A GeneaBlogie Dialogue: The Future of Professional Genealogy

Preface: A while ago, there was dialogue in the blogosphere about the future of the large genealogy companies such as Ancestry.com, FamilySearch Inc., and others. Notable writers such as James Tanner, Thomas MacEntee, Randy Seaver, and the Ancestry Insider, have written about this issue. Many more experts have commented on the blogs of those who have written on this issue. Two figures familiar to Geneablogie readers, lawyers Patricia Lust, of the firm Gried Avarice Mammon & Lust, and Noe Udont, a sole practitioner, have a slightly different take on the future of genealogy: that is the prospects for professional genealogists You may recall that the last time we saw them, they were in court, arguing over the designation of a genealogist as an expert witness in a probate case. They sat down with me recently to discuss the issue “Whither Professional Genealogists?”

Note: The views expressed  by the participants are theirs alone and do not reflect the views of GeneaBlogie or any other person or entity.

GeneaBlogie: Welcome back, ladies. You know, at the outset people are going ask what business either of you have discussing this topic. Can you address that?

Lust: Well, it’s been an eventful year. Right after trial in December 2009, I went on sabbatical from the firm. I had been so energized by working with Jean Runner [the genealogist that Lust convinced the court to accept as an expert witness]. I got very much taken in by the idea of researching family history. And you know me–it’s gotta be all or nothing. So while I was researching, I was also studying. I mean, you know, I was used to working 70 hours a week at Gried Avarice, and I couldn’t slow down. So within about seven months, I felt ready for the BCG. And, ta-da, I’m a Certified Genealogist!

GeneaBlogie: Congratulations! So what are you doing now?

Lust: After my sabbatical, I went part-time with the firm and I do genealogy with the rest of my time. I opened my business called Lust for the Past as soon as I was certified.

GeneaBlogie: I recall that you had been a high school history teacher before you went to law school.

Lust: That’s right. And I earned an MLS degree, originally intending to be a law librarian, not a litigator, as it turned out.

Geneablogie: Any surprises in your own family history?

Lust: Not so far. I had a pretty good idea of my Irish, African-American, and Native American roots as I grew up . [laughs] I know, I know . . . I was the only red-haired, green-eyed black Indian in Milwaukee! By the way, I am an enrolled member of a Wisconsin tribe.

Geneablogie: So what about you, Noe? I’ve always been fascinated by your name.

Udont: Yes . . . well that was a little joke that my dad from Burma, who went by the single name of Dont, played on my Swedish mother. “U” is a form of honorific in Burma, somewhat equivalent to “Rra” in Botswana or “Mr.” in the West. So when my mom wanted to name me “Noe,” a good but unusual Scandinavian name, Dad started using “U” before his name. And my birth certificate says “Noe Udont.” When I was a teenager, Dad said my name was a prompt to good behavior!

GeneaBlogie: That’s quite a story. But tell us why you have any cred discussing professional genealogists?

Udont: Well, way before that probate trial with Pat, I was into genealogy. But there’s only so much I could do on my own from America given my background: first-generation Burmese-American. My mother did have several distant cousins in the States. I signed up for every Internet I came across and spent thousands of dollars on my search. I actually turned up a couple of Burmese relatives in the States. But I was frustrated, so I went out and hired a professional genealogist to help.

GeneaBlogie: So you have a perspective on this . . . .

Udont: Yes. Let me say first that the professional genealogist that I used was very good. I met her at a meeting of our local society. Again, because of the distance, and cultural and political issues in Burma, what she could do was limited. But what she did do was fabulous. Turns out I have some Chinese ancestors who came to America in the 19th century.

GeneaBlogie: So what’s your perspective on the future of professional genealogy?

Udont: Well, you have to start in the not-to-distant cultural past! Fifty years ago, I would venture to say that the majority–a super-majority of people who were engaged in genealogy were rich people, or social elites or religiously-motivated folks. Many did it themselves, despite the rigors of research in the pre-digital era. I would posit that only the very rich actually hired professional genealogists back then.

Lust: I’d agree with Noe from the historical perspective. Unlike her, I’m over fifty years old [laughs] and nobody I knew growing up in Milwaukee had a formal interest in their family history. Oh, they knew it alright–far better than kids today know their family history. But they knew it because they’d been taught it by their elders. The idea of hiring a professional genealogist would have been as ludicrous in my middle-class neighborhood as hiring a chauffeur!

Udont: All of which goes to my point–the market for professional genealogists historically was pretty limited.

GeneaBlogie: But what about today? “Roots” was supposedly a great turning point–and that was almost thirty-five years ago.

