Monday, October 3, 2011

Is It a Bad Time to Become a Professional Genealogist?

Recently Meldon Wolfgang wrote an article called "Genea-Investors: Is Wall Street Telling Us Anything About "Big Picture" Genealogy?"  The article is a little bit about investing and a little more about the "big picture" of genealogy.  It's a great article so please take a moment to read it.

In response to Mel, genealogist Taco Goulooze had the following to say, "It IS probably a bad time to become a professional genealogist, though. Maybe the profession needs to change a bit from just providing a service to a more educating role (which in turn will benefit companies like"

You can read Taco's full quote from the link above.  The basic gist of what he is saying, I believe, is that there is so much online now that the role of the professional genealogist is being diminished.

What do you think?  Is the role of professional genealogists disappearing?  Are their services no longer needed?  Should they focus more on providing education services?  Do you feel genealogists haven't focused on education enough? Is it time to pack our bags and go?

I want to hear what you have to say about this!  Leave a comment here or write a post on your own blog, leaving your link in the comments.

Photo Credit: Photo by mollypop and used under the creative commons license.


  1. How about we look at it this way? The more records that are available online, the more people will become interested in researching their family history. The more people that are researching their family history the more they will realize that genealogy isn't easy. Voila - they will realize the need for professional genealogists.

    I do agree that if there is a huge surge of people starting to research their family history then there will be a much greater need for education. If someone doesn't educate them, the professionls will soon get very tired of doing it when explaining their services. Better an educated consumer who knows what he wants and needs than non-educated consumers and frustrated, time-strapped service providers.

  2. As someone that would like to finally take that final step someday soon, I can only say that I hope it's not true.

    I'm all for as much being online/available as possible, but as far as I'm concerned there will always be brick walls and people that just don't want to do some of it themselves.

  3. My comment should be seen in the context of the article, and especially the quote: "For example, one poster recently observed that genealogy was really easy and that he finished his in about four months. He observed that he might check back every 10 years or so to update things, but since he was “done”, there was no reason to subscribe any more."

    I feel that interest in genealogy is growing, but respect for the profession is diminishing. That is because people get the idea it's easy, the way it's advertised by companies like, and presented in programs like "Who do you think you are?". If that is going to be the popular sentiment concerning genealogy, then the professionals might be in trouble. Now is the time to start educating people who show interest that there's more to it than connecting a couple of census records.

  4. I think it may be a bad time not just because of the amount of information but because of the economy as well. People have less spending money and are cutting down, which is why a lot of restaurants are having a horrible year this year. I can see people trying to find information online to save money rather than hiring a genealogist.

  5. I believe the increased availability of data on line can benefit professional and hobby genealogists alike, but more so professional because we know how to evaluate the data and do not as often make the error of leaping to the easiest answer. There is still, and I believe there always will be, a point at which people, even the best amateur researchers, get stuck and need a professional with access to local records, to "unstick" them.

    Also, even with the Ancestry leaf hints and other tools, the task of carrying one's ancestry back very far is still difficult. Only people with a passion for solving mysteries will stick with it after the initial excitement fades. Those who really want to learn their roots but don't have the time or patience to stay with it will still hire a pro.

    For myself however, I believe that the role of a true genealogist, professional or otherwise, has always carried with it the obligation to help educate newcomers.

  6. I pretty much agree with Taco's comment about the 'easy' bit and the incessant and sometimes wrong advertising that Ancestry, Inc. does. Even so, *not all* records will be available online. Even with so many companies getting into the business, some records are just impossible to digitize and some are just not available for online users.

    The educational outreach does need to be expanded, especially to counteract the misleading impressions given by those television shows. The celebrities aren't doing the research, the background people are, and the programs are not showing the truth there.

    Professional genealogists advertise. I studied a lot of their ads several years ago and continue to spot check, but we do advertise within reason. Companies like Ancestry, though, overshadow all of our efforts by hogging the top of the search engine ad space, and that's not good. We can't afford to spend the kind of money to advertise alongside them and get an honest word in.

    So yes, until the hype from television shows and incessant commercial advertising settles down or goes away, it is a bad time to become a professional. What we can do, though, is continue to, or increase the amount of, content on our own sites and blogs to move us up in the marketplace. Educational material, especially, with lots of 'keywords' in it.

    Making an effort to increase the visibility of sites like GenealogyFreelancers and GenLighten might help, too.

