When Is It Time to Hire a Professional Genealogist?

Working mood. Senior couple sitting at the kitchen table looking at something on a laptop and smiling

Ever stared at a car’s underbelly and had belated second thoughts about your decision to change the oil yourself? Or have you found yourself buried in complex financial documents on April 14, desperate to meet the impending tax deadline? Maybe you asked, “Why didn’t I just hire a professional to do this?”

It can be the same for genealogy. Granted, most people building their own family trees see it as much more than a job to be done, and rightfully so. They find the pursuit of family information fascinating and the discoveries that follow that pursuit even more thrilling. However, there often comes a time when the best decision is to hire someone with expertise in the field. Here’s why bringing in the pros makes sense:

#1 A professional understands the records

Professional genealogists spend all day, every day, accessing a wide variety of record collections. They have a broad understanding of what records are available and what information each record offers. For instance, it may not have occurred to a family to search for a World War II draft registration card for an ancestor who did not actually serve in the war, but records like these exist for millions of people and often shed light on individuals who lived in wartime.

#2 A professional knows how to approach a problem

Kory Meyerink, a senior research manager at AncestryProGenealogists, which he co-founded in 2003, says many genealogical questions do not have quick or easy answers. A genealogist usually has to notice patterns in records and in the chronology of events. He or she has to consult a variety of sources and sequence family milestones to arrive at the elusive answer.

“Too often people are looking for what I sometimes call the ‘magic bullet’ record—the record that’s going to tell them the answer they need,” Meyerink said. “And that might not exist. But that doesn’t mean the answer can’t be derived from enough other records and circumstances.”

A professional has been trained to discern dates and locations and compile a base of information that can lead to a conclusion that won’t ever be found on a single line of a “magic bullet” record. Knowledge of migration patterns, for instance, can often reveal an ancestor’s motive for moving from place to place, either alone or in a group of family members, friends, and neighbors. An understanding of common naming patterns can also lead an alert researcher to an answer.

#3 A professional employs a healthy dose of skepticism when necessary

When you’ve been searching for an answer for a long time, you may feel a rush of enthusiasm when you finally uncover a record that appears to hold the key. However, it’s not always that simple, and what looks obvious on paper can sometimes be a mistake, a duplicate, or a mistranslation. Professional genealogists have had plenty of experience disproving a detail that was found earlier and seemed cut and dried. That also gives them a skeptic’s perspective, and the motivation to find more evidence to confirm the information before proceeding.

Also, let’s be honest: sometimes it’s fun to search for records that substantiate a long-held family legend. Stories passed down from generation to generation come to be seen as the truth over time, but professionals adamantly require evidence to prove that a legend is true, and will pursue it relentlessly.

#4 A professional can often access additional resources more quickly and cheaply

One obvious advantage for researchers at AncestryProGenealogists in Salt Lake City is the short walk from their office to the world-renowned Family History Library, which holds hundreds of thousands of records—many of which are not available online. This proximity can save clients significant time and travel expense. But Meyerink points out that another significant advantage of hiring a pro is the Rolodex of sorts that they carry in their heads regarding which library, collection, website, or database will hold the answer being sought. Beginners could spend years tracing one clue to the next, but a professional can often access the most helpful repository in minutes.

“It can also mean we have subscriptions to websites they’ve never even heard about, let alone subscribed to,” Meyerink said. He and his colleagues subscribe to a number of more obscure and arcane online collections, and can use that access to benefit their clients.

#5 A professional has numerous genealogy contacts with specialties and lengthy experience

Perhaps the biggest reason to consider seeking the help of a professional is that you never really hire just one; clients can actually hire numerous experts with various specialties who work together to crack the case. AncestryProGenealogists, for instance, employs more than 100 researchers who each have expertise in a certain time period and/or part of the country or world.

“We have that expertise in-house, in many cases, and we have the connections outward in foreign countries and across the country to get the records we want,” Meyerink said. Therefore, when you hire a researcher, you get his or her friends, too. “You’re going through one person for a certain agency like Ancestry, but you’re unlocking the door to a wide range of access points and access vehicles to get to records, information, and understanding.”

Meyerink likes to point out that we all hire professionals when we need them, based on the value they can provide to us. “The professional in any endeavor is there to save the client time, money, hassle, and error,” he said. “That pertains for every profession out there. It won’t always save you all four of those; it might cost you a little more money than doing it yourself, but take a lot less time, for instance.”

Therefore, if you are stuck in your own pursuit of genealogical information, consider going to the pros to get your tree back on track.