30 April 2011

How to Become a Paid Genealogy Researcher

Genealogical research is interesting and challenging, but not necessarily very lucrative. It involves a lot of non-billable hours and expenses. I talked about that in Making Money from Genealogy.

As a paid researcher you will probably need to know about sources that you did not use for your own family tree. Before setting up a business, do some voluntary research (perhaps dealing with requests sent to your local Family History Society). This will alert you to any significant gaps in your knowledge. You can then decide what research commissions your business should accept. You could start by working as a record agent, dealing with simple requests that require minimal analysis and interpretation ('I want a copy of Document-X, which I know is at your local record office.') When you are familiar with more record series, you can offer a wider range of services.

In my opinion, these are the principal requirements for a professional genealogist who does research in local record offices or archives:
  • A very high degree of proficiency in using the holdings of the record office.
  • A thorough understanding of correct research techniques and the difference between primary and secondary sources.
  • An awareness of the traps involved in using indexes and interpreting handwriting.
  • The ability to cite sources fully and accurately, regardless of whether results are positive or negative.
  • A willingness to undertake professional development and on-going education. This includes attending seminars and conferences (for example, the Australasian Congress on Genealogy and Heraldry), reading reference books, journals, newsletters and Web sites, and doing whatever else is necessary to keep up with changes in your particular field.
  • Good analytical skills.
  • The ability to use lateral thinking.
  • Some knowledge of the history of the area in which you specialise (dates of first settlement, local industries etc.)
  • The ability to interpret and analyse the lives of individuals and families in the context of local, national and world events.
  • Good communication skills, especially in reports and emails. (Clients do care about your grammar, spelling and punctuation!)
  • A clear understanding of privacy issues and professional ethics.
  • Some knowledge of accounting and small business management.

Potential clients rarely take much notice of my formal qualifications and accreditation. Their decision to employ me is usually based on word-of-mouth referrals and/or the helpful content of my Web site.

Do you agree with my ideas on what should be expected of a paid researcher? If not, why? I would love to hear your point of view. Whether you are a researcher or a client, please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.
I use and recommend FindMyPast.


  1. I agree totally with your blog. Especially the bit about further professional development. I think people underestimate how big Family History is as a subject. Although research skills are the foundation on which we build our discipline, no one can know everything about everything. Families in the past were just as complex as families today: religion, occupation, financially, racially, socially. The advances on technology also drive the need to keep up with your professional development. Having so much available online now, gives us another place to look - and evaluate. New technologies wisely used mean efficient and effective researching.

  2. Excellent list, Judy.

    Don't think I'll ever be a pro - I'll stick to giving friends a kickstart.

    I think some degree of interpersonal skills are useful - good interviewing techniques - to be able to get as much info as possible from clients and to ascertain exactly what they want to discover. Empathy when dealing with clients is imperative.

  3. Genebrarian - I agree. I once knew two high-profile genealogists (now deceased) who thought they knew everything about everything. They gave professional genealogy in Australia a very bad name, but hopefully that's all in the past.

    Geniaus - Good point about interviewing techniques. That was one of the skills we learned from the Grad. Dip. Local and Applied History. I've also spent a lot of time fine-tuning my Web pages and request form to make things easier for clients and for me. When I was doing night shifts and on-call for the hospital, and thus sleeping during the day, phone calls were driving me insane. I had to get an unlisted number and communicate with clients only by email and snail mail. It actually has many benefits. If a client has to fill in a Family Group Sheet and *write down* what they know and what they want to find out (rather than just talking about it), they are more likely to analyse their data, spot gaps or discrepancies, and do more research before they send me the request. That often saves them a lot of money, and it increases the chance of success.

  4. A well thought out post.I will keep this excellent list of requirements in mind as I travel through my Advanced Diploma of Applied, Local and Family History, Judy. But at the slow pace I am crawling, I may never be working as a professional genealogist. No matter,I believe that your list will be useful to keep in mind anyway, thanks for such good advice, Sharn

  5. Thanks Sharn. I'm sure you'll be able to work as a professional genealogist some day - and in the meantime you are gaining skills that will make your personal research more successful and more enjoyable. In my first few months as a paid researcher, I only had two clients. They told their friends, and then I had four clients. And so it began! It wasn't until after I created an informative Web site that business really picked up.


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