Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Careers in Genealogy: Charting Your Own Course

Part two of the Genea-opportunities discussion series focuses on careers in genealogy. Yes, people actually get paid to do this. Here's the sounding point from Geneabloggers:

We'll discuss the "traditional" genealogy careers and look at some genealogists and family historians who are thinking "outside the genealogy charts" to carve out their own career path.

Here's my story: in library school I took the special libraries track, studying all the things necessary to run a library in a company or other organization. When I moved to Houston, I did some paid and volunteer work for a non-profit as well as some independent research stuff. I found AIIP and others like me who ran their own research businesses. While doing general research for people, I realized that I enjoyed genealogy more. Even though it pays less, I decided to make what I thought was a lateral transition from one subject to another. Boy was I wrong. There is no neatly marked trail and you must alter your expectations and adapt to the conditions should you decide to tread this path. This leads to my first point:

There is no such thing as a traditional genealogy career. There are just too many facets, and one facet alone won't pay the bills. "Because you like the hunt" is not enough. You have to be proficient in several areas. Naturally, you have to have knowledge in a certain aspect of genealogy be it location, language or something else which you acquire through classes and hands-on experience. On top of the "looking-stuff-up" part, you need the latest information on running a business, new research tools, updates in the world of archives, marketing opportunities, etc. You may also need to speak or write in order to supplement the research income, thus needing resources in those areas as well. This leads me to my second point:

It's difficult to find information on the field of professional genealogy in the field of professional genealogy. Hopefully I can eat these words in the future, but as it stands there is little information out there on how to run a "genealogy business." Bigger societies of note provide links to other resources, but there is no consistently published content on business issues. The book Professional Genealogy (affiliate link) is in need of an update that brings technology into the fold, though I still highly recommend it and the unaffiliated ProGen Study Group offshoot. Genealogy business events and meetings are sparse and inaccessible for most. Webinars are becoming more prominent in other facets of genealogy except the professional part. This leads me to my third point:

Sometimes you need to leave the Small Town of Genealogy to take the steps to Big City Success.
Some of the better resources for running a genealogy-based business are found in other areas that have nothing to do with genealogy. Seek information outside this subject and it will really help you inside this subject.

Use the resources of the Small Business Administration to draw up a business plan. Don't fudge on this task, either. Once you have a plan your path becomes smoother.

Study how other independent researchers in various subjects highlight their businesses. Join in on discussion to see how they handle customer issues, support issues, etc. 

See how local small and one-person businesses market their services. Even if your customer base isn't where you live, this sample will give you some ideas that are outside the traditional genealogy box. 

Read some textbooks about research and information. No, really. Genealogy research is just a piece of the information pie. When you understand how content is created, organized and stored, you can tackle research problems quicker and with more accuracy. You will also see that some of the best genealogy information is actually outside the genealogy radar. Some people will scoff at this, which leads to my fourth point:

The professional genealogy field can be a mean friend sometimes. I've been openly laughed at for my approach to genealogy research, and don't even get me started on the email discussion lists. The point is that you have to be confident and believe in your abilities. There are many professionals in various aspects of genealogy who are working "off the charts" with creative approaches to their craft. Go forth and find them. They are wonderful people. This leads me to my fifth point:

Changes to professional genealogy are coming and we have front-row seats. New and innovative ideas are popping up all over the place and they're gaining support in significant numbers. There's going to be a tipping point eventually. But even if that happens and the flood gates open spewing copious amounts of practical information you still have to keep one thing in mind, which leads to my sixth point:

The path to becoming a professional genealogist starts with you.
If you have an interest in exploring genealogy as a profession, do not sit back and wait for ABC or XYZ conference to offer up some classes. Tell your society you're interested in certain subjects, but don't delay your own learning while they get the courses together (assuming they even decide to do so). Owners of other small business don't wait around for education to fall out of the sky. They either go find the information they need or learn by doing. Clueless about marketing? Find the facts to fill that information gap. Want to improve your report writing skills? Scour the BCG website and practice what they preach. If you have no clue where to start, ask a colleague for advice. Whatever it is you want, it is up to you to go out there and get it. Believe in yourself. This leads to my seventh point:

It's ok to forge your own genealogy path. This is how you find your professional identity. 

