Image for a Professional Genealogist (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

The Professional Image

If a picture is worth a thousand words, we can also say that image makes a first and lasting impression. Image is not merely your appearance. It also involves your speech, your manners, your ethics, your physical bearing and your attitude in general. To go to work as a researcher-for-hire means understanding what others expect from you as a professional. Those others are your clients, colleagues, family, friends, professionals in other fields and the public at large.

“Once we deem ourselves qualified to undertake work for others, we are judged as professionals. Whether we earn a significant part of our living through this enterprise is irrelevant.” (Donn Devine in “Defining Professionalism” in Professional Genealogy.)


Ironically, most professional genealogists work on their own without a company or office environment where dress codes apply. In those cases, pride in your job or workplace is pretty well part of your work routine, consciously manifest in your daily appearance.

Does anyone care how you look or dress when you are working in your home office? Do you care yourself? It’s a different matter when you are out in public representing your business and your profession, or if you have an office away from home.

Self-image begins with self-confidence. You do have pride in your job and confidence in your abilities, right? Then make a reality check. When you leave home, do you automatically slip into professional image mode? Do you take care with your grooming and dressing to show the world that you have pride in your work?

Self-help writers often say that looking good makes you feel good, and the reverse can prompt you to make the effort to look good. Or better. A wise person once said, “When you get up in the morning, groom and dress yourself as if today you may accidentally bump into a former sweetheart.” You want to look good—projecting success, confidence and independence.

Grooming and appropriate dressing are necessities but the details are individual choices. Denims are not a particularly good choice for making a professional impression. If your preferred dress is on the casual side, a good somewhat-tailored jacket with professional or society pins is more appropriate to pull your look together than a jean jacket or a puffy down vest. Shorts and tube tops and track suits are not professional wear. Lately in North America “dressing down” has been a policy fad in many corporate and public offices, maybe once a week or even daily; this does not mean that an independent business person or sole proprietor should follow suit.

Whatever you carry your working materials in is another aspect of your appearance. A briefcase or a rolling pull-case are the usual accompaniments. The latter may be especially necessary if you normally take a laptop with you, plus all the file folders and notebooks related to your cases on any given day. Try not to be a “bag lady” sorting through various cloth or plastic bags to find the loose papers you need.


Your clients will come from a variety of backgrounds, but besides expecting you to “know your business” they want to see and hear a business-like person. Some genealogists rarely meet their far-flung clients face to face. Others may customarily meet personally with clients. When meeting with a client in person—whether s/he is a major CEO or an elderly person in a nursing home; a busy lawyer or a stay-at-home young mother—will you immediately capture their confidence?

Public at Large

Generally, it is this sector from which your clients will come. This is the sector which knows little about the nuts and bolts of genealogy and ancestor-tracing. This is the sector where you will have opportunities to present yourself as someone who can provide this service for them. Just as with the scenario of meeting an old flame, you should always be prepared for unexpected opportunities. Always be aware of your career when you are in public or social situations. What expectations does the general public have about a professional genealogist? Or perhaps we should ask, what expectations do they have of any professional career person they meet or want to consult?

Resource Centers

This is where you accomplish most of the work you do. Professionals in other careers are staff employees in these very places where you use their resources and do your research. No doubt you will need to call on their expertise from time to time. Are you projecting your own look and aura of professionalism? You are ahead of the game if you generate respect on first impressions. Ask yourself how you make judgments when meeting other researchers or professionals.

A large resource center may have a genealogy reference desk or designated resource person. Since they have probably been primarily trained in other fields, you certainly do not want to impress them as didactic or critical if you know more about genealogical methodology than they do! However, most centers will not have staff trained in genealogy and you must respect their specialized knowledge and any limitations it may entail with regard to your own goals. In fact, most repositories were set up for retention and conservation of important public records and not for usage by genealogists—even though we may be the largest percentage of their users.

You could even find that looking and acting professional in an archives or library will actually attract others to ask you research questions, or for assistance. Look on this as a goodwill opportunity to offer your knowledge of a repository or its resources in a courteous but limited way. Researchers who don’t have your experience are grateful for a little guidance or advice. However, it’s wise not to allow on-the-spot offerings to get out of hand and sidetrack you from your own time and goals.

Colleagues and Peers

Whenever you associate with other genealogists, do you transmit personal confidence? Do you take time to treat newcomers and veterans alike with respect, no matter where their experience level lies? You never know when you might find yourself working with one of them on a shared project. Do you participate in discussions or forums with them for mutual self-growth? Creating and maintaining beneficial relationships among your colleagues is part of the sound foundation for your reputation.

Family and Friends

This may be the hardest area in which to earn credibility. A prophet is not without honour save in his own country! Are you a grad student making a business for yourself? A senior retiree supplementing your income? A housewife developing a career? What does “professional genealogist” mean to your nearest and dearest? They are probably used to your dabbling in family history and it will take time for them to regard seriously your transition to being a business person. There is little point in being defensive about it. In this case, actions speak louder than words!

Ultimately, a business-like attitude always goes hand-in-hand with your appearance. To some minds, unprofessional appearance and casual attitude signal unprofessional, casual work habits. It is critical that you project exactly who you are and who you want to be—the kind of person you would want to do your research. You are your own best marketing tool.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.