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Genealogists trace family histories by examining historical and legal documents to answer questions about when and where people were born, married, lived, and died. It is like historical detective work, in which the genealogist fills in the missing facts through research and deduction.
Clients come to genealogists to have questions answered. They may want to know the lineage of their family since coming to America, or even further back into their country of origin, or they may wish to find out some facts about the lives of their ancestors. Clients must tell all the known information about their family tree, and back it up with documents, such as birth certificates, family Bibles, wedding licenses, and old letters when necessary.
Sometimes tracing a family history can be fairly straightforward, and research yields impressive results. At other times, genealogists may be thwarted by incomplete records, dead ends, and conflicting information. It is very difficult to know how long it will take to complete an assignment or how successfully a client's questions can be answered.
Genealogists are familiar with many different sources of information and have the skills needed to do the right historical detective work. When researching, they often start in the public library, searching for names and dates in telephone directories, census records, military service records, newspaper clippings, letter files, diaries, and other sources. They may also contact local genealogical groups and historical societies to check for any relevant information that may be on hand. Visits to county courthouses can reveal a wealth of important data, including records of births, marriages, divorces, deaths, wills, tax records, and property deeds. A truly resourceful genealogist will also look for information in places other people might not think of, including the local newspaper's records, school board records, clubs, houses of worship, immigration bureaus, funeral homes, and cemeteries. A genealogist can never have too many sources of information, because each fact about a person's life and death should be authenticated in at least two different places for the research to be considered valid. Often two pieces of information will conflict, and a third source of validation must be found.
Once local sources of family information have been explored, genealogists must contact long-distance sources by mail, telephone, or e-mail. One resource often used is the Genealogical Department of the National Archives and Records Administration (http://www.archives.gov) in Washington, D.C. Here genealogists can find out about immigration records, passport applications, pension claims, and other data. They might also contact the Family History Library established and run by the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (http://www.familysearch.org). This library holds the world's largest collection of genealogical information. Genealogists might also need to gather information from records in other countries by contacting the genealogical societies and government agencies there. Historical societies can help genealogists better understand the material they are researching.
Once the research has been completed, genealogists organize the pertinent family information in the manner requested by the client. From the raw information, they might prepare a basic family tree or other diagram to show births, marriages, and deaths. Genealogy reports can grow more detailed and informative. Some clients hire the genealogist to write a complete family history, which might include life stories of ancestors, portraits, pictures of homes and neighborhoods, maps, and anecdotes. Some people go so far as to have many copies of their family history printed and bound to be given as gifts to other family members, friends, libraries, and historical and genealogical societies.
Genealogists carefully record sources of all used information, as well as the time spent gathering each piece of data. It is important to have documented the exact title and page of each reference volume or record book, and the names and addresses of people interviewed in the course of research. Genealogists take photos of tombstones, monuments, or markers that give relevant data and make photocopies of official records, letters, and other printed matter when possible. All this extra information is important to show the accuracy of the research and may also help any genealogical work that someone might undertake in the future.