A big THANK YOU to all who have read this far. This is my opinion and experience. In order to make my way, I've had to do things differently than the current fuzzy definition of professional genealogy. No two stories are the same. This one is mine.


  1. Right. On.

    I haven't had anyone openly laugh in my face. Yet. But, then again, I don't exactly invite people who would laugh at my approaches to genealogy research and professional genealogy to my home.

    And that's what my blogs [and my website that's coming along] are ~ my home. In fact, the only people that I'm really aiming for to come on in and have a cup of coffee are friends. Genealogy friends. Mom friends. Peeps I meet IRL [In Real Life]. And the like.

    Why? Because I'm building a relationship with people. People who are potential clients. People who are currently clients. People who may never be clients.

    Professional genealogists study ancestors, people, and families. They study the behaviors of the aforementioned groups and think outside the box to tear down brick walls. Then they don't apply what makes them good at genealogical research to their business. Funny, that.

    People can laugh at me all they want. [But I really don't suggest you doing it to my face. Really.]

    ~Caroline Pointer

  2. Amy,
    *Applause* Well stated.

    A business plan is crucial.

    And stepping outside the genealogy box could lead to new opportunity and perspectives.

  3. I'm really glad the laugh-in-my-face thing happened because it made me realize the perceptions out there helped me see that my path would be uphill.

  4. Great post. I especially like "There is no such thing as a traditional genealogy career." My favorite subject is cemetery research, but I of course use genealogy to "tell the tales" of the lives behind the stones. I'm confident I've found my niche, and am currently seeking education. While saving my pennies to attend sometimes expensive classes, I am trying to devour everything I can from others and the plentiful free resources available.

    My only concern is not being taken seriously because I do not yet have those wonderful post-nomial letters or diploma that "prove" I know what I'm doing. I'm sure providing good information, as well as building a following and network will take time, but help with that.

  5. Amy, Please help me understand exactly why someone would laugh at you. Is this one person? Many? What aspect of your business was so amusing to him/her/them? I don't get what is being mocked or if this is representative of a wider trend. Help!

  6. Amy, very well stated. While I am not I professional, I am trying to learn the various ways to make my research more professional. Posts like yours, Thomas', and Randy's help me to realize just what I don't know and what I need to do to improve my knowledge. Thanks for teaching!

  7. Hi Amy, great points about looking outside of the genealogy box for professional advice or assistance. I follow a couple of small business marketing companies on Facebook who focus on using social media tools to bring in revenue and clients and they bring new and challenging discussions to my attention on a weekly basis. I've learned so much from them and I love the interaction.
    Thanks again :-)

  8. Stephanie, you don't need the letters. From your blog and your writing, it's clear that you know your stuff. You enjoy learning all you can about cemeteries and teaching that to others. If you have the confidence in your abilities, you will be taken seriously.

  9. Good points Amy and I like your approach. Just like being a blogger, forging your own career takes what my grandmother called moxie - you have to stand up to those who might laugh or shake their heads. But also, when it comes to the "told you so" moment down the road when you succeed, be gracious enough to share the secret of your success. Even to those naysayers who didn't have faith in you and your abilities.

  10. Polly, it was a one-time thing, that happened at the very first professional genealogy event I ever went to. Since you've seen me around the circuit, you can see it didn't phase me.

  11. Donna Jane - glad you enjoyed the post. If you ever have any questions about anything, just post them on your blog or Facebook account. Someone somewhere will have the answer you need.

  12. Ginger, thanks for reading. I'm with you: some of the best stuff for genealogy is outside genealogy. I like to find it and bring it back into the fold.