Lust: Well, I think the market for professional genealogists remains limited. There are a couple government jobs, a few museum and society jobs, a handful of corporate jobs and that’s about it. Everybody else is trying to take private clients and basically end up making most of their income such as it is, from teaching, writing, and speaking.

Udont: If that’s so, why are so many people trying to become professional genealogists?

Lust: Because it’s fun and challenging and some think it’s easy money. Every other stay-at-home mom and her sister want to be genealogists. Just like every waiter in New York City thinks he’s going to Broadway and every used car salesman in the San Fernando Valley has a movie script to sell.

Udont: Well, that’s a bit nasty!

Lust: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to trash SAHMs. Some of the best researchers I know are stay-at-home moms. Anyway, we’ve strayed from the point. I just think the majority of professional genealogists are not making a lot of money from private clients. And for those who are, their margins are awfully slim.

GeneaBlogie: Is that likely to change once we far clear of the economic doldrums?

Lust: I don’t think so. I think that when people have more money to spend, they’re not going to rush out and spend it on genealogists. On genealogy itself, perhaps, but not on genealogists as such.

Udont: What do you mean?

Lust: I believe there is a market for genealogical information, but that’s because people want to do it themselves. And they want to do it themselves for a whole lot of reasons.

GeneaBlogie: What are some of those reasons?

Lust: Some are almost metaphysical or spiritual–a desire to get in touch with the ancestors on a very personal level. With others, they want to hear the stories first hand and find the artifacts themselves. They’re not interested in publishing a hard-cover bound book, The History of the Lusts in America. We’re far more informal than that today. And people still think that professional researchers are too expensive.

Udont: Well, I’ve told my story. I think professional genealogists are great when you have a pretty complex problem.

Lust: That’s true, But these days with information relatively more available to everyone, nobody’s looking to have a complete 10 or 12 or more generation genealogy handed to them on a silver platter by a pro.

GeneaBlogie: So what is that professional genealogists are doing these days?

Lust: As I said, they’re mainly teaching writing and making in presentations to the wannabes and the serious family historian; and they go to conferences where they see the same faces over and over again. They’re preaching to the converted.

Udont: That sounds pessimistic.

Lust: It is. I think the bell has tolled for the professional genealogist who expects to make money from private clients, with the exception of a handful of top names the field for a handful of wealthy or wealthy-wannabes.

GeneaBlogie: I want to approach this next question with all due respect. Pat, to what extent is your viewpoint informed by your own business, Lust for the Past?

Lust: I came into the business with my eyes wide-open. I do what I do because it’s my passion and frankly I could survive without the income. Notice how many professional genealogists have more than one household income?

GeneaBlogie: Is that true?

Udont: Well, I certainly don’t know. In fact, this whole discussion has been a bit light on empirical data.

Lust: Here’s some data: in the metro area where I live, there are about 2.5 million people. There are only four listed members of APG and one of those takes no clients. Worldwide, APG has got only about 2,000 members.

Udont: That’ s just one data set. It doesn’t necessarily prove anything about the profession in general.

Lust: I knew you would say that!  So I looked up some more data; this stuff is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  They publish a quarterly occupational outlook which forecasts employment trends for particular occupations.  And BLS has just recently published its 2010-2011 Occupational Outlook Handbook, which assesses employment opportunities over the 2008-2018 decade.

Udont: So what do they say about genealogists?

Lust: Well, I took notice first of all  that they lump genealogists with historians, who are further tossed in the category of “Social Scientists, Other.” That category covers archaeologists, anthropologists,  and geographers, in addition to historians.  The government projects that anthropologists and archaeologists will see a 28% growth in employment by 2018 and that geographers will experience a 26% growth. But for historians, the projected job growth is only 11%, which is about average for all  occupations.  The BLS says this slow rate of growth “reflect[s] the relatively few jobs outside of [government].” Keep in mind that the figure is for all “historians” including genealogists.

Udont: So how would you summarize your point?  Are you saying that there’s no future in genealogy? With the growth of interest in the field, I think there will be more jobs outside of government as companies continue to enter the market and genea-tourism begins to take off as the Baby Boomer generation retires. That shows the flaw in the government data.

Lust: I’m making a very narrow point: that the market for genealogists taking on private clients will grow very slowly, if not decline.  There will, if not already, an oversupply of genealogists.

GeneaBlogie: Ladies, why don’t we leave it there for now and see what our readers have to say?

So what do you say? What’s your perspective?


11 Responses to “A GeneaBlogie Dialogue: The Future of Professional Genealogy”

  • Sheri Fenley says:

    Michael is so very correct. Ancestors from Maryland may have come west to California, but not the other way around. There is much more demand for records and research for anywhere east of the Mississippi than here in the west.

    But I knew this when I decided to go pro. Living out here in California is a geographical handicap. I am thinking that if I really want to be successful, I need to find a niche, a specialty and focus marketing those skills.

