Genealogy research: DIY vs. hire a genealogist
Updated: Apr 22
These days, it feels like everyone is doing genealogy research and getting DNA tests. That’s not surprising. The genealogy industry is big business. The genealogy products and services market was valued at about $3 billion in 2019. The Ancestry.com group alone generated more than $1 billion in 2017. And it’s only getting bigger.
If you’re interested in your family history, you may wonder whether it’s better do the research yourself or to hire a genealogist. Well, let’s break it down and compare professional genealogists to do-it-yourself family history research.
Benefits of hiring a professional genealogist
Efficiency: As experienced professionals, genealogists know where to go for data. They know which databases contain what information, what kind of record is housed in this courthouse or that records department, etc. It’s not difficult to learn this, of course. But it saves time to already know it.
Genealogists are also connected to their colleagues. If they have a question, they will know someone who can help them quickly, rather than hunt down a possible solution on the internet. Genealogists get family history research done fast.
Quality of work: Credentialed genealogists follow a specific, pre-determined set of guidelines to verify information about potential ancestors. It’s called the “genealogical proof standard” and it exists to ensure that professionals within the community adhere to quality work. The standard itself has to do with backing up every fact that is established about a person in the tree. Credentialed genealogists, especially those who are part of professional associations like APG, take the proof standard very seriously.
Less mistakes: Because of the proof standard, and because genealogists are experienced professionals, they are less likely to make mistakes interpreting data that a beginner would. Genealogy sounds easy enough until you find out how many ancestors you have that share the same first and last name!
Less stress: The large genealogy websites work very hard to make researching your family tree look easy. And for the first couple generations back, it is. That’s because you know more than you realize. When you find a historical document you can usually tell quickly whether or not it’s for a relative. As soon as you cross over into unknown relatives, it becomes a lot harder. That’s where mistakes are made and people waste a lot of their time.
Specialization: Genealogy research very quickly becomes specialized. If you don’t speak the language of your ancestors, you will need someone who does—or be prepared to learn it. If you don’t know the history of where your ancestor lived, you will need to learn that too.
Privacy: If you don’t want to leave a digital footprint, genealogists are the way to go. You won’t have to worry about having your information online, or worry about who the research belongs to (you or the website you used?). Using a professional genealogist also protects you from leaving breadcrumbs which could lead to phone calls from strangers claiming to be related.
Price: Pricing for genealogists is all over the place. Some sell packages, others charge by the hour. You could pay anywhere from $30-$200/hour. It really depends on what that particular genealogist offers, their credentials, experience, and specialties.
Other experiences: Certain genealogists organize trips and special experiences around your research. Take Caroline Gunter of TheSweedishGenealogist.com who helps plan heritage trips to Scandinavian countries. Unless you speak the language and know the area, these kinds of trips are almost impossible to organize on your own.
All this comes with the caveat that you are in fact dealing with a professional. Before you hire a genealogist, you should absolutely check their credentials, experience, and references. And make sure you share the information you already have with them, or you will end up paying for information you already know.
Benefits of DIY genealogy
Family history research is fun: Let’s be honest: it’s just plain fun. Looking up a grandparent and finding the ship manifest that shows their arrival in this country is a meaningful experience. If you want to experience that feeling first hand, DIY genealogy research is the way to go.
Information at your fingertips: It used to be slow and hard to do genealogy research. It just wasn’t available online. Now it is. Ancestry.com adds an average of 2 million records a day to their databases! It is much easier to do you own research than ever before. You will very quickly be able to access family history data and see the results of your work.
It’s easy to share information: The nature of the internet makes it easy to share what you’ve discovered. You can invite family members to see your tree and show them the cool family history documents you found. You can allow strangers to view your tree to help advance their research in return. This also means you can save time if you find someone who has already done the research (correctly) on a branch of your family.
Easy to organize information: One of the hardest things in genealogy research is keeping track of all the information you discover. There is so much paper and note-taking and documents and, well, just everything! The big four websites (Ancestry, MyHeritage, FamilySearch, FindMyPast) all do a great job helping keep all your notes, backup, and discoveries organized.
Meet new relatives: Because of the openness of family trees, it’s possible to track down relatives. Companies like Ancestry.com, which have built DNA testing into their website, offer even more opportunities to meet new relatives. Warning: Just make sure that’s something you really want!
Terrific support groups: The genealogy community is large and welcoming. You can probably find a group for whatever it is you are looking for. Between the wikis and the specialty message boards, you never have to feel lonely doing the research on your own.
Time: You have the time and are looking for a fun project. The industry has drastically improved how quickly you can do research, but digging deep takes time. Genealogy research can quickly become very time-consuming.
Price: Some websites are completely free, like FamilySearch. Others cost anywhere from $200 to $400 a year. Be sure to take advantage of free trial periods! The trick here is not to start your family history project and then forget about it. Many of these sites are subscription models and you’ll get billed even if you’re not using them.
Genealogists vs. DIY family researchers
It can feel a little like comparing apples to oranges. You can’t say one way is better than the other. It really comes down to whether you want the experience of doing the research yourself, and if you have the time and discipline to do it.
Either way, this kind of research can be incredibly rewarding. I wish you good luck on your journey!