Apr 20, 2011

Careers in Genealogy

[Part two in a week-long series at GeneaBloggers. My previous post was Genealogy Blogging – For Fun or Profit?.]

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm only working part-time right now. I'm searching for a full-time job, but when it comes to any activity I'll do for 40+ hours per week, I can be rather picky. That's why I've contemplated turning this hobby into a career–it's something I truly enjoy, and I'm pretty good at it (the two are often mutually self-reinforcing). Unfortunately, there are few entry-level opportunities in this industry, outside of a few locations near major archives or genealogical libraries. I wouldn't mind moving someday if the right opportunity arose, but I currently have commitments that preclude relocating. The other possibility is going into business for myself, but I don't have a clue how I would start out on my own, and I'm not sure that I'd even want to, just yet.

Don't get me wrong, the idea of being my own boss, setting my own hours, and getting paid to do research sounds great. But I don't even want to think about the other aspects of running a business: marketing, contracts, invoices, accounting, etc. I like reading about business, out of intellectual curiosity, but actually dealing with the 1001 little details leaves me cold. It's not that I completely lack any business-savvy. I have a few modest entrepreneurial ideas I think would work well. I perceive some niche markets that aren't being adequately served, and have some ideas how to meet those needs. But I'm hesitant to talk about them, lest someone takes an idea and beats me to the punch.

I might be way off-base, but my impression of the average professional genealogist is a self-employed, small business owner. I know of a couple larger genealogy companies, but they seem to be few and far between. Why don't more genealogists team up and create partnerships or small firms? I think the market could sustain several such businesses in a single metropolitan area, especially as the baby boomers retire and become more interested in their family history.

I have good research skills I could put to use immediately. That's a necessary, but certainly not sufficient component to sustain a career in genealogy. The ideal situation would be to work with an established genealogist, who could be a mentor on the other skills I need to improve (and have the desire to do so). On the other hand, there are some skills I'd rather always just leave to someone else. Specialization is key to maximizing productivity. If different people concentrate on what they do best, the total output will be greater and more efficient.

Someday I hope to put my own family history to paper and self-publish it. The aspect of writing I need the most work on is crafting a narrative that doesn't make the reader want to gouge their own eyes out. My fear is if I try to start writing somebody's family history, it will quickly devolve to a "biblical" sounding genealogy: this-guy begat that-guy, what's his face begat so-and-so... I can crank out academic prose if need be, at least in the sense of making an argument and supporting it with evidence. But I still hate writing in the first-person, and it takes me close to forever to finish a single blog post. (This was supposed to be Tuesday's topic... Oh well, I guess it's still Tuesday in Alaska. :)

Unless there's a professional genealogist in the vicinity of Minnesota who needs a research assistant (hint, hint), I'm not likely to turn this into a career anytime soon. It'll have to remain a hobby for the time being, although definitely a serious hobby.


  1. Great post and you hit the nail on the head when it comes to running your own business - while it isn't all beer and skittles for me, it is rewarding after working 25 years for cranky attorneys who never really appreciated my work!

  2. I am one of those self-employed small business owners you mentioned. I would only take on a partner if I had total confidence in his/her research skills and professional ethics. I would need to assure my clients that they'd get the same quality of work regardless of who handled the job. The research I do is in a rather specialised field, and although there is one local person whom I would trust completely, she is too busy enjoying retirement!

    If you can get to a local record office, have you thought about indexing some useful sources and self-publishing the index and/or listing the names on a blog or Web site and offering a copying service? This worked brilliantly for me. My other thoughts on this week's discussion are on Genealogy Leftovers.