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Careers in Genealogy – “Off the Chart” Thinking

careers in genealogy

[Editor’s Note: this is the second in a week-long series of posts at GeneaBloggers entitled Genea-Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money).]

I Can Haz Genea-Cheeseburger?

Now that we’ve discussed whether or not you can or should make money from a genealogy blog and the impact that professional genealogy has had on the genealogy blogging community, let’s discuss whether or not you can actually make a living in the genealogy industry.

The fact that there is an industry should tell you “yes,” but not many folks realize the wide variety of “careers” available in the genealogy business.

Traditional and Non-Traditional Genealogy Careers

As a young child, the common question from older family members was: “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Little did I know that at close to age 50 I’d be asking myself that same question. A layoff and a recession of epic proportions will do that to a person.

A career in genealogy can mean different things to different people. Some look to the more traditional researcher and writer position. Others have gone out to the far fringes of the genealogy frontier to create their own unique careers.  Here’s a look:

  • Researcher: This is probably the most traditional of genealogy careers – someone who performs research for a variety of clients, both personal and institutional.
  • Author: Someone who writes about various aspects of genealogy and family history, from magazine articles to books.
  • Educator: With almost any industry or field, people who are new will want to learn how to perform certain tasks. Thus the need for educators to teach us how to do everything from basic research, to citing sources, to using technology for genealogy purposes.
  • Curator: I don’t mean curator in the traditional museum and art sense. To me, a curator is someone like Dick Eastman of Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter who scours a variety of sources and picks the articles and items that are important to the genealogy industry. Dick provides a valuable service which has value and a service for which readers are willing to pay. There is plenty of room for these types of “curators” in various areas of genealogy.
  • Archivist: Many repositories have staff with a genealogy background who work to preserve artifacts, documents and the like so that researchers can better understand them and have access to them.
  • Librarian: There are quite a few genealogists with their library science degrees and backgrounds who work for genealogical libraries as well as other types of libraries.
  • Analyst: With any growing industry (the genealogy industry in my opinion is growing), there is a need for people to analyze various data points including demographics, buying habits, etc. Those who can consolidate and analyze this data can serve non-genealogy companies and individuals who need to learn more about the genealogy industry.
  • Marketer: Another growth area in the genealogy industry especially when it comes to social media. There are many genealogy companies and even professional genealogists who either want to have their social media presence set up for them to run. And there are some who actually want to hire a social media “agent” to administer their online presence for them. It helps to have an understanding of the genealogy and family history industry to do this effectively.
  • Retailer: Just look at any genealogy conference or expo and you’ll see booksellers, craftspeople selling their handmade goods related to family history, and more. Genealogists and family historians want to buy products related to their field and their passion.
  • Technologist: Someone who can take various forms of technology and set it up for those in the genealogy field. This could be something as simple as a blog or a website or as complicated as programming and administering large databases for researchers to use.

Is the One Career/One Focus Model Valid?

In the 21st century we are seeing a move towards many people having to “hobble together” a career based on various interests and components. The days when you walked into an office and someone hired you for a job with a specific title are gone. More and more we see not only people working from home offices or even coffee shops, but the ombudsman concept seems to work for many: someone who handles many disparate work tasks but tethered to a common concept, mission, passion or ideal.

For me, I realized when I got laid off during the Great Recession that I was going to have to have a Franken-career if I were to survive. This means being part researcher, part education, part writer etc. I could not survive on writing alone because at this point I don’t think the genealogy and family history industry can support many authors.  I can earn a few thousand dollars a year from writing articles and books but that alone won’t pay the bills.

So then, what does one call oneself when your career is made up of parts? Whatever you want to. If education is your strength, then you are an educator who just happens to also write and speak about your focus area.  The key for me has been to name myself and not let other people do the naming for me.  This is my career, my image, my reputation and I take time to make sure it is in my true image as I see myself.


Did I miss anything in terms of possible careers? Is there something you are pursuing right now or have plans to pursue that isn’t on the list above? Let me know your thoughts!

