Should I hire a professional genealogist?
November 27, 2015 9:35 PM   Subscribe

For the past several years I've been working on my family tree on Ancestry, which has been great. Lots of work has already been done on a number of branches, so there's lots of information. However, I've hit a few genuine dead ends and have run out of ideas of where to look and what to look for. Would hiring a professional researcher help?

What could a professional genealogist find that I can't find? The question isn't meant to be snarky, I'm just trying to get a feel for what resources and tools would be available to someone who does this work for a living. Genealogists of Metafilter, have you ever hired a professional researcher? What was your experience? Did you feel it was worth the expense? Are you a professional (or maybe an extremely advanced hobbyist) genealogist? What would you be able to do for me?

If it's relevant, I'm in the U.S. and at this point I'm not looking for anyone to conduct research outside of the country.
posted by That's Numberwang! to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
It really depends on the dead ends. I have one where a professional genealogist could probably help me out (obscure records that I just can't find that should exist somewhere). And one dead end where I know it won't help at all (adopted daughter from the early 1800s with a super common name). Before hiring someone, you might want to try attending some local genealogy club meetings. You might learn new ways to get past the dead end, or find someone there who can help you for free, or get a referal to a local professional genealogist that could help you out.
posted by ilovewinter at 9:57 PM on November 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

It would probably be worth asking a librarian. Your profile says you are in Portland, in which case it would be worth checking out the collections at the Portland Public Library since it seems they have a collection that includes local history etc as well as the standard genealogy databases like Ancestry. The librarians there probably have some experience with assisting people in researching their family history and might be able to suggest things you haven't thought of. Multnomah County Library also looks to have some family history resources, and the Oregon State Library does too though that's in Salem.
posted by Athanassiel at 10:29 PM on November 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm not a professional genealogist, but I am a historical archeology student who is conducting archival research for a large government contract (I'm actually taking a break from transcribing part of the 1880 census). This doesn't make me an expert, but I do have some experience with similar research, at least into the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I would encourage asking around before paying a professional. You might consider asking someone at the reference desk of a local university library (or even reaching out to a professor)to see if they know where to look. I know my university library is open to the public, and that the public can make inquiries. It can't hurt to ask, at the very least. For that matter, your local/regional library system should have someone you can talk to, as well.

I would also second the suggestion to ask around on the internet. I, personally, know some resources that may not be obvious. I know many people who know much more than I do. We're all very enthusiastic about archival research, and would love to help.

As far as what a professional could find that you can't, the answer is probably very little, but they'll have the benefit of knowing where to look. At least in the period I deal with, all the material is available to the public. We use a lot of census records, voter registration forms, city/county directories, and other documents that anyone can look at. We actually use quite a bit, although sometimes it takes a little extra digging because of how annoying their search interface is.

Local/regional libraries often have archival materials that haven't been digitized, which might include death certificates and birth registers. The National Archives house quite a lot of stuff, and I believe it's still available to the public (I grew up in the DC area, and I remember my sister going to the Archives to conduct her own genealogical research). Some of that might require travel, but I don't know if that's something even a professional genealogist would do (I don't know if they might have huge private databases of things they've copied over the years, but that seems unlikely given the huge amount of stuff out there).

All that said, it might also depend on what period you're talking about. How far back are your dead ends? I know some issues of privacy might come up if you're looking at stuff from less than, maybe 100 years ago - but I think even that depends on local laws (where I am, death certificates are no longer publicly searchable past 1904, for example).

Finally, I can say that some documents just don't exist anymore. The 1890 census was destroyed in a fire. Logbooks can wind up in the trash, and death certificates can be lost (I recently went through two decades' worth of death certificates looking for several hundred people, and only found 70 of them). Also, online databases can be misspelled (blame bad handwriting on the part of the census takers, or just carelessness on the part of the person transcribing).

Anyway, I didn't mean to go on so long with this - what I'm saying, in short, is that I think asking a reference librarian (for example, at your library's main branch) is a great start.
posted by teponaztli at 10:33 PM on November 27, 2015 [5 favorites]

My sister, who is an advanced hobbyist says if you have done all you can that a professional can certainly help, especially if they specialize in a specific geological location or ethnic group.

Also DNA is very helpful in making connections.

Family Search continues to digitize records so information is constantly being updated.

The last suggestion she has is contacting the Genealogical Forum of Oregon.. They have classes on thorny genealogy problems and geographical areas.
posted by cairnoflore at 11:02 PM on November 27, 2015

(Background - I am studying genealogy with a view to becoming a professional genealogist. I am in the UK and am not an expert on US genealogy, though many of the principles and sources are the same/similar.)

Don't make the mistake of thinking everything you need will be online (or that all that is online is on Ancestry). As you get further back, or encounter strange goings on in your family, you will need to visit archives, libraries, museums, graveyards, etc etc. You will need to search for sources pertaining to the area or occupation of the mystery relative, rather than their name, and gather background information. A lot of this can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. A professional genealogist will happily visit archives for you and do this boring legwork, so will be particularly useful if you are researching a far away state or are strapped for time. They will also probably have a better idea than you about when to give up. Sometimes the information just isn't there to be found.

