Perhaps one of the hardest concepts I have had to explain to amateur researchers is the difference between private and professional research.  With many records now being available online and indexed for us, some clients do not fully appreciate how long trawling through non indexed records can actually take.   Added to that, professional researchers have a set timescale and a duty to try to prove relationships rather than rely on assumptions and best guesses.   For these reasons this blog will look at three areas that I have commonly found that clients may not fully appreciate – research time, report writing and the records available.

Research Time online ‘v’ offline

Online researchWith the advent of genealogical research in the digital age it is understandable that some clients may not fully appreciate how long offline research can take. Unlike online research using search engines and databases, offline research takes place in archive offices and libraries and will necessitate taking time to travel there.  The furthest office I access takes 45 minutes to drive to, and this time and motoring costs needs to be factored into the charges made to the client in some way.  There is no one accepted way and all professionals will cover this cost in different ways either by separate travel charges or within the overall research cost.

Apart from the time spent traveling, most archive offices have set times when they collect requested records.  In my experience this can take between 10 to 30 minutes.  Therefore is it inevitable, regardless of how much planning to done prior to the visit, that some time may be ‘wasted’ sitting around waiting for the necessary record to arrive from the storage shelves.

Most of the research time, however, is spent reading the actual record.  These can be quite fragile books or documents that need to be handled with care. They are usually handwritten, and rarely contain and index.  It is amazing how time flies by when you are reading through such records.  Quite often we have been asked to find all the references to one named person – who may or may not even appear in that record.  To save time we have to quickly scan every page in search of that name, and then accurately record every instance so it can be given to the client.  Imagine that you are reading a thick paperback book from your local bookshop – how long would it take for you to read it?  Now imagine having to search for just one name and write down word for word exactly what is said about that person. Most historical books in archives offices are several times larger than a standard paperback book, and being handwritten, and sometimes faded with age, they are harder to read quickly.

It is always disappointing when a researcher has found very little (if any) information in the several hours the client has paid for, but even if the record exists it takes time and patience to search for it.  It is the research time, and the researcher’s skills and expertise, clients are paying for, not the amount of information they find.

Report Writing:professional research

All professional researchers write some kind of report for clients and often the report writing can take longer than the actual research.  Some let the client know how much time (and money) the report writing is likely to take, others just include it in the price, and a few do not charge for this, but then they can spend hours working without being paid.

Not all clients appreciate the need for a report and may ask for just the research.  One of my clients insisted that I simply type the results into an email.  Reluctantly I tried this approach and found that even simply listing the results took 20 minutes.  Once the client had read the email, I was then inundated with questions and my replies look the best part of 2 days to answer – time for which I had not been paid for.  Had I written my usual report all of these questions would have been answered.  Fortunately for the client I do not (currently) charge for writing email replies.

Reports are not just a list of what has/has not been found, but they should contain an analysis of the research and answer the ‘how, when and why’ questions they were intended to answer.

Report writing is a necessary part of professional research and just as time consuming, so it needs to be paid for.

Record Availability:

Sometimes it is difficult for clients to understand why certain records about their ancestors cannot be found, or why their ancestry search has come to an end.  I frequently come across potential clients who will not accept that their family history cannot be traced further back than the mid/late 18th century.

Today our lives are dominated by paperwork, but written records were not as common pre Victorian times, and what records they did have may have been destroyed once they were no longer required.  We are lucky to have the 1851 & 1861 UK census returns as in 1891 permission was requested to destroy the enumeration books for those years, as they were taking up too much space in the Houses of Parliament.  Fortunately the Registrar General at the time recognised the potential historical value and so permission was refused.

Generally if your ancestor was working class, honest and did not need financial support, there may be little information about them. Sometimes not even a baptism or marriage record can be found.  Pre 1840’s the main records used in family history research were the church registers listing baptism, marriages and burials, but these were originally very basic and did not give family details. It is therefore impossible to be sure who the direct ancestor was, especially as the extended family used the same Christian names.  The trail will also run cold if the family moved into or out of an area as there is often nothing to indicate the other location.

In an age of illiteracy and when writing paper was expensive finding your ancestors amongst the ordinary man could be impossible.


As with all professional relationships the client needs to be able to trust that the professional is doing their job and not just asking for money for things when it is not necessary.  Hopefully this blog will help to show the difference between private and professional research and the issues professional researchers have to face.