Tips for Hiring a Professional Researcher in Poland

If you’re like me, you prefer to do your own research, rather than hiring it out to a professional.  Those moments when you find the long-sought record that finally gives you your great-great-great-grandmother’s maiden name are priceless, right?  And if the records can be found on microfilm, online, or even by writing to one of the archives in Poland, that’s great.  But sometimes it happens that the pastor of your ancestral parish has parish registers from the past 300 years sitting in his office, or the records are at diocesan archive which doesn’t respond to queries, and requires you to find a professional to search in person.

We’ve all heard the horror stories of people who have paid money up front — sometimes quite a bit — and maybe gotten a record or two before their “professional” falls off the face of the earth and stops responding to e-mails and phone calls.   You don’t want to be in that situation, because often there is no recourse — most people in this case just lose whatever money they’ve put up.  But hiring a pro doesn’t have to be a terrifying experience if you work with someone who’s experienced, honest, and fair.  So how do you find the right professional?

1. Get recommendations before you hire.

As an admin for the Polish Genealogy group, I often get messages from group members asking for recommendations for researchers, and I’m happy to share my experiences with you.  There are also plenty of other group members who have used professional researchers, so ask around, send a message to one of the group admins, or request references from any researchers you’re considering.

2.  Determine the scope and budget for the project.

Personally, I’m happy if my researcher finds the records of interest, uploads the images to a site like DropBox so I can access them, gives me a report on exactly what books and ranges of years were researched, and I’ll take it from there.  But others are looking for a completely documented family tree, including a GEDCOM and a more detailed research report, including full translations of all the records.  Obviously, the more work you need your researcher to do, the greater the cost, so bear that in mind as well.

3. Start with clearly defined research goals.

After you’ve decided what kind of final product you’re looking for, establish clear research goals to begin with. For example, “I would like to find my great-grandmother’s birth record in X parish, circa 1876, her parents’ marriage record, and any other records for her surname in this parish.” Prepare a concise summary for the researcher of what you already know about your family in Poland and your immigrant ancestor (name, approximate date of birth, names of parents and siblings who stayed in Poland, etc.) Stick to facts and keep the family stories and speculation to a minimum.

4. Expect to pay per hour of research, rather than per record.

A good researcher may be able to find two dozen records for your surname of interest in one hour’s time, OR maybe only one record. Generally speaking, the earlier you go, the more “spotty” the records become. If the records aren’t indexed, that will also increase the time it takes to find them, because the researcher must skim through every record.

5. Get an estimate before you begin.

Most researchers require some of the money up front, whether in the form of a minimum retainer (e.g. 5 hours’ research time paid in advance), or according to other terms.  Some will allow you to pay after the work is finished.

6.  Understand what’s included, what’s not, and how billing is done.

Travel costs and  donations for the parish or archive are usually billed separately.  Time spent writing the research report and creating the GEDCOM might be billed separately from the research time in the parish or archive as well. A good researcher will break down the invoice for you. Full translations are usually not included, but you could negotiate a price if you’d like them.  Key information extracted from each record, i.e. names, dates, godparents’ and witnesses’ names, etc., is usually included, but I’ve heard of researchers who did not provide this without an additional charge.  Establish in advance what is provided so there are no surprises.

7. Good communication is key.

I personally would not hesitate to work with someone who only speaks Polish if he were highly recommended (there’s always Google Translate!). But if you choose to do that, understand that you might need to work a little harder to be sure both parties clearly understand the expectations.

8. Understand that there are no guarantees.

If a researcher visits a parish in search of your great-grandmother’s baptismal record, but finds nothing because you’ve incorrectly identified the parish, that’s on you.  Or sometimes a researcher may travel to a distant parish to obtain your ancestors’ marriage record and DOES find it, but the record itself indicates that the bride or groom was from another parish, necessitating further research elsewhere. That happens.  A good researcher should at least be able to document his efforts, showing you where he’s looked and how he’s spent his time, even if positive results are scarce.

9. Since travel costs are usually extra, it helps if you can find a researcher who is more or less in the same part of Poland as your ancestral villages.

I’ve heard of researchers who don’t overtly charge extra for travel within the country and travel all over Poland for records, but I suspect that they must be rolling this cost into their research time somehow.

10. Be sure you clearly understand the time frame over which the work will be done.

It might take a few months before the researcher has the opportunity to get to your work, but having to wait a year for results is excessive.  Things can be especially slow if a visit to a parish is required, as some pastors aren’t enthusiastic about having a researcher come in and peruse their parish registers, and may put off granting an appointment.  However, gentle persistence from your researcher will usually (hopefully, fingers crossed) win the day, and your researcher should keep you informed of his phone calls to the parish.

11. Research in Poland may not be as expensive as you think.

Years ago I was reluctant to hire a researcher in Poland because I feared the cost might run into thousands of dollars. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised at how affordable it was. As an example, one researcher searched parish records for me from 1784-1826 (births, marriages and deaths), found 48 records during that time, and the charge was just $150 plus $10 for gas. In another instance, a researcher visited both the parish and the USC, found 56 records for me (between 1826 and 1880), and the cost was $115. Your mileage may vary, and results are not guaranteed, but I have been delighted by how much I have learned about my family from these records.

Hiring a professional researcher doesn’t have to be terrifying or break the bank, but it does take some effort to ensure that you and your researcher are communicating clearly and effectively.  As long as both you and she understand the expectations in terms of research goals, final product, and billing, having a researcher find records for you can be a very satisfying way to further your research into your Polish roots.  It may not be as much fun as a trip to Poland to do the research yourself, but it’s almost certainly much cheaper.

Good luck and happy researching!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2016

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