    But then again, I could be completely wrong.

  • Michael Hait says:

    I think that the two questions you pose are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

    I specialize in Maryland research, a state that has been settled since ca. 1634. Many of the families that ended up out in the western states originated in Maryland. So there is obviously much more demand for researchers in Maryland, than, say, Arizona, or even California–states with far shorter histories.

    So in this sense, I may have a leg up on researchers further west.

    However, there is also the matter of marketing. When a potential client decides to hire a professional genealogist, will they find you? This involves making yourself visible to potential clients in multiple ways. Are you present and able to be located where they are looking? This is the key to all business success, and genealogical research is no different. I have established, and continue to establish, a strong Internet presence, as well as a strong presence in the repositories where I conduct much of my research. Not only do I get many clients through my own website, I also have links on the website of the Maryland State Archives, the APG website, and many other places throughout the Internet.

    Hope this sheds a little more light on the subject.

  • Craig says:

    Michael, thank you for your superbly informed perspective. Do you have a sense that your experience is exceptional, or is it possible to be relatively successful? And the question I posed to Stephanie, below . . . is there a difference between regions of the country in terms of the demand for professional genealogical services by private clients?

  • Craig says:

    Thanks, Stephanie. But see Michael Hait’s comment above. I wonder if region of the country is a variable among others.

  • Stephanie says:

    I’d say that the market for private genealogy clients is definitely limited. I get inquiries from time to time asking how much I would charge for this or that, then when I provide an answer, it’s usually, “Oh, thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.” And my prices are pretty low! I do get a private client once in a while, but thankfully, private clients aren’t the only road to making money with genealogy research. As the ladies said, there IS writing and speaking (both of which I do), teaching, and a variety of other ways to make money with your genealogical skills.

  • Michael Hait says:

    I have been a full-time professional genealogist since last August. Prior to that, I worked part-time as a genealogist, and had a regular full-time job. My wife and 5-year old daughter do not work, and are solely my responsibility.

    I do write books, as well as magazine and journal articles, lecture, and create and teach online courses. But the majority of my income stems from client research projects. I currently have a waiting list for research projects that will keep me busy for at least a month.

    Since I started taking client research projects in 2006, I have worked on a wide variety of projects. I have helped identify next of kin for POW/MIAs and for probate attorneys. I have helped those compiling applications for the DAR, the SAR, and the Colonial Dames XVII Century. I have helped a few people trying to acquire dual citizenship in Ireland and Italy. And many, many clients who simply needed the eye of a professional genealogist because they could not get past the brickwalls on their own. Sometimes because they simply did not have access to the records, sometimes because they needed someone with more experience and knowledge.

    Since 2006, roughly 50% of a few hundred clients have come back to me for more than one separate project or referred me to friends or associates. I believe that this is the key to a successful career in research. I have several clients who send new deposits for further research as soon as I have completed one research project. I have had other clients who came back to me over a year (and in at least three cases, over 3 years) after their initial project had concluded. I have had clients who request research on separate lines at various times.

    The only way to ensure that you will have repeat clients is to adhere to genealogy standards and create for yourself a strong reputation for reliable and accurate research.

  • Craig says:

    Thanks for that informed perspective, Sheri! You areThe Educated Genealogist!

  • Sheri Fenley says:


    About 50% of the clients that come to me have a specific goal or objective. Most of the time it is for research locally. California is woefully lacking in records that are available online, particularly San Joaquin County.

    About 10% is for simple record pulls.

    30% are lineage society applications and the research to prove the lineage.

    The last 10% are those who have come to a standstill and want me to fill in all the blanks and extend the lines a couple more generations. They tell me that the thrill of the hunt is over, it is more work than they really want to do – but they want to finish the project.

    Business is far from booming here in my neck of the woods, but it is steady.

  • Craig says:

    I think a lot of “other than working pro genealogists” feel the same way! But would you take money to do someone else’s genealogy?

  • Apple says:

    I can’t imagine hiring someone to do my genealogy for me. Perhaps pay someone to obtain a record for me but anyone could do that, say a genea-buddy or a student. With a couple of family history shows now on TV there may be some new interest in hiring a pro but for most people I think the thrill is making new discoveries on their own. Seems to me that even the speakers/educators field is getting crowded. For all my friends that are working toward certification I hope I’m wrong and that they have so many clients they have to turn some away.

  • james Tanner says:

    Nice analysis. I certainly agree. Attorneys have a hard enough time getting paid. Trying to make a living from genealogy has got to be much harder than it sounds. Looking at the demographics of the readers of my blog, I don’t see a lot to entice me to try to make money doing research for clients.

March 2011
« Feb   Apr »