  13. Another great post, Amy. And great comments that follow. I like that you use your MLIS, by the way. I have a Ph.D. in Business Management, which is a research degree... but I almost wish I had not mentioned it when I sent in my portfolio for genealogical certification. My research and citations were fine, but I didn't have enough genealogy classes and gen soc memberships to qualify... how about that?
    See my situation, as you posted yours, at:
    Thanks, again, for a candid look at a real genealogy professional... and for sharing, and being willing to share! ;-)

  14. First thought...I am still surprised, after spending 9 years in "genealogy", that there are so few accredited, higher education institutions that offer a degree or certificate program in genealogy. Does this void or how much does this void contribute to the "struggle" genealogists face when making a go of it professionally? Second thought/belief...it is critical for professional genealogist to find their niche! CRITICAL!! Perfect example is a lady we all know who took Google and ran with it and all the wonderful ways it can be used in genealogy. I truly believe, you must find SOMETHING to focus on to set you apart from all the rest...a tool, a procedure, an approach that you can claim as your own and use to help in your promotion of your services. This thought ties into your comment to Ginger...find it and bring it back into the fold...then make it your own.

  15. I wrote my post before I read yours, so please forgive any repetition, but I think many of the points bear repeating again and again. Kudos to you and all the rest who have made the leap to full-time!

  16. I actually think that the some of the traditional advice to would-be professional genealogists can be (unintentionally) very discouraging. The field is so new that there's really only about one generation of people who have successfully worked as paid researchers. That often makes it seem like the way they did it is the only way it can work.

    Technology changes so fast, though, that that's just not true. The things that worked for those folks don't have much to do with what works today (and even if they did, there's no law that says we can't try something different).

  17. And then there are those of us who make our own career without "speaking and writing." :-)

  18. Dee Dee, you're my model for how it should be done. I really do admire your talent and how you use it.

  19. Amy,
    Great topic and useful information. I'm not a professional genealogist, but have an interest in the field as a second career when I am ready to retire from the nonprofit field. I enjoy business discussions, especially when focused around such creative careers. I subscribe to an interesting blog by Chris Brogan that provides a lot of great ideas and inspiration for individuals marketing their services, business, or nonprofit online. He offers a lot of ideas about blogging as well. He has other blogs/sites that require a fee, but I think his free blog is good.

    I hope you continue to post blogs on the business side of genealogy. You are providing an opportunity for exchanges that - as you noted -aren't available in many places.

  20. Amy, I loved the post! As someone hoping to make this a career someday, you are an inspiration to read and I love your positiveness as well as your frankness!

  21. As a fellow MLISer (who also took a lot of special library classes), I found this post quite thought-provoking. I ended up in a corporate library (go figure) but have long toyed with the idea of 'going professional' somewhere in the genealogy field one of these days. I figured it would use aspects of both my MLIS and my MBA, along with the genealogy courses I take here and there. Your post has given me some other things to consider - thank you!

  22. Amy - excellent post. Positive, informative and encouraging. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  23. Love your work, Amy, and agree with your thoughts. A genealogist needs to look to the future to effectively examine the past.

    You are an example of someone who applies the higher order thinking skills: analysis, synthesis and evaluation to your chosen field of endeavour.

    You can take what you have learned in other fields (Library science and business) and apply them.

    You're my kind of girl.

  24. Great post, Amy. Although there are others posting on these same topics this week, this particular post has helped me put some things into perspective as I continue my journey of transitioning into a professional genealogist. Your insight into the world of professional genealogy has always inspired me and I truly appreciate the unofficial mentorship :)

  25. Great article and great comments! As a relatively new member of the great Geneabloggers community, and having done personal research since 1974 and paid research since 1986, I do have some thoughts on the topics currently being discussed, so I will be adding my ten cents worth. Watch for it on my Genealogy Leftovers blog sometime on the Easter weekend.

  26. Wonderful as usual Amy.

    I've found that the deeper I've gotten into the genealogy industry, the less applying general business principles works. This is a funny industry with some real quirks to it. And yet, probably the biggest thing that does apply, is that the really successful people/businesses are the ones who believe in themselves against all odds, and who jump the fence with new ideas in how they approach things.

    Love ya fellow MLISer. Brilliant ideas like yours will crossover and pollinate and develop this industry. Keep innovating.