You are welcome to drop me a me-mail with a brief description of your brick wall and I will try to give you some more specific advice - as I'm UK based I might not be able to help but if I can I will.
posted by intensitymultiply at 5:11 AM on November 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

Local LDS stake centers should have family history volunteers who will be able to help for free.
posted by puritycontrol at 7:36 AM on November 28, 2015

The genealogy subreddit (/r/genealogy) is filled with many helpful people who have access to resources you might not have.
posted by Lucinda at 8:09 AM on November 28, 2015

To reiterate what has need said above, a professional genealogist would be useful in accessing local records that have not been digitized. If your brickwall is located in a different location than where you are, you could hire a professional to go to the local courthouse or archive, saving you the cost of travel and using their local knowledge to find the best sources more quickly.

The local genealogical or historical society is the best way to find this person.
posted by donajo at 9:38 AM on November 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Head to reddit. There are terrific genealogists that do some really impressive brick wall work. (Now I see Lucinda had the same suggestion. I second it!)
posted by ReluctantViking at 10:19 AM on November 28, 2015

I work in genealogy professionally, though more on the publishing/writing side now than the research-for-clients side. You might be surprised at how few records are actually online, though of course more and more are being digitized all the time. Especially with so-called "brick wall" or other complex research problems, finding answers is therefore going to mean doing work on the ground in the physical records. You totally can do it yourself, given the time and money and ability to travel, but even professionals turn to other pros in these situations. Hiring a professional can mean the work is done more quickly and efficiently, particularly if you're hiring someone who is familiar with records of the area or particular ethnic or religious group of your ancestors. Reaching out to genealogical and historical organizations and archives or libraries in the area of interest are a good way to find this help, but I'd also point you to the Association of Professional Genealogists.

If you want to take on the challenges yourself, there are lots of educational resources out there for learning about records and about strategies for approaching such problems. A local and/or state genealogical organization is a great place to start for programs and for finding folks to kick around research problems with. There are some national organizations, such as the National Genealogical Society, that offer conferences, publications, and online courses and resources. I can also make some recommendations if you can give a more detailed idea of where you're researching and, as ilovewinter said, what the dead ends are. (I'm most familiar with the Midwest, but have contacts and know resources elsewhere.) Some professionals also offer research consultation services, where they'll analyze the work that you've done already and offer suggestions or a research plan. Finding answers to complex problems often requires more than just locating a record; evidence analysis and correlation can be critical, and though those are skills that can be taught and obtained through practice, if you're not inclined to do that, hiring a pro can be the best way to get the answers you're looking for.
posted by percolatrix at 10:21 AM on November 28, 2015

I have been wondering the same thing lately, so I'm really interested in your question.

One source that helped me by accident was searching old newspapers on Google. Someone mentioned it to me randomly last year. My grandmother's first husband was killed in a car accident in 1960 and I hoped to find out more about the accident (I didn't).

But...I discovered a rather oddly detailed community newspaper from the West Coast that cheerfully detailed the comings and goings of people around Portland and Washington State in the 70s and 80s. It turned out my great-grandmother had a brother in the area, and once paid a visit to her brother with her daughter and son-in-law. I was able to get their names that way and more Googling showed that they are still alive. The daughter actually posted on an Ancestry message board years ago but because I wasn't tuned to that name I missed out.

I was glad to have something new to try and hope for at least. Good luck in your searching!
posted by Calzephyr at 10:43 AM on November 28, 2015

As it happens, the local-to-me LDS stake did not have access to anything I didn't already have.

I'm pretty good as far as my Oregon family history goes, but that's because we've been here only a couple of generations. Most of the help I need will be in the midwest and New England.

My most frustrating (and tantalizing) dead end is in upstate New York, with a multiple-greats grandfather who apparently just winked into existence. He's in the 1790 census, and I have a record of his marriage in Massachusetts and picture of his tombstone in New York, but I can't find anyone farther back than him.

I also have an ancestor with a unique name who appears in at least four different census counts, and whose name appears on an incomplete application for a widow's pension from the army (her husband fought in the Civil War, maybe?), but nowhere else. The story is that she died en route from Wisconsin to California via covered wagon in 1880, but I have no way of verifying that. Also have not been able to find her birth certificate.

I could go on, but I won't. I feel like there ought to be more out there on these folks (although, in the latter case, I can appreciate that there just might not be anything else), but I hesitate to send someone out, or go myself, without knowing what I am likely to find. If it turns out that nothing can be found, then I've wasted my money and the researcher's time.

Your answers are full of great suggestions, though, and I have slightly higher hopes that I can break down these brick walls instead of metaphorically smashing my head into them. Thanks, everyone.
posted by That's Numberwang! at 4:04 PM on November 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

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