So you want to be a professional genealogist?

Ever thought about turning your family history addiction into a money-making bill paying job? I ask two professional genealogists to shed light on the how and why they did it.

Archives - Photo: Marino González via Creative Commons
Archives – Photo: Marino González via Creative Commons

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.

What better way to find out, than to ask two tame experts: Pam Smith, and Mark Daly.

Q1: How did you first get interested in genealogy?

Pam Smith - Family HistorianPam: I’ve always taken a curious interest in family matters. Who? Why? What? Where? and When? whether  the living wanted to tell me or not!

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 Daly - Time SleuthsMark: 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?

Pam Smith - Family HistorianPam: I began a course of education, firstly with WEA and the IHGS which made the archives my second home. Speaking about genealogy to local groups became second nature and word of mouth spread fast.

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 Daly - Time SleuthsMark: 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?

Pam Smith - Family HistorianPam: Initially, undertake at least three courses:

  1. An academic course on the types of records available and how to use them.
  2. How to become a Professional Genealogist.
  3. 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 Daly - Time SleuthsMark: 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?

Pam Smith - Family HistorianPam: Settling an argument between two elderly and warring cousins over the accuracy of their claims and links to an ancestor who was a famous author.

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 Daly - Time SleuthsMark: 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:

Pam: / @genejean

Mark: / @theTimeSleuths


Society Spotlight: How can we help history societies focus on the future?

Every day this week, I’m focusing on History Societies. Three societies have each kindly answered three questions, and I’ll be covering their answers that reveal their needs, challenges, and plans for survival.

I’m a supporter of history societies. I think they’re great resources, and that they play a very important role in preserving and sharing information to communities. However, these treasure troves of information face a real risk without a healthy long-term plan of survival.

Whilst talking with genealogist Linda McCauley a few weeks ago, she recalled a story of a  society in the US that has nearly been wiped out after the recent death of its treasurer. The treasurer had pretty much run the society single-handedly and was the only person who knew where the membership list was kept. Now, that society faces a bleak future unless the list is found by the grieving family when their home is cleared. If not, it brings an end to the individual’s dedicated hard work for which they surely must have hoped would have a long-lasting legacy.

Genealogist Linda McCauley
Genealogist Linda McCauley.

“It’s so easy today for a society to back-up their critical information. All it takes is a few files stored online and multiple officers with the ID and password to access them” – Linda McCauley.

This story struck a chord with me and got me thinking – how can we help history societies survive?

Hold on, why should we help history societies?

Societies are often run by volunteers, and with little or no funding behind them. This means that they rely on the donations from members, events, making a profit on their publications, and membership subscriptions. It also means that they don’t necessarily have the funding to digitise their archive, or to put it securely online for people to browse (or even just to digitally preserve, and/or put a searchable index online).

The kind of records that societies hold varies considerably, but often include items that are otherwise ignored by the larger organisations that have the monopoly on digitizing records and making available online – items include items such as personal collections from local people, self-published family stories, one-off types of items, personal photograph collections, and many other types. These records are likely to be ‘small fry’ for the likes of Ancestry, FindMyPast, Genes Reunited etc, as they won’t have such a wide appeal, and therefore won’t be the money-spinner worth investing in. One society I know, holds their parish gravedigger’s note book, which alongside the parish register, provides a useful corroborative record of burials.

How do history societies want to be helped?

The best way to know the answer to this is to ask them. So I contacted five different UK-based societies to see how they would answer three questions.  Three have replied since I contacted them back on 29th June 2013. The respondent three were:

  • The Society of Genealogists – a large genealogy society which holds the largest collection of parish records and is based in London. It is widely known and visible through the events and training courses that it organises, and appearances on television.
  • The Cambridgeshire Family History Society – a county-wide family and local history society in England, with a wide range of publications, international members, and support courses.
  • The Newman Name Society – a member of the Guild Of One-Name Studies (GOONS), and the first family history society I ever joined, almost 20 years ago.

I asked each of them the same three questions, and for the next five days i’ll be sharing their answers to each question in turn, and looking at ways that you can help your local society, or the society local to your ancestors. The questions were:

  1. What is the society’s biggest need?
  2. What is the society’s biggest challenge?
  3. How does the society plan to preserve its knowledge for the future?

I hope that you will find this series of posts interesting, and perhaps find it inspiring enough to contact your local society and offer them even just a few hours of your time and/or expertise, or at least become a member to help fund them.

If you’re a member of a society already, or already helping a society in some capacity, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below (and feel free to post a link to their website!). Let’s promote them!

Come back tomorrow when I’ll be talking about the death of a family history society.

Interview on What’s Up Genealogy? Live show this Friday

Andrew Martin will be interviewed live on Friday 8pm CDT for episode 11 of What’s Up Genealogy? show.

I’ll be beaming live on Friday/Saturday, as I take part in a live video interview with the What’s Up Genealogy? show.

What's Up Genealogy? advert

I’m really looking forward to it, having watched the show evolve from it’s weekly 20 min format of its first episode, through to last week’s episode (over 1 hour, episode 10, and the first of its second series).

Led by Caroline Pointer of, and packed with tips, news, and a mighty slice of tech, I’ll be joining Caroline and fellow panelists Tessa Keough, Linda McCauley, Jerry Kocis, and Gena Philibert-Ortega to talk about researching genealogy, including my experiences of doing that in the UK.

You can catch it live at 8pm CDT tomorrow/2am BST Saturday, or watch it on YouTube afterwards, by going to the What’s Up Genealogy? show channel.

For a taster of what to expect, here’s last week’s episode, with guest Tina Lyons.

How a Care Giver can play a key role in your genealogy research

How a carer could add extra information to your genealogy research.

I had a lovely email the other day from a lady who had found information about one of my late distant Yarrow cousins via Google. She used to be her care giver.

Having realised that she was looking at my Yarrow tree, she decided to drop me an email to tell me about her work caring for one of my relatives in her later years.

A carer with an elderly woman
Carers may hold the key to some of your un-answered genealogy questions.

This took me by surprise, as I’ve not received this kind of correspondence before, but as she mentioned a few specific details about the relative that she would not have found elsewhere, it got me thinking as to just how much information might your relatives be telling, or have told, their carers?

Think about how many nameless faces turn up in antiques and house-clearance stores – those long-lost loved ones who will rarely find their way back into the families they belong to. Yet, a carer may well have heard many stories about the people in these photos, and be able to give you some small clues as to the identities. Alternatively, they may have remembered being told about the childhood lives of your relatives.

Tracking down a carer for your elderly relative may be very difficult, but if they worked as part of a carer company, then you may be able to ask the company to pass on your contact details in a hope that they might respond. With any luck, they may be able to give you some time for a phone interview.

Act fast…

The advice here, would be to act quickly for two reasons:

  1. Stories can fade or become muddled as time goes on, even those stories that have been told every time the busy carer visited.
  2. The caring profession is generally poorly paid (in the UK at least, with some people receiving no pay at all) and therefore carers move around quickly – and internationally – so if you leave it too long, then you may never be able to trace your relative’s carer.

A word of caution though, carers have no obligation to contact you, and they work extremely hard with a lot of clients – and therefore they genuinely may not have any useful information for you. Some carers work in very difficult circumstances, so recalling details may be impossible or painful for them, or simply outside of their confidentiality comfort zone.