You'd like to be a private detective without all the danger. But the thought of spending peaceful days hidden away in a library is also kind of appealing. If this is you, becoming a genealogist may be the perfect solution.

Genealogists are essentially historians. They use all means necessary to trace a family history as far back as possible.

Most students have to create a simple family tree at some point. But genealogists trace the roots of their clients much farther.

Some genealogists are experts on a geographic area. Others may have an expert ability using certain types of documents or records.

But they don't just have the ability to search. They also have to know where to look. While there are professional genealogists, there are also a number of people who do searches as an alternate source of income, or just as a hobby.

And genealogists don't only search for family histories. According to the Association of Professional Genealogists website, some work as consultants, research medical projects and legal cases or even do biographical and historical work.

Jayne Paradis has been an active member of a genealogical society for about 20 years. She started volunteering at the society at the age of 17 because she wanted to find out about her grandparents' history. The society offers a place where people can go to find out how to trace their own family histories.

Records of births and deaths, provincial censuses and local history books are just some of the search tools available at the society. Active volunteers are always busy adding to that list.

Paradis says that tombstones in about 1,200 cemeteries in her area have been cataloged. An obituary index is constantly being updated.

The web is also an excellent tool for genealogists. But Paradis warns that online information should be double-checked. "I think it's more of a searching tool right now, rather than the end of it. Because you still have to go back and look at that census record and see the originals."

The level of difficulty in searches varies. That's why Paradis says references are essential before hiring a genealogist for any job. Tracing through countries where records weren't kept or where borders changed can be tricky.

"Irish records can be hard because some of them were destroyed in fire in the early '20s, so you have to look to other sources," she says. "I've written letters to Ireland where the priests just don't answer you, so it is case by case."

Dante Hebert is a computer systems analyst in Washington whose hobby is genealogy. He runs a website that posts family lines and other free information for searchers.

He can see the interest growing as the number on his hit counter increases. For those interested in starting out, Hebert has a few words of wisdom: be patient and ask questions.

"Sometimes it take years to find new information. And don't believe everything you find. People lie and public records are sometimes wrong. Check and cross-check all information and document where you get it."

Daniel F. Johnson is a certified genealogist. He says other genealogists, as well as social historians and biographers, use his services. Johnson studied business administration. He got into genealogy after pursuing an interest in his own ancestry.

Because there is no government certification program in North America, societies and institutes have created their own screening process and certification system. Clients can access their websites and select a genealogist in their area from a published list of those in good standing.

Johnson says there is a growing need for his own services. He explains why people seek out genealogists: "The need to access information not readily available to the client and for advice regarding research techniques."

Fees also vary widely. Johnson says his own profits come from the sale of genealogical publications and from fees for searching services on an Internet database. But because the fees range, Johnson has had clients from welfare recipients to judges.

For him, staying on top of the field's advancements is a must.

"A successful researcher keeps abreast of relevant publications and is open to suggestions. It is a process by which one learns and develops their expertise continually," he says.

But Johnson does agree that individuals can do this work for themselves. "This market is still in its infancy. The Internet has expanded the potential, allowing clients to learn of the services available. Entering this field would require commitment for the long term and probably some initial sacrifice," he says.

"The rewards in providing this service cannot be measured only by financial remuneration. It is also nice to receive letters of appreciation for work well done."

Because of our society's aging population, Johnson also believes the field will continue to grow.

"In North America, the baby boomers are increasingly becoming more interested in their ancestry, and there are more tools of research at their disposal. Since the late 1970s, the number of genealogists has consistently grown."

But before diving in too deeply, Johnson recommends a visit to the local library or archives to see what resources are available in your area. And as he points out, it is definitely possible to get started in the field right away.

"Usually researchers offer professional services after many years of working on their own family trees as a hobby."


Board for Certification of Genealogists
Information about certification and a roster of certified practitioners

Association of Professional Genealogists
Nonprofit organization for those interested in the profession

Vital Records Information for the United States
Online access to all kinds of records

Research tips and links

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