Have you hit a brick wall in your genealogy research? Have you considered hiring help? We share 4 tips for managing expectations when hiring a professional genealogist.
As Legacy Tree’s high client ratings can attest, hiring a professional genealogist can be a deeply rewarding and exciting process. In nearly 20 years of service, we have helped thousands of clients learn about their heritage, identify biological parents, join lineage societies, break down brick walls, trace their immigrant origins, and so much more.
However, genealogy can also lead to disappointments, surprises, and frustration—especially if you’re not prepared for those realities up front. An awareness of the following four principles is key in having realistic expectations about your experience working with a professional genealogy company like Legacy Tree Genealogists.
#1: Consider the Limitations of Historical Research
First things first, there is a key misconception to dispel: genealogists do not have access to a magic, secret database different from the general public. Our research takes time because adequate proof takes time, and proof is obtained from historical records and DNA evidence. Legacy Tree is committed to following the Genealogical Proof Standard so that our research is as accurate and well-documented as possible.
We do have subscriptions to diverse genealogy websites and access to records behind paywalls. We do have trained genealogists who know where to look for records or analyze DNA results in a way that an average hobbyist might not. And we do have trusted researchers worldwide who can pull records in faraway archives. But it’s a process and very often includes much more than just plugging names into an online database somewhere.
In a similar vein, it is important to understand that each project and each family has different challenges to overcome. Sometimes desired results are unavailable because records for a specific area are simply not accessible—perhaps they were destroyed in a natural disaster or were within the boundaries of a “burned county“. Maybe they were never created in the first place or do not contain the right information. In some cases, the records do exist but are locked behind laws restricting public access for privacy reasons. There are also instances in which records are available but are poorly organized or unindexed, meaning that to search those records requires a researcher to sit in front of a 500-page book looking for the ancestor page-by-page. Which we have done!
Sometimes genealogists are aware of the limitations up front and can warn prospective clients if their goals are unattainable or unduly time-consuming. In most instances, however, it is necessary to begin the research and dig into the family before the point of blockage can be identified.
Here’s an example: both Irish and Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish research are notoriously difficult because of record destruction, but success can still vary from place to place even within the same area. Records may be available for one county or town, but not for another nearby. If a client does not know where exactly in Ireland or Belarus their immigrant ancestor originated, that location must be determined in what can often be a lengthy research process before the genealogist is able to accurately assess the availability of records there. If the records are not available for some reason, research is often forced to find alternative means of learning the same information, which can take longer. This is why immigrant research will often being in records in the origin country, or requires a study of an ancestor’s siblings and in-laws as well.
There is also a difference between a project that is impossible and one that is difficult and time-consuming. Often, solving a difficult mystery is doable, but it takes a lot of time. In many cases, this means that the answer may not be found in one 25-hour session. Yes, it is possible we can identify the biological parents of your ancestor who was placed for adoption in 1910. Yes, it’s possible we can unravel the origins of a person who changed their name or find the indigenous connection in your Mexican ancestry or where in Ireland your ancestors lived before arriving in Australia. But it will likely not be quick or simple to do so. The same is true of building a tree—any tree—back more than six generations. Those who hire a genealogist with the expectation of having their ancestry taken back to the 1600s in one or two sessions will almost always be disappointed.
The bottom line is that when you hire a professional, you are paying for their time, efforts, and expertise. You are not paying for specific, guaranteed results because that is just not possible. Be wary of hiring a genealogist who claims otherwise.
Progress made within a research project can vary depending on the geographical area being researched, the time period being researched, and the availability of records. What we can guarantee is that we will use your project time as effectively as possible, leaving no stone unturned in an effort to achieve your research goal.
#2: Establish and Communicate Your Priorities
As the client, you’re in charge of the amount of research Legacy Tree performs on your behalf. As a general rule, the more research time you can commission, the more results you will receive (assuming record availability).
But the type of results you receive also depends on your preferences. Are you more interested in just getting a bare-bones pedigree with names and basic dates as far back as is possible within the time you purchased? Or would you appreciate some biographical detail, bringing your ancestors’ lives and society to life?
In many cases, it’s possible to learn about ancestors’ occupations, military service, religion, cause of death, and land ownership. Sometimes, there are even more specific details that can be gleaned from various sources—the fabric of great-grandma’s wedding dress. The permanent health conditions your Civil War ancestor picked up during his service. Confrontations with the law, the exact crops grown on their property, the church where they married, a photo of the ship on which they arrived when they immigrated.
The level of detail we provide is a choice you can make, but it’s a balance. Finding more of the “meat” takes more time, especially if we’re covering multiple family lines. Many of our clients find such humanizing detail worth the time, but we are happy to organize the results in a way that best fits your needs.
#3: Share Everything You Know Before Research Begins
Genealogists can deliver the best product when we have all the facts and a good foundation laid, and this involves some effort on the part of the client up front. Be prepared to share access to any online family trees you maintain, historical records you’ve already found, and results of DNA test(s) you’ve taken. This is necessary so we do not duplicate work you’ve already done. Nothing is more frustrating to both client and genealogist than to present an exciting discovery and meet with the response, “I already knew that.”
In fact, the more organized you can be, the more helpful it is to your researcher. Mailing in a box of a hundred pages of unsorted, handwritten notes kept by great-grandma is certainly allowed, but bear in mind that the time it takes to have the researcher read through and analyze that material comes out of the overall project time you purchase.
If possible, the most efficient approach is to have a tree and/or brief summary of what you already know about the target ancestor prepared to give to the genealogy team, complete with records you’ve found and specific questions you have.
#4: Be Prepared for Surprise
When working with DNA, it is always possible that unexpected information will surface. But it isn’t just genetic genealogy where family stories or beliefs can be disproven and it is important to be aware that, using both historical records and DNA results, surprises can and do arise—even when we are not specifically looking for them.
Misattributed parentage, incorrect family trees, erroneous beliefs about ethnicity, and revelations of misbehavior or crime are all types of discoveries we have uncovered in the research process. Legacy Tree’s policy is to present the truth to our clients, no matter how problematic, though we do so in a confidential manner that leaves the client in the driver’s seat about what to do with that information. Your privacy is of the utmost importance to us.
Of course, big surprise discoveries certainly do not happen in every case and not all surprises are unpleasant. But an awareness of the possibility is key.
For resources on dealing with traumatic discoveries in genealogical research, visit our blog post here: https://www.legacytree.com/blog/resources.
Ultimately, Legacy Tree’s goal is to provide trustworthy, meaningful information to our clients. As with most artisan, individualized products, this takes time and specialized expertise and patience with that process. It is our passion to share our skills with our clients.
We have carefully selected the members of our team at Legacy Tree Genealogists to make sure they each meet our standards for excellence. We’d love to help you with your family history, whether we’re breaking down brick wall mysteries, finding your biological parents, or just starting from scratch finding the stories about your ancestors. Contact us today for a free consultation.