.”

If you already have a fair amount of experience doing your own research, what types of “building projects” might a professional genealogist help you with? 

  • Research plans: A consultant can help you with a site inspection—organizing your files and determining your next research goals, based on your overall priorities.
  • Social history: Do “survey work” to gain historical perspective on your ancestor’s era, perhaps to explain odd migration patterns, living arrangements or changes in employment.
  • Lineage society applications: These can be as extensive and detail-oriented as building permits.
  • Brick wall demolition: The experts have lots of sources you might not even know about. Bonus: You can pick up new techniques from the experts along with your research results.
How do you prepare for a successful consult? Hire a researcher who has experience with (and access to) records relevant to your research problem—you can search for researchers by specialty within the the Association of Professional Genealogists’ (APG) online member directory. Be clear on what’s included in the fee (photocopies, a written summary, consult time) and the deadline. Above all, be organized and specific in your request­—you don’t want to pay a researcher to chase down details you already know.
Besides APG and NEHGS, you can consult the Board for Certification of Genealogists or the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists to find a reputable researcher. Check out’s Expert Connect service, too.
For general questions, take advantage of free online Q&A services. Genealogist David Lambert runs one for NEHGS, or look for an Ask-a-Librarian feature on research repositories’ Web sites. You also can submit inquiries to be answered in Family Tree Magazine’s Now What? section, or post to our online forum. For specific questions, make an appointment with a staff librarian or genealogist at your nearest facility (see the July 2009 Family Tree Magazine). But understand that you won’t get an expert’s undivided attention for long without paying for it.

Life story surveyors

The first step in any new building project is to understand the site. A detailed survey is taken to guide construction plans. In genealogy, your “building site” is living family members. A personal historian can help you map out their lives and build a strong foundation for understanding the generations that preceded them.
“A personal historian records and preserves people’s memoirs and life stories,” says Paula Stahel, president of the Association of Personal Historians (APH). The historian creates a record of the living’s personal and family history through interviews and other information gathering. The final product could be a set of audiotapes, a book, an ethical will, a film or videotape, a CD or a DVD.
“A professional personal historian brings objectivity to story gathering,” Stahel explains. “Some people will express themselves to a stranger where they would feel reticent about expressing themselves to a family member.”
A pro’s interviewing skills make a big difference, too. “We know what questions to ask, what stories to pursue,” Stahel says. “Because of our experience interviewing and paying attention to people’s body language, we know when to ask a different way so more of the story will come out.”
And what about confidentiality? “We highly respect people’s boundaries,” Stahel says. “If someone tells a story and then says they don’t want those stories to be public, a personal historian will respect that confidence. If someone says, ‘I’m not going into that,’ we respect it, where some family members might not.”
APH has a searchable online directory of members you can use to locate professionals in your area. Stahel advises talking to several historians before hiring one. “Make sure you’re hiring the right person for the type of project you want,” she says. “Find someone you click with. You’re inviting them into your life or a family member’s life and you want to feel comfortable interacting with them.”
Do prep work before contacting a personal historian. Decide on a format for your results (book, DVD). Gather existing resources, from pedigree charts to oral interview tapes to albums. List relatives willing to be interviewed, with contact information, relationship and the topics you’d like to hear them cover.

Preservation experts

Restoring a glorious old home involves more than swinging a hammer. You may need to hire a specialist to clean an original stained glass window or salvage the old front door you found in the attic.

Preserving unique family relics may call for professional service, too. A conservator can help by examining, documenting and either stabilizing or restoring your heirlooms. Conservators often have master’s level training in historic preservation and might even specialize in rare books, photographs, furniture or documents.

Some people think that conservators only work with museum-quality artifacts—but that’s not true. A conservator will respect and work with your heirloom even if it has “only” sentimental value.
When would you contact a conservator? “If you have noticed that a document or photo is cracking or bubbling,” says Eryl P. Wentworth, executive director of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. “If there’s a tear or obvious damage from light, insects, high humidity, water damage, poor handling or accidents, that’s the time to get professional help.”
Your first step is fact finding, which might be free. “Conservators typically don’t charge for an initial phone conversation,” Wentworth says. “Find one on our Web site to talk to someone who can guide you on storing materials properly.”
Though general advice may be gratis, you’ll need to hire a conservator to actually evaluate and/or treat your heirloom. He or she will examine your artifact, photograph it and note damage.
Then the conservator will write a report describing the item’s condition and recommending specific treatment to stabilize it (prevent further deterioration) or to restore it to new-as-possible condition, depending on your preference.
Finally, the conservator can treat your heirlooms to preserve them for the future. If the conservation process reveals new information—such as previously concealed damage or a second old quilt hidden inside the one you’re preserving—the conservator will consult with you on how to proceed.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of conservation. “Preventive conservation is the very first step,” Wentworth says. “[Our Web site] provides basic information on how to handle, store and display your family heirlooms.” For larger collections, you might request just a survey and condition report, with recommendations on how to care for the pieces yourself.

