I’m not a professional genealogist.
My interest in researching was fuelled by my love of Victorian photography and a hand-drawn tree that both showed my father and I people we’d never heard of, and so my interest for family history was ignited.
But whilst there are many large online family history websites like Ancestry, FindMyPast etc, there are also thousands of individual professional genealogists who work with people to uncover their family stories.
So far, I’ve not wanted to be one of those. Mainly because I just enjoy researching my own tree, and I wanted to do it however and whenever it interested me, and without a deadline. I’ve turned what have been hobbies into jobs before, and eventually for me, it has taken the fun out of it.
So, I’m curious as to why and how other people became professionals genealogists.
Q1: How did you first get interested in genealogy?
Roger Stonebanks, a journalist and author came searching for the family of Albert (Ginger) Goodwin, Miner 1887-1918 who’s death/murder (which ever way you want to look at it) started Canada’s first general strike.
The family history evidence in Roger’s book Fighting for Dignity – The Ginger Goodwin Story was the catalyst which ignited my interest.
Mark: Procrastination and avoidance. It was 1993, I was 22 and only a few weeks away from my final Law exams. My addled brain needed distraction and it seemed the obvious moment to start investigating my roots!
Often when I visited my Yorkshire and Staffordshire grandparents and great aunties as a child, they would give me something related to the family’s history such as a set of medals, an army cap badge, some old documents or an entire Royal commemorative china set, normally with the aside “Eee, I’m not long for this life, you ought to have this” and a conspiratorial wink. I was made the adolescent custodian of these objects of fascination and working out who they belonged to, as a young adult, seemed the next sensible step.
Genealogy was largely still the preserve of the retired, researching notable ancestors, and the Internet as a research tool did not yet exist. Despite this, and the laborious process of manually searching thorough heavy registers of BMDs and unindexed censuses on microfilm in the dark basements of government buildings, I became hooked. My legal training suited the research process and I suddenly had a vehicle to explore periods in history, through the stories of real people.
The initial research into my roots proved unexceptional but after years of sticking with it, the past began to yield its secrets and its characters.
Q2: What made you decide to research other people’s families and turn it into a professional career?
Queries started coming in and I realised there was potential to make an income from what came naturally to me i.e. an inquisitive mind and a passion for historical documentary evidence.
There is fulfilment and reward in taking a client step by step through their family history. The joy of discovery experienced by them, makes it all worthwhile.
Mark: I started doing research for friends, in order to learn more, to make people aware of what could be discovered, to feed my genealogy addiction and to satisfy my ‘family tree envy’. I was still wading through my own coal miners and ag labs at that stage and so others’ roots seemed far more romantic or exotic. I particularly enjoyed researching stories of foreign roots, migration, diasporas, adventurers, people displaced by war and famine, anything with a cultural shift. Foreign languages felt like a challenge rather than a barrier and these stories with a foreign element remain one of my specialisms as a professional genealogist.
I continued like that for the next 20 years, as a sort of paying hobby, learning as I went along, fitting it around the day job as a lawyer. I then set up my own business as a legal translator and this gave me the flexibility to go professional with the genealogy.
Q3: What advice do you have for someone who is thinking of becoming a professional genealogist?
- An academic course on the types of records available and how to use them.
- How to become a Professional Genealogist.
- Genealogical Report Writing.
Join a Professional Body, advertise and network with colleagues. Genealogy can be a solitary pursuit and it is essential to build relationships and leave your computer every now and then to maintain a sense of reality with the outside world.
Make Continued Professional Development (CPD) a life choice. Be an eternal student.
Mark: For those with an existing job, start gradually. Do research for friends as a freebie but treat them as you would third-party clients: at the outset, give them a written description of what you will be doing and what they can expect; for the research, produce a well-drafted, fully-evidenced report; and finish off the job with an invoice (albeit for £0). As you get more confident and your name is passed around, you can follow this same procedure but finish with invoices that begin to reflect your worth.
Whether you are considering genealogy as a first career or a gradual switch from an existing one, academic study is invaluable. There are an increasing number of providers of courses. The Society of Genealogists runs some excellent short courses and the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, Strathclyde University and Dundee University provide longer courses.
Joining a body such as the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives as an associate is also a great way to meet fellow professionals once you have reached an assessable level of expertise and have decided to go professional.
Q4: What has been the most memorable life story that you’ve helped to uncover for a client?
Although the outcome was not palatable to one, my client was justified in his account of events backed up by the evidence I provided.
Mark: I have done lots of research for television companies in the UK and the States and it is always satisfying to see your name in lights, not least to add some respectability to the profession that is genealogy. That said, it is still the private client work that is the most satisfying, especially when it relates to a person’s very identity (adoption, separation, etc.).
One case earlier this year was particularly rewarding: a lady, Ruth, in her 90s had been searching for over 70 years to establish who she was. She had grown up in an East End orphanage and was never informed of the name she was given when she was born or the identity of her parents. Other than her children, she had no family and no roots and had spent decades contacting different bodies and trying different researchers, in an attempt to work out who she was. The local authority had provided scant information and had told her that nothing more could be found or done. Assuming this to be a workhouse story, I trawled the categories of records that could relate to her time in care, such as workhouse registers and minute books, infirmary records, local schools and the orphanage itself. The exercise was complicated by the ever-changing London boroughs that had responsibility for different bodies at different times.
Most of these records were closed, so I used a Freedom of Information Act request. Within a few days, and after some thorough checks by the London Metropolitan Archives, I received 50 pages of documents relating to Miriam’s time in the orphanage. One of those 50 pages contained a single, vital piece of information, that the Ruth’s birth mother had been divorced by her husband four years before. Despite some confusion over the name of the mother, this led me to the mother’s divorce records at the National Archives which gave me her maiden name. With this, I was able to find Ruth’s own birth certificate, registered under a different first name and with her birth mother’s maiden name.
Although Miriam is now very frail, the break-through was delivered to her by her daughter over the summer, along with the news that I had found two nephews who were still alive. Researching aristocratic families in the English Civil War and Polish families captured by Soviet Russia is fascinating stuff but it doesn’t get much better than being able to tell Ruth who she is after 70 years of searching.
Still want to be a professional genealogist?
Becoming a professional sounds like a lot of fun, rewarding, and interesting hard work to me, but I’m happy to keep it as my go-to hobby.
How about you? Are you inspired after reading Pam and Mark’s answers? Or are you like me and enjoy keeping the casual nature of it?
Huge thanks to both Mark and Pam for taking time out (ages ago!) to answer my questions. If you’re interested in contacting either, you can of course find them online at: