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Surrogate Cousins--Hiring a Researcher

When, where, and how to hire a professional researcher. What to provide, and what to expect from them.


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Researching your family can be fun, interesting, and very time-consuming—but the rewards are well worth the effort. For the first few years, you are gathering bits and pieces of information, building your family tree, and all seems to move along at a comfortable pace. Then, something happens. Some of the information you have gathered ‘here and there' does not agree. You hit a brick wall! The records you need are housed in another state, or the records were destroyed by fire or flood. Your ancestor simply does not appear in available census or tax records. For some reason, you find that you can go no further without the assistance of a professional researcher. Where do you look? Who do you hire? What will it cost? How much information do you give them?

Where do you look? The first place to check is with the Library Archives in the state where your missing information is located. All states' Library Archives maintain a list of researchers for hire and would be happy to send a copy to you. If you know anyone who has used outside researchers, ask for their recommendations. Check the state's historical society, consult the National Association of Professional Genealogists Directory, or check your local library for other such directories. Now that you have decided where to look, who do you choose?

Who do you hire? The answer to this question depends on the information you are seeking. Are you looking for immigration records? Look for a researcher who specializes in documenting immigration. Many of them specialize in a particular group of people, so if your ancestor was German, seek out a researcher who specializes in German immigrants. Many researchers specialize in a particular area of their state—or a neighboring state. Other specialties may include military records, vital statistics records, or LDS family files.

What will it cost? Once you have located two or three researchers who qualify, ask them for references and a list of their fees. Fees vary greatly from state to state, and depending upon the specialty and experience of the researcher. Be prepared to spend from $25-$75 per hour. It is important to ask what is included in the fee. For instance, does it include cost of copies, a comprehensive report, postage, and travel expense? Deposits are usually required, since the researcher will have to pay for gas and cost of copies "up front." The deposit is credited against the research that is conducted. Let your researcher know if you would like them to bill you for additional research, over and above the deposit, or if you prefer to be notified before exceeding the credit.

If you use ‘snail mail', be sure to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for their reply. When you receive a reply, contact the reference! Ask them what type of research was conducted and whether they were satisfied with the researcher's efforts. Remember, "effort" does not translate to "results." A great many hours are put into research by qualified persons, without finding the requested information. When/if you are satisfied that a particular researcher suits your needs, you are ready for the next step.

How much information do you give them? Always provide the researcher with the names, birth, death, and marriage dates, spouses, siblings, military history, and area in which they were known to reside during the specific time to be searched. This may seem excessive when you are looking for information on one ancestor, but the names of their spouse, in-laws, and siblings will help establish that the correct person has been located in various records. Remember the basic rule of research—if you don't want to know the answer, don't ask the question! Times were not so different in our ancestors' day, in spite of what we were told as children. The same social standards were, at times, sidestepped. Now that you have decided to use a professional researcher, be cooperative. Don't dictate how much information should be used. They are the ones trained in gathering and deciphering the information. Just because "Grandma said so" doesn't make it a fact.

Be clear about what information you are hoping to find. I suggest sending along a Wish List—the top 5-10 things you would like the researcher to find out about your family. Ask them to prioritize them according to the cost of the research. In other words, indexed records are quicker to read, costing less—records that are not indexed or in chronological order require more time, costing more. Do you want copies of all documentation, or just those that would be required by the DAR or other society? Are you looking for information on the medical history of your family?

It is best to include information on the parents and children of the ancestor you are researching. If the parents are unknown, list any siblings and their spouses. As important as it is to include this information, the most important item to include—both for you and the prospective researcher—is a brief of the sources that were previously searched, by you or other researchers. You do not want to pay for their time to search marriage records in a particular county if that search has already been conducted by another!

Keep in mind that research—good research—takes time. If you have questions or concerns, address them in a respectful manner. Be patient. It is not practical or profitable for a professional researcher to dawdle and waste time. They work methodically and efficiently to complete an assignment within a reasonable time so they are free to accept other assignments. Since they work with numerous surnames and, many times, in several counties, they must take time to review your family material and become acquainted with the names, dates, and places. In a sense, your professional researcher becomes as involved in your family's history and genealogy as you—and as determined to find the answers. In essence, they have become your surrogate cousin.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

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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