Trained transcriptionists

Getting everything in print is standard procedure with every building project. Putting your precious audio and videotapes in print form should be, too. Especially if your tapes are more than 10 years old, deterioration is a serious concern. Furthermore, written oral history interviews are more convenient to read, copy, and share than original tapes.
But transcribing your own records can be tedious and time-consuming. “People think transcription is an easy thing to do, and it’s not physically impossible,” says transcriptionist Katherine White of OnLine and OnTime Virtual Transcription Services in British Columbia, Canada. “But if you’ve never transcribed something before it can be a challenge. Hiring it out is a timesaver.”
Transcription services’ primary clients are usually medical and academic professionals. But many transcriptionists—including White—will gladly take on family history jobs. “Most oral histories are extremely interesting,” White says. “Everybody’s got a story, and they’re fun to hear.”
How much does transcription cost? White charges by the hour ($30 at the time of this writing, based on the Canadian exchange rate). “Generally speaking, an hourlong academic one-on-one digitally recorded interview costs about $100. A [digitally recorded] oral history would probably cost somewhat less because it would, for the most part, be one person speaking, and probably somewhat slowly as they recall things.”
All in all, the price of transcription will vary depending on the transcription service, format of the original recording (digital audio files are best), sound quality, background noise and the number of speakers, as well as how quickly and clearly your subjects speak. Turnaround time can be within a week, and the end result will generally be an electronic document (or printout, upon request).
If you plan to do interviews, use a digital tape recorder so your result is stored as a computer file. It’s easy and inexpensive to save these files to longer-term digital storage and to share them with others (including a transcriptionist).

Memento remodelers

Just as your appliances and fixtures need occasional updates, so do your family mementos. Converting original documents, tapes, photos, slides and even videos or home movies to digital format will preserve their content and allow you to share them easily.
The equipment required to digitize most of your family memories is available for tech-savvy DIYers. But price or lack of expertise keeps many people from using digital conversion tools such as scanners, slide converters and special software.
ScanDigital is one of many companies that provide high-quality scans of your old photos, documents, album pages, videos and films (including 8mm, Super8 and 16mm). ScanDigital caters specifically to family historians, providing secure shipping, careful handling, state-of-the-art digitization, light photo restoration, on-line file storage and speedy return of precious family mementos.
Digitization services usually don’t take long; ScanDigital turns around most orders within a week (two weeks for videos). The completed product is generally a CD or DVD, though digitizers can print photos on request. ScanDigital also hosts your files online so you can share them with others, order reprints, upload additional images, and create customized photo books or slide shows from them. Don’t worry about privacy—ScanDigital uses a secure server that’s not publicly accessible (you access your account with a password).
What does digitization cost? As always, it depends on what you’ve got. At ScanDigital, individual prices range from 48 cents for a photo print to $19.95 for videocassettes of various formats, with additional services available. Package pricing for larger orders is also available.
Gather all your items at once for a bulk pricing quote from a digitization service. After getting your own digital files back, you may be able to save money by printing photos yourself—or by sending the files to relatives to print themselves.

Jack of all trades

In the building industry, some trades overlap: Your plumber might take care of natural gas lines, and the electrician may consult on phone and Internet hookups. Similarly, a personal historian might provide an interview transcription. A conservator may take digital images of your heirlooms for you. It will just depend on who you hire, and whether you’re looking for full-service or a la carte support.
Whatever level of service you hire, even the most dedicated DIY genealogists can benefit from a helping hand. You might actually save money in the long run: on equipment, travel expenses and the cost of your time. And of course, with pros’ help, you’ll accomplish more faster and have the freedom to pursue the parts of your research you most enjoy.
“A lot of people simply want the help because they want to make progress,” NEHGS’ Simons says. “They may enjoy doing research on their own, but they’ve got a lot of lines and they simply want someone else to help with them. There are just not enough hours in the day.”
Job Boards
Want to hire someone to do a basic research task such as photographing a gravestone or photocopying a record? Try these online services:

  • Genlighten: Here, you also can collect bids for research tasks. The focus is on lookups, record retrieval and similar services.

In addition, some repositories keep lists of nearby professional researchers. For example, if you want to hire someone to copy a Civil War pension file, see the National Archives’ referrals.


Here’s how to contact the companies highlighted in this article. To find others offering genealogy-related assistance, search Google <> on the service you’re looking for (such as transcription or photo conservation) or check your local yellow pages.

From the December 2009 Family Tree Magazine