  7. @V A LaRobardier Thing is, people might not realize they're stuck because of the copy-paste attitude out there. I believe people will start making stuff up, just so they can connect to other peoples' trees that takes them all the way back to Charlemagne. Ancestry doesn't educate with the leaf, it just suggests connections other people made. The less educated people will not care and happily connect children to parents who were born 150 years before.

    @N.P. Maling Some of the hype might fade, but these are big companies, and they need customers and revenue to survive. The best way to do that is to lower thresholds and get as many as they can in. The leaf as it appears on would be fine, if it would tell people also WHY certain records might be useful and what information can be taken from it, apart from the obvious. That's the educational part that's lacking right now.

  8. As long as people lack the skill and patience to solve their genealogical problems, professional genealogists will be needed.

    I'm not quite sure who "they" are.

    I'm assuming that you are speaking of professional genealogists, because the term "genealogist" includes an incredibly broad group, most of whom should not be in the educational role. Yes, I think that as a group, professional genealogists do a lot to educate the public. I would divide that public into two groups. Those that are interested in their heritage or will be when something in their lives gets them to the point where they actively seek information, and those who could care less. My mom cared; my dad can't believe I get paid; my middle child does not want to discuss it, but panics when she thinks that I'm not working on my lines (and I have time to do that??), and the other two children don't want to hear about it. (Guess who gets all those family heirlooms?) This is more or less a picture of the public or any family. Some people get it and some don't. Some people love golf and some people think it's absolutely ridiculous to hit a little ball into a hole. Yet golf is a major pastime and Ancestry is broadcasting WDYTYA (and employing a lot of professionals). So the guy who thought he had completed his family history (an incredibly bold assumption in and of itself) in four months didn't really want to learn about his family or learn--period. The guy who went on Ancestry and wanted to know about his family and realized that it would take a lot of time and there were so many records that he didn't know where to start--hired me.

    This whole discussion began by linking our profession with Wall Street. Yet, we have had many recessions and bubbles burst in my lifetime and interest in genealogy continues to grow--not diminish. There are more sites, not less. There is more access, not less.

    There is a huge jobless population out there, but many of the people who have lost their jobs take that opportunity and give birth to new careers. I know of at least two professional genealogists who did.

    Big picture:

    1. More younger people are interested in genealogy as a profession than, say 20 years ago.
    2. The gigantic baby boom generation is retiring, giving them time (and sometimes money) to pursue their passion. Read: they've downsized and aren't funding college tuition any more.
    3. The biggest problem is getting education to an audience who wants to learn, but cannot travel to big venues and do not live near cities with large, active societies. These folks need access via the Internet to educational programs that go beyond simple methodology. The tipping point will be when the majority finally understand that if they want to learn advanced methods they have have to pony up. This includes professional and intermediate genealogist who will spend a thousand to go to Samford or SLIG, but won't spend ten, twelve, or fifteen dollars for a webinar presented by an expert.

  9. I agree that so many people think genealogy is "easy" and "all online" so if they can do it in a couple months and be "done" why not. But that isn't reality.

    I officially opened my professional genealogy business last summer and only since June this year have I really started to pick up more clients. Who are they? People who have hit a brick wall. People who live states away from where the records are and want them researched in a timely fashion rather than writing to libraries and archives and waiting for weeks or months for a reply. People who want to do their family history but have no time. People who have a lot of family stories and want to build the tree to go with that and write a book for their kids so those stories won't be lost.

    I agree we need to continue educating people. One thing I constantly remind some clients is the fact that not everything is online. Want to get to the bottom of something? Visit the archives and libraries to find the documents to help answer the questions.

    I think this is a good time to be a professional genealogist. As long as we remember to educate while we are working and building our reputations, doing quality work, and continuing our own educations as we go.

  10. So, I figured I'd chime in with another post on the topic, following your lead, and with a link back here. I get wordy, so here it is:

    The skeptic in me continues to think that things are tough out there, especially if client work isn't generating twice minimum wage times 40 hrs. a week.

  11. Well I agree the internet may make this a bad time to become a professional genealogist. I have been doing research for our local genealogical society for 13 years, and the number of queries has gone down since I started. I used to spend a day every week in the courthouse, now I seldom go to the courthouse. I realize a lot of the records I used to look up are online today, but as a few have said a lot of the records are not online and while they are digitizing them it is a slow process due to finances. So even though there are many more genealogists, many never leave the internet.

  12. Interesting conversation. Thanks to all for sharing. Might I say, that it is easy to change a tire, and every car comes with the equipment, but AAA and other Roadside Services are still profitable. We all know how to make a hamburger but yet we spend money to buy one all ready made from a restaurant or fast food joint (ok...may not vegetarians like myself). But, why? The same client needs will feed your genealogy business: Non-professionals need assistance and others have more money than time.

