Genealogy as a hobby has exploded within the past few years, thanks in large part to the advent of Internet research, and especially to Internet databases containing genealogical material in digital form or as indexes or transcriptions. With the onset of Ancestry.com’s Expert Connect and other online third party genealogical research services, this large group of newcomers also has a way to connect with professional genealogists who can either guide the hobbyist through the research process or who can provide for-pay services to answer tougher problems1.
Unfortunately, the rise in genealogy’s popularity has also precipitated a rise in professional genealogists who do not have the skill, training, and education to actually perform research-for-hire. At the same time, the proliferation of free and for-pay online databases has led to a generation of hobbyists who lack the basic skills necessary to differentiate between a skilled genealogist and an untrained one, not because these hobbyists aren’t intelligent but because they do not know that there’s more to genealogy than Googling a name. Most Internet genealogists simply do not understand the realities of research. For instance:
- Some estimates place the amount of genealogical material available online in any form as less than 5% of all available physical material
- There’s a large difference between conducting a search for a name in a record, and conducting research into a genealogical problem (the latter includes the former, but it also includes placing the target ancestor in context with his or her community, analyzing each document in various ways, and synthesizing the body of evidence)
- Most Internet family trees (and many published ones, for that matter) have not been proven with solid documentation and are therefore unreliable
And so on. This may sound like a harsh indictment of those new to the field, either as hobbyists or professionals, but it isn’t. Rather, it’s a warning to hobbyists to be cautious when hiring a professional, and especially when hiring one sight unseen. The old maxim caveat emptor (Let the buyer beware) applies here as it does everywhere. And while many professional genealogists may not intend to defraud their clients, there’s no reason for the purchaser of such services to be a victim. Below are a few basic steps to take before hiring a professional.