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.
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I use and recommend FindMyPast.

23 April 2011

Making Money from Genealogy

There has been much discussion this week about 'genealogy blogs for fun or profit' and 'careers in genealogy'. Before I add my ten cents worth, let me explain my perspective. Although I am relatively new to blogging, I have been doing personal family history research since 1974 and paid research since 1986. As a medical scientist in a hospital, I was working a five-day week plus some nights, weekends and on-call. I switched to part-time employment because my parents were getting on in years and needed help. Less hospital work meant less income but more free time and flexibility, and part-time professional genealogy became an option.

I am the sort of person who reads the instruction manual before taking the new gizmo out of its packaging, so in addition to reading widely and attending many seminars, I wanted some formal training. After hearing an inspirational lecture by Elizabeth Shown Mills, I did a Graduate Diploma in Local and Applied History (University of New England, NSW). That was expensive and took four years (two subjects per year), but it was interesting, relevant and definitely worthwhile. I also taught myself to write HTML code in a text editor and create my own Web pages (the smartest move I ever made).

Genealogy Blogging for Fun or Profit

Should genealogy blogs have advertising, affiliate links etc? This was thoroughly debated in Genealogy Blogging for Fun or Profit (Thomas MacEntee) and Genea-Bodies: The New Somebodies (Joan Miller). In Beyond Genealogy, Illya defined 'information', 'research' and 'family-focussed' genealogy blogs, and said that 'Anyone who devotes significant amounts of time in their blogging efforts and produces meaningful and helpful posts that promote quality research and support the industry should... have the guilt-free opportunity to benefit financially.'

The phrase 'guilt-free' is interesting. No business survives without promotion, and no-one should feel the need to apologise for promoting their business - and yet, like many genealogy professionals, talking about fees often makes me uncomfortable. (Perhaps this week's discussion will help me to get over that!) I love helping people, and I spend quite a lot of time on genealogical activities for which I am not paid. It is not always easy to achieve the right balance between genealogy for fun and genealogy as a business.

In most of my blog posts I freely share my knowledge of family history sources, techniques etc. Occasionally I mention my own services or publications, but my blogs are more educational than promotional. They do not yet have many readers so they generate virtually no revenue from ads. For my main Web site, which shows Google ads, the situation is quite different. With a Google Adsense account I can tweak the HTML code to control which part of the page the ad server reads when it is deciding what advertisements will match the page content. I can also block ads that I feel are not appropriate for my site. This means that most ads displayed are relevant to my readers. It costs them nothing to click on an ad and get more details, and I earn about $600 per year (enough to cover the cost of my Web hosting fees and Internet connection). But, as I said, that is from my Web site, not my blogs.

What Do You Mean It Isn't Free?

I was impressed by the article You Pay Your Plumber, Don't You? (Thomas MacEntee). Many people simply do not understand what is involved in handling a research request, so I now put this on my Web site:

Fees are based on costs incurred and time spent on handling the commission. This includes the time it takes to analyse information supplied, contact you for clarification if insufficient data is provided initially, plan the research, search the records, assess results, order and collect photocopies, prepare reports, and read and respond to emails. Out-of-pocket expenses are extra (photocopies, phonecalls, certificates, photographs, postage, packaging etc). My hourly rate covers non-billable expenses such as stationery, computer hardware and software, equipment repairs, Internet access, Webpage costs, electricity, ongoing education (genealogy seminars, conferences and journals), books/fiche/CD-ROMs for my home reference library, etc.

Careers in Genealogy

For some interesting ideas see Careers in Genealogy: 'Off the Chart' Thinking (Thomas MacEntee) and How Do You Make Money in Genealogy? (Amy Coffin).

I earn money primarily from research, copying services and self-published books. The vast majority of my clients find me via my Web site, which has lots of free advice plus 53,000 names from archival sources that I have indexed. If you find a relevant name there, you can pay a 'copying service' fee and I will go to the Archives and copy the original document. (If you are determined, have lots of time and can visit the Archives in person, the source description on my Web page may be enough for you to find the document without my help.)

For speaking I usually charge a fee (unless the group is one to which I belong) and I expect to be reimbursed for all or most of my expenses (travel, accommodation etc). In Australia, Council libraries usually pay higher speaker's fees than genealogical societies. I do not give the same talk often enough for a speaker's fee to cover the time involved in preparing talks, overheads and handouts (not to mention travel time) - but in country areas people often buy my books after the talk, so that helps. In the future I hope to do more speaking, especially in rural areas and perhaps overseas. Some groups keep inviting me back, so they must think I give value for money. (I once extended a two-hour talk to four hours because the audience and I were enjoying ourselves so much, but I was a wreck afterwards!)

In Genealogy: Charting Your Own Course (Amy Coffin), Kerry Scott commented that 'some of the traditional advice to would-be professional genealogists can be (unintentionally) very discouraging.' There is a fine line between 'discouraging' and 'realistic'. Personally I like to understand the potential risks and rewards before putting a lot of time, effort and money into setting up a business. I am so often asked about genealogy as a career that I have prepared a leaflet on the subject. Perhaps I should publish that in a future blog post.

Conclusion

When my accountant looks at the figures for my genealogy business, she shakes her head and says, 'Why do you bother?' I explain that it is not my sole source of income; that it gives me a lot of pleasure; and that being able to claim genealogy conference expenses as a tax deduction is a big plus! I do have plans for expanding and diversifying my business, but everything is on hold while I deal with family commitments, health issues, bereavement and executor duties. In the meantime, I am learning as much as I can from this wonderful community of genealogy bloggers. Thanks, folks!
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