Caveat Emptor

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.

  • Be aware that services like Expert Connect have only the most minimum vetting standards for their Providers (researchers). It’s up to you to make certain those genealogists can solve your particular problem.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions such as: Do you have access to the records needed to solve this problem? Have you solved problems similar to mine in the past? Have you studied families or communities in the same locality as my ancestor?
  • Ask for references or work samples. If a researcher lists publications, take the time to read one or two so that you have a good grasp of the researcher’s skills and areas of specialty.
  • Ask the researcher to tell you how they plan to solve your problem. A full research plan may not be necessary, but their answer should nearly always include research into original material, whether digital or physical, unless the problem can be solved another way.
  • Expect to pay more than ten or fifteen dollars per hour for services, and for the research to take more than a few hours to complete. Some problems can take upwards of 40, 50, or 100 hours, depending on how complex the situation is2.
  • Expect to pay up front, and expect to pay even if the desired results are not produced. There’s no guarantee that any particular ancestor left a paper trail in what records are now extant. You should, however, expect a researcher to give suggestions on overcoming such a problem in the research report itself.
  • Insist on a detailed contract. This protects you as much as it protects the researcher.
  • Researchers who are a member of organizations such as the Association of Professional Genealogists or who are certified or accredited are more likely to provide quality services. Those who have earned certification and accreditation in particular have already exhibited quality workmanship held to rigorous standards.
  • Be leery of a researcher who does not ask questions about the research problem, who does not adhere to accepted standards of grammar and punctuation, or who demonstrates a marked lack of knowledge about the locality, its records sets, or the nature of the problem. These could be indicative of a researcher who is not skilled, experienced, or professional enough to handle the work required3.
  • Educate yourself on accepted standards of research by reading how-to books, taking classes, and subscribing to genealogy magazines and journals. There are many learning opportunities available online and off that are free or low cost4.

Finally, be aware that sites like Expert Connect are not the only way to find reputable researchers. The Association of Professional Genealogists, the Board for Certification of Genealogists, and other such entities maintain lists of professional researchers, as do local libraries and historical societies. Shop around until you find a researcher who can meet your specific needs, and you’ll be much more satisfied with the resulting product.

* * * * *

Footnotes:
1. Disclaimer: I provide genealogical research services through Ancestry.com’s Expert Connect. I am not in any other way affiliated with that entity or entities. My opinions and comments do not reflect the opinions or policies of Expert Connect, Ancestry.com, or their parent company, nor are they intended to encourage or discourage any individual or group of individuals from using those services.

2. The Board for Certification of Genealogists provides a page of work samples for those interested in applying for certification. Near the bottom of the page under the section “Research Reports” are several examples of different types of reports, including those for complex problems. The one called “Extended-Research Report (Lennon)” encompasses 48.5 hours of work and was the third in a series of research phases based around one problem: identifying the birth family of one man.

3. Some horror stories I’ve seen and heard: one researcher told a potential client that if their slave ancestor was not mentioned in a will, then there was no chance of tracing the slave’s family (not true). Another researcher told a potential client that wills were the only available estate record (also not true). One client shared a research report from another firm he had hired to look into original county-level records; the firm charged $50 per hour to do an analysis of online census records and Internet family trees, which is not what the client asked for or needed.

4. One of my favorite sites is the BCG’s Skillbuilding section. It contains articles written by leading genealogists for BCG’s newsletter OnBoard, all of which are helpful in building research and analysis skills.

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3 Comments to “Caveat Emptor”

  1. A gentle reminder that this post is copyrighted and may not be excerpted without citing the original source or obtaining permission from the author.

    –Dawn

  2. Hi Dawn – as a fellow provider on ExpertConnect I welcome the idea of engagement with the client before being hired.

    What I would ask is that our clients in turn are prepared to engage in the conversation, for example by being upfront in the amount of research already done: have you hit a brick wall or just do not know where to start, or perhaps don’t have the time?

    I put quite a lot of effort into my bid doing preliminary work to ensure that I can effectively take on the project. When I tell the client how I plan to solve their problem, I don’t expect them to take that information for free – some do and I do not think it is fair. There are free message boards where you can seek advice but if you are asking a professional to take the time to bid, you should not do so with the intention of not hiring the expert but merely taking the research approach with no payment.

    One thing the Expert Connect service does well is give clients an impression of how other people rated their experience with the provider. I recommend taking the time to read the comments associated with the ratings, it will give you an idea of the provider’s strengths.

    Expert Connect is also an excellent system for efficiently uniting professional genealogists and clients – if you post a well thought out proposal, you should receive a well thought out bid.

    If there are problems with the project, you can avail yourself of the mediation services by phone or by email – ancestry.com will get back to you and will help. My experience with that help desk has been excellent.

    regards

  3. Anne,

    Thank you for stopping by. I appreciate your insight and thoughtful comment.

    Thank you also for mentioning mediation. This aspect of the client-genealogist relationship is often overlooked, but it is important. To be fair: the APG and the BCG also have mediation services available for affiliated for-pay genealogists. I’m sure other professional entities do as well.

    I hope to do a post in the future about what professional genealogists expect from clients. Like you, I do a great deal of preliminary research before making a bid; I agree that it isn’t fair or ethical for a potential client to take that information and use it to their own ends, unless the information is offered as free advice (and on Expert Connect, that’s hard to do). I will do my best to keep your concerns in mind as I write that post.

    Once again, thank you for stopping by.

    Dawn

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