Interview with a Professional Genealogist


This week I am so excited to share with you my conversation with professional genealogist, Bob Johnson. Bob is a certified genealogist who specializes in Nordic records. I connected with Bob online a few years ago when I needed some advice on finding my own ancestors of Swedish and Finnish heritage. He was able to offer some guidance based on his expansive knowledge of Scandinavian history and records, and he was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his experience as a professional genealogist. You can learn more about Bob and his services on his website, Nordic Family History. Below is a snapshot of our interview.

What made you want to become a genealogist?

I have been interested in genealogy since childhood when my Grandmother told me stories about her parents who were born in Sweden.  Of course I had no idea at the time the stories were largely fiction, but it got me hooked and I have now been doing research for over 40 years.

What path led you to transform your interest in genealogical research from a hobby to a career?

I was a hobbyist for many years and I transitioned slowly taking occasional clients and doing a lot of professional development training. But eventually the time was right to take the plunge and do genealogy full time. It is like any other self-employment, you have to diligently create the environment for success and hopefully at some point you will have the support structures in place to make a career of it. I would love to have been doing full-time genealogy years ago, but it was not the right time for me. So I built a network of professionals to support me, I continued to develop skills, I did various volunteer genealogical projects, and eventually the time was right.

Where do you recommend people who are new to genealogy start out? What do you consider “Step 1” in family history research?

Assess what you know and what you can find out starting with yourself. Only start working back as you complete the research on the current generation. Never try and jump a generation, way too many people find they have wasted years of research because they are working on someone else’s family. How do you learn to do the research for any given area or record group? Obviously, there are so many great resources out there, books, articles, webinars and so forth, but even before you delve too much into research find a local genealogical society and become an active participant in it.  Genealogists, as a rule, love to help each other out. And if you are starting your research you can learn a lot from others who have gone through this process before. Often they will give freely of their time to help you start your research path.

What is one mistake you often see non-professionals make in their family history research, and how might they correct/avoid it?

Currently the biggest mistake I see is when people accept information without question, copying other people’s online trees or finding name matches in indexes and assuming it is their ancestor. This perpetuates bad information in many cases, and leads you down research paths on people that you mistakenly believe are related to you. As a professional genealogist I hate to have to tell a client that the family they have been working so hard on is not even their family.  This can be avoided by not researching individuals, but researching identities. That is, find out as much as you can about an individual to create as complete identity as possible before moving on to others. Use the FAN approach where appropriate, understand everything from the individual’s religion, to occupation, to social status, and more. And always confirm information with original records before accepting it as fact, especially if you find it online.

How did you decide upon your specialty in the field?

I was lucky because my introduction to genealogy and much of my life has been focused on Scandinavia. I grew up in Minnesota which has a culture heavily influenced by it Scandinavian roots. I studied Scandinavia in school, I lived there for a while: my choice of specialty was easy. I do think it is important to have a distinctive niche, but I am always looking to expand my skills in new record types and geographic areas.

What are the benefits to hiring a genealogist over trying to research something on your own? At what point do you think a novice should bring in the professionals?

I find research so much fun that I would rather encourage people to do their own research (perhaps not a great business model!) I think a novice genealogist should try and learn as much as they can and do as much research as they can, really challenge themselves, before turning to a professional.  They will be a better client because they will know specifically what they are asking for, and what the limitations in the records may be. Having said that there are time periods where scripts can be difficult and there are record groups that you almost have to be a full time researcher to really be comfortable with. In Sweden for example I would never suggest to a client that did not speak Swedish to try and research in court records. The script, the specialized language, and the lack of organization make these records difficult even for a native speaker of the language. I try and encourage my clients to participate in research with me whenever possible.

Thank you so much, Bob, for your time and insight! I appreciate your willingness to help us.

Have you ever considered using a professional genealogist? Let me know in comments!