©2011, copyright Thomas MacEntee

20 thoughts on “Careers in Genealogy – “Off the Chart” Thinking

  1. I am working on my dissertation for my Archives Administration degree. One of the main reasons I went to school for that degree is because of my love of history and genealogy.

    I’ve not gotten a job offer yet (been looking since last June), so I’ve got my shingle out for doing research for clients. That hasn’t gone very well since Expert Connect closed, but I’m still trying to network to try and get some business.

    If I could pick a subset of being an archivist, I would want to primarily do reference because I love working anyone’s family history! I think because I understand both the researcher’s needs as well as that of the archives I will hopefully make an impact.

    …once I get hired by someone, that is!

  2. You mentioned author, but it seemed to relate to writing articles about genealogy and family history. My interest in my family history led me to writing books about my family’s stories. Books that tell the stories of a region, but the stories are pulled together because they are told from the perspective of my family members who experienced the events.

  3. Another good presentation, Thomas. Thanks for all you do. As you know, I’m a retired business school professor. I often told my students, on careers: 1) do what you know well, 2) do what you enjoy doing, and 3) do what you can do to make a living. Most folks only get to achieve one or two of these goals. If you can achieve all three – you have it made. Enjoy! 😉

  4. This is a wonderful overview of some of the many careers related to genealogy. Warning: before reading the below, please understand that I am not advertising any of my services or products, but merely using my own experiences to illustrate what Thomas is describing.

    As a full-time professional genealogist since last August (and a part-time professional genealogist since 2005), I make the majority of my income conducting research for clients. This ranges from those who simply need records that they do not have access to (record pick-ups) to those needing an expert eye to break down long-standing brick walls. I consider myself to be very successful at research, and have worked with several hundred clients, who often return for more research and refer others to me.
    I also write prolifically. I am the author of the “National African-American Genealogy” and the “Baltimore Genealogy and History” Examiner columns. I write for several genealogy magazines on a regular basis. Since February 2010, I have compiled and published seven books.
    I also lecture on a regular basis, at local and regional conferences, and local genealogical societies.
    My newest venture is in holding and conducting genealogy webinars. In my opinion, given the high price of gas, this is the future of genealogy education. It allows people to attend a “virtual” genealogy lecture from the comfort of their own homes.
    I am also an instructor for the National Institute of Genealogical Studies. The “African American Ancestors” course has been available since Feb 2010, and I am currently in the process of creating another course.
    One of the first lessons that I learned when I began to consider genealogy as a career was the importance of diversification. The client research (and the time to actually complete it) will not always be there. So there have to be other sources of income, some of them “passive income” (such as book royalties, etc.)

  5. May I suggest CONTRACTOR or FREELANCER?

    I wonder if genealogists for hire have considered advertising on Odesk or elance?

    A quick search of brings up 175 individuals who have listed “genealogy” as one of their areas of expertise. There are 84 “family history” experts.

    I see creative listings such as “project manager” in conjunction with genealogy or family history.

    Project manager is a good description of what genealogists can do.

    Successful freelancers put themselves in their target audiences shoes. How would their potential client be looking for a service? Perhaps the potential client doesn’t know the word genealogy (or they spell it geneology) or perhaps they use the term family history. Market research is very important when selling services and products..

  6. “As a young child, the common question from older family members was: “What do you want to do when you grow up?”’

    Imagine the response from those older relatives if our answers were:

    “I’m going to delve into all your personal business, find out all your secrets, expose all the family skeletons, then post my findings for the whole world to see 24 hours a day.”

    I think my ancestors would have smacked me into the next state! And they thought I was the quiet, less troublesome one when I chose to become a librarian. lol

    Reading your list, I realized my background was the perfect segue into genealogy. As a librarian and adult instructor, plus my research and writing skills, plus my marketing job I had that put me through college, and my 35+ years of genealogy, I’m well qualified for majority of the job choices you’ve listed. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Currently, though, I prefer to research, write and teach in this field.

