October 21, 2013

Working With A Genealogist

Aliza Giammatteo

As many of you know, my daughter, Aliza, is a professional genealogist. She writes for several Italian-American newspapers and has posted articles here in the past. People’s interest in their family history has grown tremendously in the past several years, and with that in mind, I thought you might be interested in learning a little more about the topic. I’ll let Aliza take it from here.


Genealogy is consistently listed as one of the most popular hobbies in the U.S., but now it’s grown to a level that most of us in the field never could’ve imagined even just a few years ago.

The sudden increase in demand for professional genealogy services is astounding. But because the industry only recently went mainstream, most people have never worked with a professional genealogist and don’t know how to go about finding the right one, or what to expect when they do.

If you’re one of the curious ones, this article is for you.

Generalist or Specialist?

There are generalists, but most genealogists specialize. Some focus on a specific geographic region or time period and others have niche specialties like adoptions or inheritance cases. My firm, Roots in the Boot, works exclusively with Italian genealogy. If a client has Polish, German, Irish, Jewish, or other roots they want to explore, we recommend an expert in that area of research.

Working with a specialist is key, particularly for advanced level research. No one can have in-depth knowledge of the languages, history, geography, laws, etc. of every country for every time period.

Genealogy is a multidisciplinary field that requires knowledge of things that might not even exist in our world today: diseases that have been eradicated, languages that are extinct, past wars and natural disasters, occupations that are obsolete (know any bloodletters?)

My firm’s frontline experts have a minimum of fifteen years of experience in Italian genealogy—and we still learn something new every day—so trust me when I say that getting a specialist is the way to go for anything beyond the basics.

Latin archives
Church records written in a mix of three languages: Latin (in an abbreviated, shorthand-like form that’s common in Italian church records), Italian, and Friulian, a language of N. Italy. The complex script illustrates why the author recommends using a specialist. Image courtesy of the Diocese Archive of Pordenone, Italy.

The APG (Association of Professional Genealogists) has a directory of genealogists, listed according to specialty, on their website: www.apgen.org.

What Does It Cost?

The only way to answer that question is with another question: what do you want to do?

We’ve done small searches where we just got 5 records and others where we got nearly 500 years of family history. Obviously, there’s a big difference in the amount of work required for those two projects.

The first thing we need to know is what size project you have in mind. In cases where a client has a big project in mind but a not-so-big budget, I help them identify their most important goals and design a project to fit their goals and budget range. (Other providers may not offer a custom-design service, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.) Most professional firms that I know (mine included) bill hourly instead of billing per project or per record. This works best for both parties because what might take four hours in one search might take two in another.

Just be aware that it’s not uncommon for genealogy pros to require a minimum. A certain amount of preliminary work often needs to be done to establish a solid foundation before beginning a new search. A researcher may ask for a minimum amount of hours so they have time to do their job effectively.

And while we’re on the subject of costs, remember that a specialist’s hourly rate might be higher than a generalist’s, but you’ll probably get better results and in less time, which means your total cost will often be less.

Book early, per favore!

The recent craze in family history has created a demand for genealogy services that outweighs the supply. Many of us in high-demand specialties (Italian genealogy is one of them) are booked weeks, or even months, in advance.

If you’re planning a trip to Italy, a family reunion, or other event that requires the research be done in advance, book early (ideally, at least a couple of months in advance).

Don’t worry about unknowns

Not sure when Nonna was born? Can’t remember the city in Sicily your family came from? Don’t worry. That’s what we do.

Don’t feel like you have to call up all the cousins and dig through shoeboxes in closets for information. Just basic information—a few names and dates—is enough to start. If everybody waited until they gathered everything the family knew first, few genealogy searches would ever get off the ground.

Bottom Line

I hope this is helpful to readers who were curious and didn’t know where to find answers to their questions. If you seek the help of a pro, don’t be shy about asking questions. We know this isn’t a service that most people sought ten or twenty years ago (or even a few years ago), so I think I speak for most genealogists in saying that we expect questions and we’re happy to answer them.

Disclaimer: The tips above are meant as a general introduction to working with a professional genealogist, based on the author’s experience in her own firm and with colleagues from other firms, but some advice may be more relevant to her own area of expertise than others. Best practices, policies, and pricing can vary according to the specialty and provider.

Aliza Giammatteo is the owner and lead researcher at Roots in the Boot, an Italian genealogy firm headquartered in Las Vegas, NV. She’s also a syndicated columnist and feature writer for Italian American publications throughout the U.S. To learn more about your roots in the Italian “boot”, visit: www.rootsintheboot.com, or contact us at: (646) 255-9565 or: info@rootsintheboot.com


2 Responses to “Working With A Genealogist”

  1. How wild. I was just talking about my father-in-law and life in the early 1900s.

    I’ll go add a link to my blog for Aliza

  2. Hi, Maria: She writes a lot of good articles on genealogy. Some are tips; some are stories discovered while researching. Her site is geared toward Italian genealogy, but many of the articles pertain to any family history.

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