Friday, January 18, 2013

How to Hire a Genealogist

     Yesterday someone wrote to tell me a sad tale and to ask how to avoid it in the future:
I hired a profession group based on the recommendation of a highly respected genealogical association. After paying $1400 and waiting a year all I got were copies of what I had sent them and an article about the history of the area that anyone could get off the internet. My question is: what questions should I be asking a professional to avoid such a costly farce?
     First, let me apologize on behalf of all of us out here who are maintaining high standards and excellent business practices. There is always one bad apple, and I hope that you complained to the business, the genealogical association who recommended them, and the Better Business Bureau. 
     You can find lots of articles and blogs out there telling you what to ask and how to choose a qualified professional. But I think it is really a very easy task once you think about this like hiring any other professional contractor. Let me explain: 
     The most important thing you ought to do is have a very clear contract. Your contract will spell out exactly what you expect, what the researcher is to do, what s/he is NOT supposed to do, what the objectives are for this project, what you will pay and when, and the due date for the completed project. 
     You wouldn’t hire someone to replace your roof by saying “I want my roof fixed” and then handing over a pile of money. You would want a contract specifying whether the old shingles are to be shingled over or removed. What weight of roofing felt is to be used? What is the specific brand and color of shingle to be used? How many nails per shingle? What about flashing around gutters, skylights, chimneys, vents, etc.? What if weak spots or leaks are discovered? When do they start work? How long will it take? How much do you pay up front? How much do you pay at the end? And on and on. 
     So, too, should you have a detailed contract with your genealogist. It is not unreasonable to spell out exactly what you expect and what they can expect from you. Let me give you an example. 
     Beauregard has hit a brick wall and cannot find the parents of his great-great-great-grandpa: Buford. 
     He has found a land record for Buford, his baptismal record, his will, and his headstone. But the baptismal record simply bears his name and date of baptism. Beauregard decides to hire Brick Walls R Us Genealogy. 
     The contract specifies that Brick Walls R Us Genealogy are to find the parents of Buford. No other family members are to be pursued unless that is a necessary task in order to find Buford’s parents. Beauregard agrees to pay X dollars up front and another Y dollars upon completion plus no more than Z dollars for documents. Brick Walls R Us Genealogy agree to provide “H” hours of research and report writing and if Buford’s parents are discovered before the completion of “H” hours they will attempt to find Buford’s siblings and/or grandparents. Finally, Brick Walls R Us Genealogy agree to have the completed report to Beauregard by such-and-such a date. It will be in the form of a PDF which they will email to Beauregard and will contain a written report detailing their search, the results, copies of all documents or the originals purchased for him, and a calendar listing where they looked and what, if anything, they found in each database and repository. 
     Yes, it sounds like a lot, but it is actually very beneficial to both of you. You know exactly what you are paying for, and they know exactly what to do and what to ignore. You aren’t expecting a pedigree chart extending back a thousand years for $18.95 and they aren’t expecting to merely search in one place for 25 minutes and receive a check for $1895. 
     Next, until you have tried one and found him or her to meet your standards and expectations you probably should only hire them for a small part of the job. If you are satisfied with their work you can hire them to work on the next segment. If you are not satisfied with the work, and they failed to meet the objectives of the contract and can offer no valid reason for their failure, take your business elsewhere. 
     You wouldn’t hire a contractor to do a $100,000 remodel all in one fell swoop (you wouldn’t would you?). Rather you would have him or her remodel the spare bathroom first and if that turns out well you can opt to hire him or her for the remaining work. And once you know how you two work together you can write a more precise contract for future work. 
     I hear you: and what is a valid reason for failure? There are several, but not THAT many. 
     One reason is that there are no documents remaining from that place and time. If the client’s ancestors lived in a war zone (Virginia during the Civil War, Germany in WWII) or if the records repository suffered a fire or natural disaster (such as the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center which destroyed over 16 MILLION files) and those documents are required to successfully complete the research, then you have a valid reason for failure. But it shouldn’t take up the entire budget of time to make that discovery. 
     Another reason is that some records are not available online and the repository does not search for and copy records for free or a fee. This means that the only recourse is to hire someone to go to the archive or other repository and copy or transcribe them. 
     A third reason is that – how shall I say this politely? – your tree is a mess and by the time the genealogist has straightened it out and determined what information is reliable and what information is bogus, your time had expired. 
     Finally, the records might be out there and available, and your tree may be a thing of beauty and historical accuracy, but your ancestor’s name was Imagnacious Pterradiddle (the “P” is silent) and finding THAT name practically requires going through census records page by page. Unfortunately your brick wall was John Terradiddle and it never occurred to anyone that he changed his surname. And no one EVER thought that Imagnacious could be a name. The researcher assumed John’s dad would be William or George or John and so reasonably estimated the time based on those assumptions. 
     A good researcher should request that you provide your sources, documents, and family tree before they offer an estimate. If they aren’t interested in what you have done, or what you already know, find someone else. I like devoting part of that initial free hour to going over a potential client’s tree. It helps to know how sturdy the foundation is, and whether I have to redo the work before I can start my own research.
     Go ahead and shop around and compare. You didn’t hire the first guy who came over to give you an estimate for your roof. You compared the cost and services each roofer offered. Genealogists should understand it is up to us to earn your business. 
     What about references? Let’s be honest, references are not all that helpful – only happy people are going to be offered as references. 
     One more very important point: YOU must have realistic expectations for the amount of time this project will take, the cost of completing it, and the outcomes that will be produced. If it took you ten years of research to get this far, do you really think it is reasonable to expect me to break down that 17th century brick wall in two weeks for a hundred bucks? 
     When you hire a genealogist you are paying for our time, and there are no guaranteed results. That being said, if I took on a project for $1400 I am positive that I could realize this was going to be a bust LOOONG before I spent that many hours on the project. It would be my professional responsibility to tell you: Hey, I have spent this many hours and have looked here, here, here, and here and I keep finding the same brick wall. I can continue to research with no guarantees, or I can stop here, you pay me for my time, I will provide you with a write-up about what I did and where I looked, and perhaps in a few years the documents necessary will come to light. When that happens, I will contact you and we can talk then. 
     And finally, please don’t get angry with me when I tell you things you don’t want to hear. I don’t get to write history to suit my clients. I have had folks angry with me when they read that their wealthy Georgian family owned slaves in the 1820s. I have had folks angry with me when I told them great-grandpa deserted in 1863 and had the documents to prove it. And I have had folks angry when I had to tell them that great-aunt Gertrude who was born and raised in Quebec in 1830 was a not full-blooded Sioux Indian but a rather proper French-Canadian young lady. 
     I always tell my clients
At History & Heritage we believe that the purpose of family history research is to know, understand, and celebrate the events that relate to our families. While delving into the past may produce some less-than-savory ancestors, or put an end to a family legend, a sense of humor and a desire for truth will enable us to celebrate our families as they really were and are. 
     I have used almost 1700 words to say this: 
  • Get a contract. 
  • You’re the boss. 
  • Be reasonable. 
     Oh, and one more thing: History & Heritage is always accepting new clients!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the advice. They were reported to the genealogical association that recommended them and four other associations that had contact with them.