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How do I become a genealogist?

The Genealogist

Nick Barratt (Genealogist) gives expert video advice on: How do I become a genealogist?; What qualifications do I need?; How many years will I have to train for? and more...

What qualifications do I need?

The qualifications to become a genealogist will vary according to which organization you approach. Many of them offer certificates such as the Institute of Geneological and Heraldic Studies, also the Society of Genealogists. Each of them have their own series of qualifications. So you would need to address one of these professional bodies, enroll in one of their courses, undertake a period of study, probably some examinations as well and then you can practice as a genealogist.

How many years will I have to train for?

The number of years that you will have to train for depends on how long you want to actually pursue Genealogy, and to what level you want to pursue it. There are basic courses which will get you through finding your family, building a family tree, and undertaking more detailed record searches. There are advanced courses which show you how to undertake research into the Medieval and Early Modern period when you're confronting documents in Latin, difficult handwriting known as Palaeography, and also starting to compile more complex family trees. It really depends on how far you want to take it.

What sort of person makes a good Genealogist?

You need to be quite methodical and thorough if you want to be a Genealogist. In many senses, the pursuit of genealogy is following one clue after another, working backwards in time looking for people. There's an awful lot of sifting through records. If you can't find that missing ancestor, you have to leave no stone unturned. A person needs to be methodical, have patience, and also have the ability to spend lots of time looking through dusty archives. That does help.

Do I have to be a good writer?

To become a genealogist, a certain amount of writing ability is important. But it really depends on how you want to go about the genealogy of the individual you're looking for. In many cases, it's just simply building a family tree, organizing your data, and presenting your findings. But in many cases, you might want to go into more detail about that individual; their life, the circumstances in which they lived, the social surroundings and contexts. And in those cases, you need to marshal more evidence, and therefore start to construct arguments. Therefore you will need a little bit of a writing background as well.

Do I need to love books?

You need to love archives if you want to do genealogy. That's certainly the case and you also need to love looking through various indexes. It certainly helps if you appreciate documents and what they contain because you are going to spend a lot of time in archives. So I guess, in a round about way, yes it does help if you do love books.

What types of jobs are there in the field of Genealogy?

To actually qualify as a genealogist, there isn't exactly a whole range of job options available. A lot of genealogists become professional record or research agents which means they are then employed by other people who want their family trees or family histories researched. Others will take jobs in archives or libraries. So it really does depend but it isn't exactly a sort of a boom market in the job profession at the moment. You wouldn't be able to get on the job search and say, "How many vacancies do you have for genealogists in the local area?" It doesn't unfortunately work that way.

What is the average salary of a Genealogist?

I don't think there is an average salary of a genealogist. It depends on how many clients you can get in and what their background is in terms of how much you can charge them. It does vary. It's not a hugely well paid profession. You would probably be looking at doing this after retirement, maybe as a job to supplement a pension or just for general cash in hand, but I wouldn't say there is a set salary for a genealogist.

Describe a day in the life of a Genealogist?

Get up, go to the archives, spend the next 7 or 8 hours looking through old, dusty books, leave the archive, come home, write up your findings, compile a family tree, and then e-mail it to your clients. That's about as good as it gets. You will spend an awful lot of time in the archives or in libraries looking through the raw material to start finding out the answers to the questions you've been sent.

Is it exciting, being a Genealogist?

As with all jobs, there are good days and there are bad days. Bad days can be very, very bad--lots of searching with no results. But when you start to find information out, it is so exciting. You really feel, after you've been looking for an elusive individual for a little while, that you're getting to know them, you're hunting them down. And when you get that eureka moment, it's just a great feeling.

When I become a genealogist, who will employ me?

Once you become a genealogist, there are a range of avenues you can pursue. You can become a record agent and join one of the various professional organizations such as AGRA, or alternatively become an independent researcher on the National Archives list. You could always apply to an archive and use your genealogical skills to help other people undertake their research or see if there are any jobs in organizations such as the Society of Genealogists, Federation of Family History Society, and so on. Alternatively, you can then pass on your own skills and start setting up teaching courses in genealogy, too.

Is there lots of reading involved?

You're going to do a lot of reading both in qualifying to become a genealogist and also once you start work, mainly because most of the records are going to be on paper or in books or online in original form, and even in digital images. You're all going to spend lots of time scanning through material. Of course, that's just finding the ads about people. You also need work at the background social historical context to make sure that these people become real. You're all going to do quite a lot of reading.

Do I have to be organised?

If you're not organised you can't be a genealogist. It is as simple as that. You have to be absolutely methodical with your note-taking, with the organisation of your data, planning your time in the archives, planning which archives to go to, and then following up those clues in a logical manner. You can't just jump around in different periods looking at different people. You have to pursue one line at a time. Otherwise, your research will get very quickly jumbled, mixed up and complicated.

Is there an association or union of genealogists?

The closest thing to a union of genealogists would be the Society of Genealogists, which is the body that represents professional genealogists in Great Britain. I've never heard of a union strike, of genealogists refusing to do family trees, so I'd have to say no, there's probably not a union, but the society is the closest you'd get to that.

Are most genealogists self employed?

I don't think most genealogists are self employed. Yes, there are those who have gone into professional teaching, and others who do work for the societies such as the press officers, the administrators and coordinators. But you actually make money out of this subject by simply doing family history, and also by being employed as record agents.

Is being a genealogist a hard job?

Being a genealogist is quite a challenging job at times because usually people employ you and then run after all the obvious options. So you're immediately starting at a disadvantage; you're having to solve other people's problems. You also end up doing quite a bit of work for other people and you don't get time to look at your own family, so it's a bit frustrating as well. You're looking at all these fantastic records and finding exciting discoveries for other people. So, there is that element too, but if you love history and you love finding things out, in many ways there is no better profession for you.

Do Genealogists work long hours?

Genealogists work incredibly long hours, because you've got the day which you're in the archives, nine to five usually. You've then got to write your reports and deal with your administration afterwards and then of course, the Internet is available 24 hours a day and there's always that temptation just to have a quick look and see what else you can find, having done a day's work in the archives. So I guess with anything that involves a certain degree of self-employment you work the hours that you want to, but there is this compulsion to find out a lot more.

Do Genealogists work as part of a team?

Genealogists often work as a part of a team, because they have complementary skills. It depends on the nature of the job. I certainly employ a range of genealogists, and we work as a team depending on the projects involved. We tend to do quite a lot of media work, and obviously TV programs. These media outlets now really look at genealogists as a way of telling different sorts of history. But you will also get a lot of soul trades if you like, single record agents. We'll know each other, we'll work in the same field, but there is the element of competition as well.

Do Genealogists mostly work on their own?

The majority of the Genealogists work on their own. There are different type of genealogists, some of them work on the academic side as a part of a team taking courses, and others are record agents who prefer working on their own. In the case of female record agents, they tend to have assistants, and for others it's their own choice.