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Whenever we are unsure where to start, how to proceed, what to do next, how best to go about it, where to look, what it means, and when we are asking someone who we think knows more about it than we do, then we are engaged in consultation. The consultant we are asking for help, even if it is "only" information may be a lawyer, a landscape architect, a beauty counselor or dietitian, or any other expert in his/her field, including a genealogist.
We can assume that consultants love their chosen field, and that they have spent many years studying the subject matter, built up years of experience and expertise and personal libraries often at considerable expense. That is why they are in business and that is why we go to them for advice, and that is why we have to pay for their advice, their services and their time. The same applies to professional genealogists, yet many people have difficulty bending their minds around that idea and prefer to consider genealogy research a "hobby". Fair enough, if you consider your genealogical research your hobby, then treat it like any other hobby. All of them cost money for equipment, memberships, lessons, coaches, travel, etc. Just ask any golfer, yachtsman, tennis player, SCUBA diver, or any others, about the cost of their hobby. They all cost money if pursued seriously. Costs can be held to a minimum by working hard and doing your own research. Sitting at the keyboard, joining a dozen news groups and asking others to look up things, or to "carry" a couple items to look at for you when they are going to a place in Europe where one of your ancestors is buried does not qualify as doing your own research. It qualifies as imposing and begging for handouts without even offering pencils in a tin cup.
A more acceptable approach if you want to consult with an expert is to write a proper letter (the paper kind) spell out exactly what you want to know, what information you already have, and to enclose a $50 check to pay the expert for his/her time. I am willing to bet that you will be looked after in an exemplary fashion and in short order. The seasoned and serious researchers know all this already, and they are the ones who progress with their research. Anyone not willing to pay for services is not serious about needing the service in the first place and is just trying for a gift he/she is not entitled to.
How can one obtain the services of a professional genealogist?
There are obviously many ways. Probably the best way is to have your trusted friend tell you about the one he/she had hired, who performed admirably and efficiently yet charged a fair and reasonable fee for his/her services. But then not everyone has trusted friends who happen to be also in the market for professional genealogists. Since we have the Web it is easier.
If you know yourself and know what you are comfortable with, then your search for a genealogist who matches your temperament and your beliefs. If you are normally a believer in academic credentials, you will probably want a genealogist with credentials. There are not too many credentials available. The two best known are the BCG (Board for Certification of Genealogists) - These folks have a web site, and can tell whom they have certified, and who is entitled to put initials behind their name like CG, CGRS, etc. The other kind of endorsement available is an accreditation from the LDS in Salt Lake City. I am personally not enthusiastic about accreditation because often the LDS does not have people qualified to process a specific accreditation (they had nobody who knew Hungarian genealogy well enough to check me out, for example). I was not impressed with the Board either when years ago I filled out the application and spelled out on it that I was a specialist in Hungarian genealogy. They then sent me a test which included a photocopy of a French <!> parish register that they wanted me to translate. That left a credibility gap and I stopped being interested. At any rate, no organization will tell you who is any good, only who is or is not one of their members. Shopping for a genealogist for hire is like shopping for any other professional. You ask people and they will tell you whom they know and how they like that person, be it a dentist or hair dresser. Also, today people have so much more information available for the price of a few key strokes. If you enter the search phrase of "professional genealogists" in Google, for example, you used get 20,400 hits two years ago, now you get over 2 million. Surely there is something in there for you too.
But this is too easy, and does not really work in most cases. First of all many very good and very serious professional genealogists have specialized to some degree because no one can know everything. You probably accept without hesitation that your friend's favorite automobile mechanic is the best guy in town for fixing a Volkswagen Beetle, but that he is really stumped when he looks under the hood of a 1952 Studebaker Commander. Similarly when your friend's genealogist who really knew how to find all the records you wanted on your Louisiana Cajun ancestors is asked to find your Hungarian great-grandfather, he will most likely not know where to start. So the onus is on you to classify your kind of research and then find not just a "good" professional but one who is experienced in the kind of research you need to have done. This can often mean that you will need more than just one. If your father's line is Irish and you mother's is Hungarian, I do not believe that you can find one professional genealogist who can do both - you will most likely need to find two specialists, and one of them had better speak Hungarian.
As I said above, the Web is obviously the best place to start your search. Key in your criteria and do a web search, and then make a short list from the ones that pop up. You can also subscribe to special interest groups (SIGs) where you can lurk for a while and perhaps pick up some names and comments about people who had been hired by the participants. Also consider the fact that if you have research to do in a foreign country, you are probably better off hiring someone in that country, especially when language and access to archives is important (it always is!). A lot will depend on your finances. If you can't afford a good professional who may charge anywhere between $20 and $100 per hour then it is best to forget about hiring a pro and you should train yourself to do your own work. If you can afford to spend a couple thousand for finding your ancestors, you are better off to settle on one dependable professional and let him/her find any specialists required for the more obscure areas of research. It is like going to a dentist to have some teeth capped, you let the dentist worry about which lab he will use to produce the crowns.
As with all shopping, you must first know what you want and what you can afford. Tap into all available sources of information such as local genealogy societies, online forums where such things are discussed, ask your friends and coworkers, go to the library and look in the APG directory (Association of Professional Genealogists) and/or any genealogy magazine you can find.
When you finally find someone, be a good communicator. Tell him/her exactly what you want, how much you authorize to be spent, how often you want to hear about the progress, what all you have already done, tell him/her everything you know. Then hand over your money and forget about him/her. In due course you will get some reports that will probably leave you breathless.
And just in case you are wondering - I am no longer available to work for clients.
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