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How to Become a Professional Genealogist

by Kathleen W. Hinckley, CGRS
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Steps to Becoming a Professional Researcher
How developing your business skills and joining a genealogical society can help you become a successful professional genealogist. A seasoned professional tells you how to get started.

A few years ago whenever I was asked how I became a professional genealogist, my answer was quick, yet honest: "I put an advertisement in the Genealogical Helper and earned $400 the first year." Fifteen years later I am embarrassed that I began my career with such naiveté. Advertising research services and collecting some money is not the way to become a professional genealogist. My only excuse is that I didn't know any better.

When I started my business, I didn't question my qualifications. After all, I had researched my own family for five years with some impressive results. I had attended a couple of workshops sponsored by the local genealogical society, and I had even used microfilm from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. I felt like I "knew it all" and was ready to call myself a professional genealogist.

Shortly after hanging out my shingle, I attended the National Genealogical Society's annual conference. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by all types of passionate genealogists. Some were rank beginners, many were seasoned researchers, and a few were scholarly leaders in the field. The impact upon me, as a professional genealogist, was tremendous. The more lectures I attended, the more I realized what I did not know. I gained respect for the vastness and complexity of genealogy and was determined to become more involved in the field and develop my own specialization.

Following the conference I prepared a list of steps or goals to become a professional genealogist by any definition. Several years later, the list remains a guide for success for anyone entering the field:

1. Join the Association of Professional Genealogists

The Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) is an international membership organization for all genealogists supporting high standards in the field of genealogy. Their current membership of over 1,100 includes not only professional researchers, but also librarians, archivists, writers, editors, columnists, booksellers, geneticists, computer specialists, and publishers. They publish a quarterly journal with articles ranging from communicating with clients, and preparing lineage society applications, to home office tax concerns. APG welcomes anyone contemplating the career of professional genealogist. Visit their Web page for more information, and send a SASE to APG, PO Box 40393, Denver, CO 80204-0393 for their pamphlet titled, "Are You Ready to Become a Professional?"

2. Prepare and Apply for Certification and/or Accreditation

The best way to measure yourself against standards established by the profession is to apply for certification and/or accreditation. The Board for Certification (BCG) grants certification to qualified applicants in six categories — Certified Genealogists (CG), Certified Genealogical Record Specialist (CGRS), Certified American Lineage Specialist (CALS), Certified American Indian Lineage Specialist (CAILS), Certified Genealogical Lecturer (CGL), and Certified Genealogical Instructor (CGI). For more information, go to their Web page.

The Family History Library offers accreditation (AG) in specific geographical areas to those who meet their criteria. For more information on accreditation, contact the Family History Library, 35 North West Temple St., Salt Lake City, UT 84150.

Certification and accreditation both require a demonstration of in-depth knowledge of a variety of sources, and the ability to communicate effectively through written reports.

3. Attend Educational Seminars & Workshops

Genealogical education is continuous, whether it involves learning that a new source has been discovered in a courthouse attic, or developing research methodology to solve a particularly difficult problem. Attend local workshops sponsored by genealogical societies, and as many state, regional or national conferences as your budget will allow.

The National Genealogical Society (NGS) and the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) each sponsor a national conference each year.

4. Subscribe to Genealogical Journals/Magazines and Read Every Page

We learn by researching, but we can also learn from someone else's research. Case studies are continually being published in the leading journals. Carefully read and study the articles, even if the research problem is in a different geographical area than you normally research. Believe me...you will learn something.

5. Explore the Local Courthouses, Libraries, and Archives

We all know that no one knows where everything is located, whether it be the courthouse or the library. And we all know that treasures can be found in the most unusual places! The only way to find those treasures is to spend time exploring card catalogs, archival inventories, and bookshelves. As a professional, your discoveries, and consequent knowledge of local records, will make you a hero with some clients and colleagues. Your explorations are another form of continual education.

6. Network with Fellow Genealogists, Librarians, and Archivists

A professional genealogist cannot work in a vacuum. Share your ideas, research problems, and discoveries with other professionals within the field. We all benefit.

7. Volunteer with the Local Genealogical Society

Involvement with the local genealogical society reaps rewards that can never be measured. Even if you are stuffing envelopes with a couple of other members, the conversation may turn to research problems that will give you new ideas for your own research. The genealogical society is another network that is critical to professional growth.

The local genealogical society is your training ground for writing articles and lecturing. The base of your career will always be with the local society. Nurture it.

8. Develop a "Pet" Abstracting or Indexing Project

Abstracting or indexing a group of records is another form of education. Your skills in interpreting handwriting will improve, as well as a deeper understanding of the records. Publishing the results of your project will enhance your professional credentials.

9. Develop Business Skills

Regardless of how skilled you may be in genealogical research methodology, you cannot be successful as a business person unless you give equal attention to advertising, accounting, taxes, publicity, time management, and correspondence. Learn the difference between billable and non-billable time and the true meaning of overhead.

10. Continue Researching Your Own Family History

We've come full circle. The desire to become a professional genealogist began when we enjoyed researching our own family history. Don't stop! We will spend more time on a problem within our own family history than we will for a client for whom we must budget the time, thereby learning about new sources or research techniques. But most of all, our own family history is priceless and can should never be shelved.

All of the steps involved in becoming a professional genealogist have a common theme — education. Perhaps that is why the profession is so attractive. There is always something to learn, something to find, and something to share.


About the Author
Kathleen W. Hinckley, CGRS, is a professional genealogist and private investigator who specializes in locating living persons by using the Internet, public records, and genealogical sources. She is the Executive Secretary for the Association of Professional Genealogists and lectures at state, regional, and national conferences. You can reach her at hinckleyk@mindspring.com or through her web site Family Detective.

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