    Carve your niche, refine your business plan, and stay away from saturated markets. At least that's what I learned from Business 101, and its been very fruitful. I must add, that every 6-12 months I do take another look and analyze the books and once again refine the business plan.

    If you are trying to make a living out of, or consider them your major competitor you really don't have a business. Jen has some great tips (above).

  13. All excellent insights, but what is the definition of a professional genealogist? Is there any room in what most would call the traditional definition of the term for alternate definitions?

    Personally, I think many professional genealogists look at what they do as professionals a certain way while ignoring fundamentals of most successful business models.

    Most have the attitude that "this" is what a professional genealogist does and looks like and they do things in their business the way it's always been done.

    Please tell me what business has ever survived with that kind of attitude over the long term? Realistic diversification is important in growing your business.

    Additionally, just because you want to be what is known as a traditional professional genealogist doesn't mean you will be successful at it while ignoring the basic tenet of business, supply and demand. Is there a demand for what you are providing? Have you done adequate market research to determine the demand?

    Instead of everyone putting down's business model and their marketing campaigns, perhaps those same naysayers ought to figure out what is making so successful and figure out how to adapt their business models in such a way to capitalize on their success, but do it in such a way that basic fundamentals of genealogy are not compromised.

    ~Caroline Pointer

  14. Very thoughtful post, and I appreciate the discussion, thanks! I took it in a slightly different direction at my blog.

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  16. I agree with most of the comments. The recession could be hurting genealogists, but those baby boomers are retiring leave jobs for others, while having time and some money themselves. Right now I am just a "hobby genealogist" and I don't feel qualified to charge for any help I provide. I hope that in about 5 years when my kids are in school I can become a professional genealogist and offer some services. Living in a small town, I don't know how many clients I'll be able to get, so I am thinking of doing another service with genealogy.

  17. I think that being a professional genealogist requires that you adapt to the market place as it changes in just the same way as any other profession.

    Does that include being an educator? Maybe, maybe not, that's for you to decide. But consider this; If you educate them you can help make your potential clients aware of not only the shortcomings of online genealogy but also the real possibilities.

    Once people see what can be done many will want to go further. If you've educated them sufficiently well they are most likely to seek your assistance going forward. Result, more business.

    By educating the general public about genealogy you also raise your profile and with it your professional credibility. Result, more business.

    Agreed, it may not be the type of professional genealogy you first envisaged but is that important? Only you can decide but before deciding let's look at a similar situation one hundred years ago. Back then you could have had a very profitable coach & horses operation but what would have happened to that if you hadn't moved with the times?

  18. It's a fabulous time for me to be a genealogist. I'm turning away work.

    It's great that more people are researching their family histories. It's great that all these records are online. It brings people into genealogy.

    Once they get stuck, I'm ready to assist them using the research skills I acquired through schooling and on-the-job experience.

    The Internet is not my competitor. It is merely a multi-purpose tool that I use in my profession.

  19. I see most professional genealogists comment how great it is to BE a professional genealogist right now, that they have loads of work at the moment, but that is not what I was questioning, and neither was this post. I know you guys do a fabulous job, and that some of you are front runners when it comes to educating this new wave of enthusiasts through your blogs and websites. Let's just hope that it's enough, and the profession is secure for generations to come.

  20. I am an octogenarian non-professional. At my age, I'll never become a pro, but I admire the standards and try to aim for them.

    One-half of a retired couple, we may never have the money to hire a professional (we may need to live with those brick walls; but I know enough to recommend one to people who come to the local society library asking what next.

    Teach me more so that I can better direct other hobby searchers into better techniques. (And in your teaching you might remember that there are many county genealogical and historical societies that can help the searchers far away from the bigger cities.)

    Thanks for being there for my side of the community.

  21. Thanks Marian for starting the conversation, I posted my own thoughts at

  22. This discussion reminds me of a similar discussion going on in my profession...i.e. we have Google and e-books so why do we need librarians?
    We need genealogists for the same reason we need librarians. Just because people have access to mass quantities of information doesn't mean they know how to organize or interpret it. Great quote from author Neil Gaiman "Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian (or a genealogist) can bring you back the right one."

  23. It's true that there's a great deal of genealogical information and services available online nowadays. But I don't think broader accessibility is going to make the analysis/synthesis cycle any easier to perform! Sure, some non-professionals who are doggedly persistent and enjoy the hard work will no longer turn to professionals, but most folks interested in researching their lineage accurately will still need a lot of help.

