The question is a very good one. Of course at one level a professional is simply one who is paid for his work. But one also thinks of professionals as experts with certain standards of excellence. For the purposes of this column a professional genealogist is a person who spends much of his time doing research for others, for which he charges a fee, and by such arrangements earns a large part of his income. A professional genealogist may also be a person hired by an organization or society, such as the librarians who work at NEHGS. For the most part, however, we think of a professional genealogist as a person who is paid by individuals to do research on particular family lines.
If a person wants to become a professional genealogist he should consider courses offered by colleges and genealogical institutions. Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, has offered a degree in genealogy. Samford University in Alabama has such a program, but I do not know if it offers a degree. A number of universities and colleges may offer individual courses in genealogy and family history, and it would be a good idea to check with nearby institutions. The National Genealogical Society now offers an excellent correspondence program in genealogy. Graduates of such programs, however, do not automatically become professionals.
There are a number of certification boards in the genealogical world. Theoretically, if you hire a certified genealogist you are assured a minimum level of competence. The Mormons have a set of genealogical certification criteria which is of particular value if you are a Latter Day Saint because these genealogists thoroughly understand all of the religious implications in Mormon research. The Board for the Certification of Genealogists in Washington, D.C. has a number of categories of certification which include Certified Genealogist (CG) and Certified Genealogical Records Specialist (CGRS). There are other categories. To become certified in any of these areas a genealogist must meet the research standards and requirements established by the board. Some groups in the genealogical world would like every professional certified, but this seems unlikely at the present time.
A book by E. Kay Kirkham, titled Professional Techniques and Tactics in American Genealogical Research (published by Everton Publishers, P.O. Box 368, Logan, UT 84321), can be helpful in learning the practices common to professional genealogists. It includes client relationships, compiling records, ways of solving research problems, writing the family history and so forth. You tray also be interested in an article by Walter Lee Shepard, "Professional Ethics in Genealogical Research," (National Genealogical Society Quarterly 67 (1979):3-11). In the same issue is a related article by Gary Boyd Roberts entitled "A Professional Code for Genealogical Libraries and Librarians."
By virtue of their jobs, many librarians must also be regarded as professional genealogists. Both librarians and professional researchers can often find in hours what it make take an amateur days to find. While librarians cannot do your research for you, they can usually point you in the right direction, and they almost always have a list of people in the area who will do professional research. Ethical considerations, however, may prohibit the librarian from recommending a particular individual over another.
A major problem professional researchers have with clients is that of great expectations. Clients should fully understand that they are paying for a researcher's time - not results. You tray hear someone cry, "I paid so-and-so $500 and all he found was that my great-grandmother had a brother named Willie." This, indeed, may be a sad tale, but at the same time it may be a fact of life. If you ask a researcher to check the Massachusetts vital records he can only report what is there and if your great-grandmother is not included the cost is no less. The client should not blame the researcher if he does not find anything. On the other hand you should always insist on a complete report on what the researcher did on your behalf. You should know what records were searched even if nothing was found. All responsible professionals accept this.
The cost of researchers nay vary from $5 to $20 an hour plus expenses. Although it is often expensive it may be cheaper than taking a trip yourself and paying for airfare, hotels, taxis and so forth, especially if you know exactly what you want. Moreover, a good researcher who knows a particular repository may easily find records that an amateur might only stumble upon. If you do hire a researcher it is best to have a contract that includes a retainer. Always tell the researcher what you have already done so there is no repetition or misunderstanding about what he is to do.