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DIY Genealogy: Is It Worth Hiring a Professional?

As you might expect, genealogists tend to agree that hiring a professional genealogist is money well spent. In today's economy, the reasons, however, may be a bit surprising. Judy Rosella Edwards explains the situation and gives professional genealogists some good news.


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Type: Article
Resource: PRO Talk
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We are spoiled when it comes to access to information. Access to genealogical data is unparalleled and it will only increase. What is not keeping pace in this current economy is access points.

A Unique Tool of the Trade

Cutbacks are everywhere. Most people assume that the first place to do research is at their library. But, libraries have been lax about buying new microfilm readers until the old ones die a very slow death, following numerous attempts at avoiding complete failure. However, there remain unknown quantities of data on microfilm and microfiche that have yet to be transcribed.

While Family History Centers do not loan out microfilm, many state libraries loan, rent and even sell data on film. You can buy film online from eBay and elsewhere. You can even purchase copies directly from the company that filmed the original records.

Although, even that gets a tad expensive. Professional genealogists probably will not be able to recoup the cost of the film, let alone the reader.

The average library patron does not own a reader. If you are a professional genealogist fortunate enough to have your own, you may be a step ahead in the genealogy game.

Most people do not have a reader – with or without a printer. We rely on libraries to provide them. Plus, if you borrow films through interlibrary loan, you must use them in the library. You cannot take them home and read them on your own reader, no matter how much more sophisticated it might be.

Michael J. Boonstra, a certified genealogist, on staff at the Central Brevard Library in Cocoa, FL, tells me the CBL library system had to rely on a cooperative funding effort between the library and the local genealogical society to purchase a new microfilm reader and printer. He says that the new reader is now in place and gets a lot of use.

Most genealogists do not have a walk-in facility. That is unfortunate. Microfilm readers take a lot of unintended abuse by patrons who do not understand how to use them. Often there are scratches on the screen and the film.

A genealogist who could quickly locate data on film for a client, help them decide if it is relevant, and then print that data to an image or to paper could certainly provide a valuable service. Any day of the week in just about any library you will find patrons who are dissatisfied with reader results simply because they never learned how to print to legal paper, or adjust the magnification.

I have spoken with a number of libraries that have been hesitating to replace these reader/printers until they could afford to replace them with readers that would also print to digital image. The downturn in the economy has caused at least some of these libraries to hold off on high-tech gadgets. They are expensive and they are not something the average staff-person can wrangle if something goes awry.

Not only can they not afford to add more technical assistants, many libraries are cutting existing staff. The real business of libraries is arguably books, not printing copies of film on loan from an archive. Yet, as researchers, this data is critical to us.

Professional genealogists might consider spearheading a fund-raiser to pay for microfilm equipment, especially if times are a bit slow. It would also be a way to increase your own name-recognition by associating your name or your genealogy business with the effort. And, you know you will use the reader!

Periodically Speaking

Other cuts libraries are being forced to make are the less general publications. Genealogical publications fall into that category. Boonstra said the CBL library had asked genealogists to donate periodicals. In appreciation, you might consider donating periodicals to your area library along with a request that you attach a permanent but professional note that it was donated by you, along with your professional genealogist designation. Libraries might balk at flagrant advertisements, but a tasteful note might be acceptable.

Digital Access Limitations

The discontinuation of online genealogical services is a significant cut made by a number of libraries. The Central Brevard Library once provided patrons with online access to Heritage Quest. Now, access is limited to in-house access at the main branch only. Patrons can no longer access Heritage Quest from the other 16 branches, or from home via the library.

As a professional genealogist, it now becomes more important than ever to pay for your own access to genealogical databases just to guarantee that you do have access. It also becomes far more cost-effective for clients to pay a genealogist for quick and accurate research rather than paying for a couple of years of personal internet access while trying to navigate through the vast amount of data they will encounter.

One solution is to carry a laptop with internet access. Many libraries still offer free Wi-Fi service. That would allow you to access or Heritage Quest and other internet-based services while you are inside a library that does not provide that access. Typically, the internet-based computers are in a central hub and well away from the genealogy section. As soon as you step away to retrieve a book from the genealogy shelves, someone is likely to sit down at the computer you were using. Avoid that by carrying a laptop.

Beyond Nickels and Dimes

The Central Brevard Library has started charging for interlibrary loans. Fortunately, that is not a widespread practice at the moment but, with the cost of transporting the books and paying staff to track and ship them, it could become more common.

As always, pay attention to these details when setting fees. You do not want to pay costs out of your own pocket like the $5.00 per interlibrary loan item CBL charges.

The Good News for Genealogists

Cutbacks like these can create a stronger market for genealogists. Most of us already have our own accounts with fee-based services. The key is to market that access along with the skills we have for searching quicker than a novice who has yet to experience those hard-learned lessons about how to interpret what a census says and the significance of who lived next door.

Source Information: PRO Talk, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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