Professional researchers are people to whom you pay a fee to dig around and find information for you. They can retrieve specific records that you identify, or they can prepare an entire report on a family line by using all the resources available. And, as you might expect, the amount that you pay depends on the level of service that you require. Professional researchers are especially helpful when you need records from locations to which you cannot travel conveniently.
When looking for a professional researcher, you want to find someone who is reputable and experienced in the area in which you need help. Here's a list of questions you may want to ask when shopping around for a professional researcher:
- Is the researcher certified or accredited and, if so, by what organization? In the genealogy field, certifications function a bit differently than in other fields. Rather than receiving a certification based on coursework, genealogical certifications are based on demonstrated research skills. You find two main certifying bodies in the field: the Board for Certification of Genealogists and the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists.
The Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) awards two credentials: Certified Genealogist and Certified Genealogical Lecturer. The credentials are awarded based on a peer-review process — meaning that a group of individuals possessing the credentials evaluate a research project of an applicant.
You might also run into some old certifications such as Certified Lineage Specialist (CLS), Certified American Indian Lineage Specialist (CAILS), Certified Genealogical Records Specialist (CGRS), and Certified Genealogical Instructor (CGI), which are no longer used by the organization.
The International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists (ICAPGen) awards the Accredited Genealogist (AG) credential. The accreditation program originally was established by the Family History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 2000, the program was launched as an independent organization called ICAPGen. To become accredited, an applicant must submit a research project and take an examination. Accredited Genealogists are certified in a geographical or subject-matter area. So, you want to make sure that the accreditation that the researcher possesses matches your research question.
Some professional researchers do not hold either of these credentials but might hold a professional degree such as a Masters in Library and Information Science or advanced history degree from an accredited college or university. Depending on the research area, they could be just as proficient as a credentialed genealogist.
- How many years of experience does the researcher have researching? In general, we tend to think of a person as improving in knowledge and efficiency as he or she has more years of experience researching. But the answer to this question needs to be considered in context of some other questions. The researcher might have only a little time researching genealogies for others but might have an educational degree that required historical research experience.
- What is the researcher's educational background? The methods for researching and the type of reports that you can get from an individual can be directly influenced by his or her educational background. If the researcher has a degree in history, you may get more anecdotal material relating to the times and places in which your ancestor lived. If the researcher attended the school of hard knocks (and doesn't have a formal education per se but has lots of experience researching), you may get specific, bare-bones facts about your ancestor.
- Does the researcher have any professional affiliations? In other words, does he or she belong to any professional genealogical organizations and, if so, which ones? Much like the question dealing with certification or accreditation, a researcher's willingness to belong to a professional organization shows a serious commitment. One organization to look for is membership in the Association of Professional Genealogists. The APG is an umbrella organization of all types of researchers and those providing professional services. It includes researchers credentialed under both BCG and ICAPGen, as well as other noncredentialed researchers. All members of the APG agree to be bound by a code of ethics and meet certain research standards.
- What foreign languages does the researcher speak fluently? This is an important question if you need research conducted in another country. Some research firms send employees to other countries to gather information, but you need the reassurance that the employee has the qualifications necessary to obtain accurate information.
- What records and resources does the researcher have access to? Again, you want the reassurance that the researcher can obtain accurate information and from reliable sources. You probably don't want to pay a researcher to simply read the same documents that you have access to at your local library and put together a summary.
- What is the professional researcher's experience in the area where you need help? For example, if you need help interviewing distant relatives in a foreign country, has he or she conducted interviews in the past? Or, if you need records pertaining to an ethnic or religious group, does the researcher have experience researching those types of records?
- How does the researcher charge? You need to know how you're going to be charged — by the record, by the hour, or by the project. Is there a down-payment due before researching begins? And it's helpful to know up front what methods of payment the researcher accepts so that you're prepared when payment time comes. And you should ask what you can do if you're dissatisfied with the researcher's services (although we hope you never need to know this).
- Is the researcher currently working on other projects and, if so, how many and what kinds? It's perfectly reasonable to ask how much time the researcher can devote to your research project and when you can get results. If the researcher tells you that it's going to take a year to get a copy of a single birth certificate from an agency in the town where he or she lives, you might want to rethink hiring that person.
- Does the researcher have references you can contact? We think that a researcher's willingness to provide references speaks to his or her ethics. And we recommend that you contact one or two of the references to find out what exactly they like about this researcher and whether they see the researcher as having any pitfalls of which you should be aware.
- Using your web browser, go to the APG site.
- Click the link from the list in the left column of the page under the Find a Specialist heading. For example, you can look for a researcher who specializes in adoption.
- Click the link for a researcher who, based on the description posted, looks promising. The figure shows the researchers specializing in adoption.
When you find a professional researcher, make your initial contact. Be as specific as possible about your needs. That helps the researcher pinpoint exactly what he or she needs to do and makes it easier to calculate how much it will cost you.