    This is a fine article, and enlightening, showing there are many positions available in the field of genealogy. The downside at this time is that most positions are governmental rather than in the private sector, since most libraries, archives, and such are government entities. In unhealthy economic times, these places are one of the first groups to get the axe.

    Thanks for the headsup.

  7. Love this.

    One of the interesting things I see is that some of these categories are expanding before our eyes. For example, the places where a genealogy writer would find work have grown dramatically; a writer can now self-publish (and sometimes earn more than she would selling her articles). Webinars are dramatically changing the education market. Five years from now, this list might look entirely different.

    I actually like the franken-career aspect of genealogy. I don’t want to do just one thing. I like variety.

    I’ve considered the social media person-for-hire recently…I’m not sure whether it’s a fit for me, but I’m more open to the idea than I was in the past.

  8. Thank you for writing this! I am in the beginning stages of wanting to pursue a profession with the “heart” of genealogy and I knew there were different avenues of it, but I was unsure what some of those might be. This has helped determine what some of them are and that I will need to keep my options broad. It is really nice to have someone kind of lay it out for those of us in the beginning stages of wanting to break into the profession. A mentor program for newbie professionals to receive guidance from more experienced professionals would be great… maybe you would set that up. You aren’t doing anything else, right? 😉

  9. Good breakdown of the segments of genealogical business. One that might have been left out, or that I missed, is the record abstractor, compiler. The person that takes original records and puts them out as books. I’m not sure where they fit.

    My business, like most, is primarily research. I use educator, author, curator to provide clients for my research work. I love the research part, but if I could make as much money just curating and writing I would do more of that.

  10. To Monica Palmer,

    I’m not sure if you will read this follow-up comment, but I just wanted to let you know that there is a place already established where newer professionals can learn from more experienced professionals: the Association of Professional Genealogists. There is a Members-Only email mailing list where many great discussions occur. I would also recommend joining a local chapter of the APG if one is organized near you, and get to know the other members.

    Also, be aware of those who appear to be extremely knowledgeable in your area, at society meetings, researching at the Archives or local FHC, etc. One of my mentors, in terms of teaching me quite a bit about the records in my area or research, was a long-time genealogist, the author of many books, and worked part-time at the state archives. But you have to be brave enough to approach them, and ask questions.

    Finally, the ProGen Study Groups are organized to provide both business help and research help to their members. It is an 18-month program, but you will learn a lot. Both myself and Thomas are recent graduates of the program. To join the waiting list, visit

  11. Thomas –

    This list is great. And I think this career choice is perfect for you since you are so good at managing so many different things at once and juggling them and still making it look easy.

    My main goal has never been to be a professional genealogist. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. So I’m in school now studying like crazy to become a teacher. And honestly, I can’t picture myself anywhere else but a classroom.

    And for 9-10 months out of the year, I’d like to be standing in front of a group of five year olds reading stories, singing songs, and counting on my fingers.

    But I’ll have the summer months off and I’d love to spend that time teaching genealogy – whether that be in lectures, webinars, or magazine articles.

    I honestly have little interest in doing someone else’s family research (unless I find a particular story fascinating or I really connect with someone’s ancestor, etc). My life purpose has always been to teach. So if and when I decide to pursue something in genealogy, it will always be part-time and it will always be in a teacher role. (If I can pay for a flight to SLC, I’ll be perfectly happy).

    But that isn’t to say that I don’t think there is something to be made in the genealogy industry. For those of you who are becoming professionals in this industry, more power to you and I will always be on the sidelines cheering you on.

  12. To Michael Haite,

    Thank you so much for that information! I will definitely look into both the APG and ProgenStudy. I appreciate you taking the time to give some advice.

  13. I like the term “information services” or, for a title, “information specialist” followed by a phrase like “in the areas of….” So many of the components you listed are about information organization, analysis and management. It may be a bit long-winded but its a conversation starter.

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