24 November 2014

How to Become a Paid Genealogy Researcher

Genealogical research is interesting and challenging, but not necessarily lucrative. It involves a huge number of non-billable hours and many non-billable expenses such as stationery, ongoing education (genealogy seminars, conferences etc), books/fiche/CD-ROMs for your home reference library, computer hardware and software, equipment repairs, Internet access, Webpage costs, electricity, etc.

As a paid researcher you will need to learn about sources that you did not use for your own family tree. Before setting up a business, do voluntary research (perhaps dealing with requests sent to your local Family History Society). This will alert you to some of the gaps in your knowledge. You can then decide what type of research commissions your business should accept. Make the most of any special interests or skills, and be aware of your weaknesses.

You could start by working as a record agent, dealing with simple requests that require minimal analysis and interpretation (eg, 'I want a copy of Document-X, which I know is at your local record office.') As you become familiar with more record series, you can offer a wider range of services.

In my opinion, these are the main requirements for a professional genealogist who does research in local archives or record offices:
  • A very high degree of proficiency in using the holdings of those repositories.
  • A thorough understanding of correct research techniques, genealogical proof standards, and the difference between primary and secondary sources (original records and derivative records).
  • A clear understanding of privacy issues and professional ethics.
  • An awareness of the traps involved in using indexes and interpreting handwriting.
  • Good analytical skills.
  • The ability to use lateral thinking.
  • The ability to cite sources fully and accurately, regardless of whether results are positive or negative.
  • 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!)
  • Knowledge of accounting and small business management.
  • 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), listening to webinars and podcasts, reading reference books, journals, newsletters, Web sites and genealogy blogs, and doing whatever else is necessary to keep up with changes in your particular field. If you want a formal qualification, a good choice would be one of the Local, Family and Applied History 'distance education' courses offered by the University of New England (Armidale NSW).

Some potential clients ask about my formal qualifications and accreditation, but most employ me because of word-of-mouth referrals or the helpful content of my main Web site.
I've ordered many books (including genealogy and history titles) from The Book Depository.

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.

  6. I didn't mention it in my post (just on a linked page), but I was accredited by the Australasian Association of Genealogists & Record Agents. There are many different types of accreditation or certification available in various parts of the world. The quality of a particular organisation's 'testing' process can vary over time. Some are (or were) not very rigorous! In practice, 99.9% of my clients seem to care about word of mouth recommendations or my Grad.Dip. Local and Applied History but not about my formal accreditation. The situation may be different in the USA.