by Sharilyn Whitaker


At some point, after you have gathered every scrap of information available to you about your family, and organized this information into family group sheets and a pedigree, and after you have conducted your own research for a time to the best of your abilities, you may arrive at the place where you consider hiring a professional genealogist to help you.

The all important first step is to choose someone qualified, whose help you can afford, and who has experience researching records in the particular location where your ancestors were last known to have lived. Some consideration should be paid to whether or not this person has had experience in actually doing African American genealogy. That having been said, the emphasis should be on finding an affordable, qualified person, well versed in conducting research in your area. This person may or may not be black, and might not have had previous experience in African American research. You must find someone qualified and willing to do your work diligently, with whom you can develop a comfortable working relationship. A white genealogist may, in fact, be able to offer a point of view, and skills, quite valuable in certain aspects of African American research.

There are listings of professional genealogists available through various sources, including the Internet. Some of the best leads come from the genealogical and historical societies in your specific location of interest. I have also found leads through contacting the local history department of libraries near the location, and through the places where records I wish to have searched are kept. Frequently the people that research those records on a regular basis are known to the staff. Be warned. A professional genealogist may come very highly recommended, and still not be the one that is right for you.

You might get hold of a researcher, like one I hired, who happened to be a PhD. He was provided very well prepared and specific information on one particular family, and asked him to check census records containing referencesto this family, and take me back one generation, then tell me the COLOR given for these people. Can't get more specific than that. Instead, he sent me the census listings for everyone in that state with that surname, and a bill for an additional $50.00, over and above my $100.00 deposit, and refused to return the extensive materials I had sent for his use unless I paid it. This for doing work almost totally irrelevant to my needs. I planned to conduct Underground Railroad research in that area with this man's help, but needless to say I found another researcher to assist me.

The all important first step in developing a working relationship with a professional genealogist is the initial period of communication. You need to specifically discuss your expectations, and inquire about experience and qualifications, perhaps asking for an example of their work, or for a reference. If you choose a licensed professional, you will generally pay more, but on the other hand, if a licensed professionalís work is truly unsatisfactory, you then have the recourse of making an effective complaint. You must come to an agreement on hourly rate, and find out about other charges that might be expected to be incurred, and you must agree upon the manner of payment. Beware of any professional genealogist who asks for more than a deposit up front. It is a good idea to agree not only upon an hourly rate, but also, at least initially, to agree only to a certain number of hours of research. Conduct this communication process in writing, as then you will have a record of your agreement. Start small, and wait for the first results to arrive. They are your best indication of whether you have found the right person. I cannot stress enough that you must provide this professional genealogist with good information, a specific location and a specific time frame. You must, in other words , first and foremost, do your part well, in order to expect to reap the most benefit from hiring a professional.

After a reasonable period of time, you should expect to receive a well written narrative report, meticulously documented, detailing every aspect of the research that was conducted, and wherever possible, photocopies of pertinent primary records. If it is not possible to actually photocopy these records, then they should be accurately transcribed, and the precise location of the records given. If a search was made and nothing was found, this, too, is valuable information, as it will save you the trouble of looking there again. You should also expect to receive a statement of what research was conducted, where, and for what period of time, and to be charged only the agreed upon amount, plus any reasonable additional charges. For example, you might be charged for things like mileage, bridge tolls, parking, and the cost of making photocopies of documents. Take time to carefully consider the findings you receive and to incorporate them into your work. The professional may gather information for you, venture an opinion as to itís significance, and even suggest the next logical step in your research, but you are ultimately in charge of assigning relevance to the findings, and making decisions on how to proceed.

If you have, indeed, found the right person, you will sense a warm and genuine interest in your research, and continuing a relationship with such a professional genealogist can truly be a great pleasure.

Links to Additional Resources:

Preparing your information:

African American Genealogy

Locating a professional genealogist:

Association of Professional Genealogists

Alabama-Professional Genealogists

(Similar sites for other states found by entering "name of your state of interest-Professional Genealogists" -- for example, "Texas-Professional Genealogists" -- in a search engine.)


23 Feb 2000 | 26 Apr 2000
Copyright © 2000. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission of the author.