There may come a time in your family history research when you need some professional help. You may need someone just to look up a document in a far away archive, or for help and advice for breaking down a “brick wall”, or even for a full research project on a branch or all of your family tree. This post looks at why you might need to hire a genealogy researcher, how to go about finding one, the preparation needed, agreeing the work to do and an idea of what the research might cost.
Why hire a researcher?
The growth of the internet has really opened up genealogy to everyone. So many records are online now, many of them free to access, making it relatively easy and inexpensive to research our ancestors. Genealogy is now one of the most popular online activities and I would certainly encourage anyone with an interest in their family and/or history to do their own research as it can be an incredibly interesting and rewarding hobby.
However, although many key record sets are online; around 90% of all genealogy records can only be accessed by visiting archives. So, there will more than likely come a point in your research where you will need to access documents in a repository. This is fine if the archive is in your local area, but if your ancestors were immigrants, the archive could well be thousands of miles away and difficult and expensive to get to. Even if the archive is in the same country as you, it still might not be convenient to visit.
This is where you need help. Hiring someone to look up a record or records in an archive can be much cheaper than if you traveled there. Researchers are most commonly asked to look up specific documents rather than undertake a comprehensive project.
Incidentally, I have written a brief guide to archives at OnGenealogy.
It could also be that you are interested in your family history but, because of other commitments, you don’t have the time to do the research yourself. In this case, hiring a genealogist to research your family and write a report may be a viable option.
How to find a researcher
If you just want a document looked-up, the best starting point to find a researcher to do that is with the archive itself. Very often, the archivist can do the look up him/herself for a small fee. Smaller archives especially welcome this type of business as the fees help subsidize their operating costs.
In some cases, the archivist may not be able to perform the look up owing to time or policy constraints; in which case, he/she may be able to recommend a local researcher.
If the first two options are not available, I would recommend finding and contacting the local genealogy/family history society for that area. Some society members will probably be regular visitors to the archive and will be able to do the look-up for you, again for a small fee. You may also have to join that society, but the annual cost is usually fairly reasonable. It should be fairly easy to find the society with a simple Google search. You can find links to the websites of family history societies as well as local archives for each county in England, Wales and Scotland in the Resources section of this website.
If you want a researcher to do more than look up a few documents, such as write a complete family history or to research a specific branch of your tree, then you will need to hire a professional genealogist. I recommend hiring someone who belongs to a professional association as they will be governed by a code of ethics. The main associations are:
- Association of Professional Genealogists (APG)– mostly North American genealogists, but with some international members
- Association of Genealogists & Researchers in Archives (AGRA)-England and Wales
- Association of Scottish Genealogists & Researchers in Archives (ASGRA)-Scotland
- Accredited Genealogists Ireland (AGI)
- Australasian Association of Genealogists and Record Agents (AAGRA)-Australia and New Zealand
All of these associations have member directories so you can find researchers in your area of interest.
How much is a researcher likely to charge?
Please note that all prices mentioned here are just estimates based on my research and experience. I strongly recommend agreeing (and getting in writing) the cost for any research to be done before any work starts.
If you just need a document look-up in an archive and the archivist can do the work, this will usually be the cheapest option as there should be no travel or other expenses charged. Archivists will normally charge a set half-hourly or hourly rate and will have a minimum charge of half an hour or one hour.
To give you an idea of what you might pay an archivist, I was recently researching a family in England and I wanted to know how long they were living at an address that was mentioned on a particular marriage certificate. I contacted the local archive and asked them to check the electoral registers and directories for all the years between 1920 and 1928. I was charged GBP10.50 (about USD14.00 at the time of writing) for half and hour’s work. There will also be a charge if a document needs to be copied.
Family history societies are likely to charge a similar amount and may have a higher minimum charge and add travel expenses.
A professional genealogist will normally charge an hourly rate and often have a minimum charge of two to four hours. They will also usually add travel and other incidental expenses such as the cost of obtaining certificates etc. Rates charged vary and really depend on supply and demand. For example, well known genealogists (those that have published books and write magazine articles) can charge higher prices than others as they are in greater demand. Overall, I have seen hourly rates range between USD30.00 to USD100.00 and up. You should be able to find a good genealogist in the $40-$50/hour range.
Some genealogists also offer “packages” at fixed fees. Here a surname will be researched back to a certain point in time (usually the early 19th century). Expect to pay around USD300-400 for a surname.
For any work to be done by a professional genealogist, I recommend getting 2-3 written quotations before committing.
Archives will normally request payment before work starts and genealogists usually require a 50% deposit before starting.
Preparation and Agreement
Before getting a look-up done in an archive, it is advisable to do some preparation first to improve the chances of success. The first thing to do is make sure that you contact the right archive. Boundary changes over the years may mean that records are not in the archives you were expecting. For example, you may have ancestors that were living in Walthamstow, Essex(UK) in the 19th century, so you would expect records to be in the Essex archives in Chelmsford. But Walthamstow is now in Greater London and has its own archives in the local library.
Most archives have an online catalogue so you should be able to pinpoint the document/s you want looked-up before you contact the archivist. They should also be able to advise you of additional documents that can be accessed.
Communicating with archives is usually best done by email rather than by phoning. Often the smaller archives only have a single person on duty, so they often prefer to systematically respond to emails rather than be constantly interrupted by calls. You may have to wait 24 to 48 hours for a response if they are busy.
If you are employing a professional genealogist who is a member of a professional association (see above) he/she should provide a detailed agreement outlining the work to be done, the costs of the work and any expenses that will be charged. It should also state that extra work will not be undertaken unless agreed by the client. This agreement has to be signed by both parties before work commences.
Good luck with your research!
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