    Also, since the Internet greatly facilitates the dissemination and diffusion of the type of work you do, I say take advantage of that fact, and leverage all that's available online as a means of pushing your field in new directions never considered before. (e.g., Search engine optimization and social web strategies geared toward genealogical research and publishing -- now, that sounds like a fruitful new area looking for trailblazers -- IMHO, anyway! :-)

  24. I don't think it's a bad time to be a professional genealogist. I can easily see the profession continuing for years to come. Even with the growing availability of records, there are a lot not yet online. I don't remember the exact number but I read an article a while back that said only a small percentage of records are currently online.

    Those that reach the limits of what is available from the computer will have to move offline. If they can't do it themselves, they'll turn to someone who has the time and expertise to seek out the other records that can only be found in archives, libraries and courthouses.

    Personally, I'm nearing the limit of what I can do on my own tree from my home computer and will soon be moving towards on-site research to continue my lines. I enjoy the research so I'll do it myself if possible, but there may come a point when I have to turn to someone else to keep going (probably my husband's line because it involves foreign travel and a language I don't speak).

    Even if everything was available from your home computer, there will still be some people that don't know how to research or aren't interested in doing the work themselves. Two of my friends were interested in their family history. The first wasn't remotely interested in research; she just wanted the results. I've been working on her tree in my spare time to help her out and gain some experience in researching a different area.

    The other wanted to do it herself, but didn't know how. I showed her what she needed to do and pointed her in the direction of records to check. Since she doesn't have access to some of the databases I do, she asked me to research too. We meet once a week to compare notes and I offer advice if she gets stuck.

  25. I see this question in the context of my own profession: Archives. While there is a contraction in available funds for Archives and their supporting services, there are a glut of Library Schools with 'new' programs for Archivists, who are not able to find jobs. Add the 'Antiques Roadshow' effect, that the 'junk' in your attic is valuable and someone will pay for it, which reduces the number of reliable donations to repositories, and there is this perfect storm of challenges.

    However, that does not preclude us from going about our business, and even expanding it. As technology grows, so can we, both as Archivists and Genealogists. I do agree that the slant toward education makes sense; a professional Genealogist can provide refined research capabilities an amateur simply doesn't have. It is up to professionals to 'sell' this concept. We can no longer sit back and wait for clients to come to us, we must actively market ourselves and the services that we provide.

  26. as a strictly amateur genealogist, I will always need professionals for inspiration and assistance. I've referred many friends to Ancestry, but without a certain amount of intuition and an understanding of context, they don't get very far.

  27. Thanks for this discussion. I'm a historian (an out-of-work historian) working my way toward being able to call myself a professional genealogist. One of the (several) things that I'm learning from this discussion is that several of you agree with my thinking - that one of my strategies needs to be putting myself near where the original records are located, because that's one of the things that will bring me work.

  28. I got into genealogy in the 1980's, before, but if they can generate enthusiasm for your field and the same for "Who Do You Think You Are" then I think the do it your selfer's (which I am) will eventually run into a brick wall or like Jen said above people will want answers from courthouses quicker from other states and will hire genealogist to do that.

    I've personally only hired one genealogist because my ancestor came from Denmark and he is a brick wall. But, I have another ancestor that member trees show up to 3 different fathers. And since this family is in the 1790 census I can't figure it out. So, I'm going to have to hire another genealogist probably.

    So you see, if can bring new people out of the woodwork to at least get their foot in the door, it might generate business for the freelance genealogist.

  29. The number of big jobs I do for family historians has decreased slightly, no doubt due to the economic situation, but it has had no effect on (1) requests from law firms seeking beneficiaries of deceased estates, and (2) smaller requests for copies of specific documents at record offices. Probably only 5% of the records in Archives will ever be online. If we can teach people that, we will continue to get work! My Web site has 51,000 names from Archives sources I have indexed, and (for a small fee) I visit the Archives and obtain copies. Many of my clients start with that, and if my report suggests other sources to try, they often ask me to do that work too. I have been doing paid research since 1986, and I have never had to pay for an advertisement. I get all the work I can handle just from word-of-mouth referrals and my Web site. If you are struggling to get enough work, I think you will find that things improve if you (1) create indexes to sources with genealogical value, and provide a copying service; (2) have a Web site or blog with lots of advice about your area of expertise; and (3) offer advice on Rootsweb mailing lists, message boards etc, with a link to your site/blog.