Genealogy research: knowing when it is time to call in a professsional

Despite the abundance of resources available online and in records depositories, there are some situations which might require the assistance of a professional genealogist.  There are many professional genealogists who are adept at tracking down your family’s historical information in general, and others who specialize in a particular areas of genealogy that are especially challenging.  So when should you seek the expertise of a genealogist and what kinds of services can a professional provide?

Of course, if you do not have the time or skills to research your family history and are prepared to pay the costs of a professional, then seeking outside assistance may be the optimal path for you.  In other cases, the information you are seeking may require a particular expertise.  Some genealogical history requires knowledge of a foreign language or researching documents that are located in a foreign country or town.  Other searches are inherently more complex because information about certain ethnic and racial groups is scattered, limited or difficult to find.  For example, if you are searching for Jewish family history, there is a possibility that you will need to consult overseas records written in various European languages since most Jewish people did not originate from English speaking countries.  Moreover, Jewish records will typically go back to the point of immigration (usually between 1860 and 1910), but discovering information preceding those dates might be challenging.  Native American family historians face similar hurdles; due to the history of discrimination against Native Americans, many were forced to conceal or lie about their heritage which led to a scarcity of records and oral histories.   Another group which might benefit from the resources of a professional are adoptees.  Adopted children encounter legal hurdles to obtaining information because of laws in certain states restricting the amount of information that can be provided, most importantly the name of the birth mother.

In these cases and others, consulting a professional genealogist can be an invaluable aid in moving forward with your family research.  The tasks that genealogists perform typically fall into one of these categories:

Tracing ancestry.  A genealogist can discover who your ancestors were and where they came from or research your lineage back to a specific time period.

Reviewing records.  A professional can search records, which is particularly useful for those documents that requires travel.

Researching descendants.  A professional can research whether you or a family member are a descendant of a particular individual.

Scientific analysis.  Some genealogists specialize in assisting clients with DNA based research by locating relatives for DNA testing and analyzing the test results.

Regardless of which type of specific service you are seeking, it is good practice to consult one of the established genealogical organizations.  These include the Board for Certification of Genealogists in Washington, D.C. and Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Both of these organizations test and certify their genealogists and have trained experts in specialized fields of genealogy study.  In addition, you might consult The Association of Professional Genealogists, which does not require testing, but does compel its members to adhere to a professional genealogist’s code.  Professional genealogists can assist you with a long term project or might be just the push you need to get past a brick wall in your research.

Louisa Kalish

Louisa Kalish is a lawyer and a freelance writer for online legal and general interest publications. She became interested in genealogy during a brief stint in pro bono family law. While not engaged in her writing and legal pursuits, she is an active volunteer in several charitable organizations and heads the parenting organization at her children's school. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and three children.

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