Friday, June 20, 2014

Wait! When Should You Call In a Pro?

A A gentleman contacted me yesterday, just starting his genealogical journey. Unfortunately for him, he began his search recently, during the time that was under a DDOS attack and  was understandably confused and frustrated as many of us only learned what was truly going on by word-of-mouth from better-informed friends. Heck, most of us don’t even know what a DDOS (i.e., a distributed denial-of-service attack; see this link for more:  is. Go see Wikipedia ( if you need to know more. I think that this situation served to double his frustration, but in truth, he simply did not know where to start, other than he wanted to take his family back 200 years. So, he started calling professional genealogists to help him and I was one of them.

Between his frustrations and his inexperience, he was ready to hand it all over and then learn the price. So I stopped him right there and asked some pertinent questions such as what did he want to learn and what did he already know. As it turned out, he hadn’t really thought about this and thus had no plan. We talked further and I told him how to get to the point that he was ready to hire a professional and what he needed to do before hiring a professional unless he was willing and able to pay for said professional’s new vacation home. 

Honestly, for anyone who wants to hire me and for whom money is no object, just go take your yacht for a spin and call me later - day or night. For the rest of you who are worth slightly less than a billion and need help with your genealogy, allow me to help you prepare for this, meaning what you should do before you hire a professional genealogist.

1). Find all of your records and organize them in one place. This means notes, old photos, photocopies of stuff, old certificates of any kind, old diaries that your aunt wrote in when she was 12, letters, family bibles, etc. The idea is to know what you already have, even if it seems to lead nowhere, and organize it, even if you don’t know who is involved 
in that record, photo, newspaper clipping, etc. This will serve you well for the rest of your years of searching.

2). Make a list of every living relative that is your age or older. This should not be limited to those that you know well, but literally, every single one that you know, that you have heard spoken of, or that you suspect is related in some way, such as those people who were always at Great-granny’s on holidays when you were little, but have no idea who they really were and how they connected. It’s time to find out!

3). Contact every living relative that is around your age and older and track them down, asking for everything that they know about your family. Write things down, or even better, take notes and record the conversation. Also, feel free to bring your family member whatever food or drink or both that will put them in a good mood and will ease you into conversation better. Offer to help them prep for a garage sale or clean out their garage or basement Remember this is for your genealogy and if anything is lost to age, death or the landfill, chances are that it is gone forever. When you do this, be sure to allow enough time to  get all the facts or do whatever has to be done to get your evidence. If you cannot visit in person, call them, Skype them, Face time them, or whatever it takes to learn more. Ask about the above-mentioned family records along with any tales of birth death, love lives, or whatever you can learn. If they are willing, get scans of anything that they have from pictures, to books with inscriptions. You never know what you will find. Also, when you do this, make sure that you write down the who gave the info, what you learned, when this discussion happened, and where it occurred so that you can recall it later and hopefully, will write a proper citation for your records. Writing citations is another blog. Just remember for now that citations are your friends, even though that may seem utterly incomprehensible right now. 

4). This point will seem counter intuitive but it warrants saying; don’t believe anything, until you have proof - and I mean real hard evidential proof such as original certificates, etc., created by the person who was involved with the event. Again, this is for another blog, but just remember that all proof is just a clue until you have either serious, original documentation or enough other corroborating data to prove your theory. Again more on the Genealogical Proof Standard later.

5).Dig through your attic, your basement, your files, anything that came to you from a family member or suspected family member and do the same for every relative on your list (see #2 above), begging if you have to. (See #3 for ideas on how to get them to give up the info). No piece of evidence should be overlooked and when you find some, organize it and takes notes on everything about it. Keep those notes organized. Use a three-ringed binder with page protectors for anything that you have but have not filed yet. Periodically go through the binder and file things properly so you know where they are and the details on where you got them. A spreadsheet set up as a research log will save you time and brain cells, so be sure to have one set up.

6). Invest in a program to log your proven family members, but only proven ones. Enter proven data and locations where you found it and where these things are stored. What about the unproven peeps? Instead, for the rest of the lot, set up a database in Excel or Numbers listing all clues, hunches, and hypotheses so that you know where to find those things about Great Aunt Polly should you find something new.

7). Join local genealogy societies. They are full of really wonderful people of all levels of experience who with talk about genealogy with you without getting bored. They are also local (usually) and can provide education, direction, support, and friendship. You might even find a long-lost family member among the members.

8).Begin to explore the web by learning everything that you can from true genealogists. Good sources for this would be blogs that have been vetted for content and professionalism such as those listed on Geneabloggers, which you can find at Also check out information found on professional sites such as the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) at,  ICAP Gen and the Association for Professional Genealogists (APG) 

9). Now that you have learned enough about what you have, what you know, and how to find things, it is time to define your research questions. do it the old-fashioned way and write it up in list form. Use a pencil or a laptop, just do it and save it so when you are tired and confused, or simply when the rest of your life has overrun your genealogy research, your list will remind you of what you are really after and what questions you are trying to solve. When you answer one or all of them, your choice, you can add more questions to your list. The main thing about this is to have clear goals so you won’t get sidetracked or frustrated along the way. You can always return to your list to realign yourself.

10). Take the next step by checking out the web for yourself. One of the best resources out there is Cyndi’s List at Cyndi Ingles’ compendium of research sites is huge and it contains links to everything out there, meaning just one side or the other of 3,000 linked genealogical web sites. Cyndi has been at this for as long as I have and has made better use of that time than anyone else I know. She knows - and shares - everything about genealogy on her list. From these sites, remember to be skeptical and do not feel bad about questioning, rather than accepting, someone else’s word, family tree, or records. Watch out for the self-proclaimed experts and always do your own due diligence.

Once you have done all of this and you are truly stuck, or tired of it and are willing pay for help, then call in a pro. They should give you an estimate, including a contract outlining what they will and will not do and what they will provide. Often you can hire them to get you past a brick wall and then pick up your own search from their findings and their suggestions. It all depends on what you need. Many, like me will provide a free phone consultation for a certain amount of time to help you decide, as I helped the man who called me yesterday, what was really needed. If you have questions, feel free to ask me and good luck hunting.