Researching your family history has become easier than ever thanks to online databases. However, it still takes a professional touch if you want a complete picture of your ancestry. This is the job of Crista Cowan, a genealogist since 2002 who works with Ancestry.com to help people learn about their past. We spoke with Crista about her field and what it's like to be a genealogist.
Tell us a bit about who you are, your current position, and how long you've been at it.
My name is Crista Cowan and I am a professional genealogist. Ever since I was a child I have been interested in family history. Both of my parents were close with their extended families, attended family reunions every year and dabbled in family history research — dragging me along. When I was twelve years old my parents sent me to computer camp. When I got home my dad sat me down with his shiny, new Compaq computer loaded with one of the first DOS based genealogy programs and asked if I would computerize the decades of family history research that had been accumulated. I spent most Sunday afternoons for the next several years immersing myself in our family stories. I was hooked!
I began my professional career in genealogy in 2002, doing client research and I have been employed at Ancestry since 2004. While at Ancestry, my role has evolved from historical record and content acquisition, indexing manager, community alliance manager and now corporate genealogist.
What drove you to choose your career path?
Despite my strong interest in family history, it never occurred to me that I could engage in genealogy as a career, so I went to school for business management. I continued to view family history as a hobby until friends and acquaintances started asking for my help and volunteering to pay me for my time in helping them research and develop their family trees. That's when a light bulb went on — I quit my job running a support department of a software company and never looked back.
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
There is one university in the US, Brigham Young University, which offers a degree in Family History (ironically, that school is located in the city where I now work). There are also certificates available through programs at Boston University and the University of Toronto. But, when I was in school, it never occurred to me that family history could be a career. All of my experience was gained in the trenches through trial and error.
Once I started taking on clients, I quickly realised some gaps in my education and started attending genealogy conferences and seminars and reading anything I could get my hands on (i.e. Professional Genealogy, Genealogical Standards Manual, etc.). I also joined the Association of Professional Genealogists, participated in mailing lists, joined genealogical societies, and networked with other genealogists. Through these interactions I was able to identify a couple of mentors, namely Elizabeth Shown Mills and Dr. Thomas Jones. I continue to take classes from them whenever possible, read whatever they write, and occasionally reach out to them for advice and assistance.
What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?
As a genealogist, I spend the majority of my time researching, both online and offline in libraries, archives and courthouses that hold documents yet to be digitised and placed online. I also spend time analysing and transcribing records and crafting source citations. Numerous hours also go into resolving conflicting evidence, writing up conclusions and entering data into the family tree software, which naturally leads to further research. Now with the new AncestryDNA product, additional hours are spent in analysing DNA results and working with matches to determine the validity of the research paper trail and helping people to locate biological family members.
Specifically for Ancestry, a large portion of my job is genealogy education. I do a weekly webcast (archived on YouTube) called The Barefoot Genealogist. Each episode is 20-30 minutes long and I teach on a specific topic related to family history. In three years I have amassed a playlist full of these video tutorials. Some past episodes include a series on the Genealogical Proof Standard, a tutorial for searching the 16 billion plus records available through Ancestry, and interviews with the AncestryDNA program manager about how autosomal DNA works. I also speak at conferences and seminars around the world, sharing my best tips and tricks to help others build their own family trees.
Can you give me a typical example of a research project you might work on?
At Ancestry, my specific skill set is often used to analyse DNA results and compare existing family trees of various cousins to identify biological family for adoptees. I also specialize in Jewish immigration and my assistance is often required to help with some of the cultural aspects of this type of family history research (i.e. name changes, immigration patterns, etc.).
Because I'm so passionate about the work I do, I continue to conduct private research for people who are new to family history, outside of my regular work hours. These are people who are interested in learning about their ancestry, but are not interested in doing the work themselves. For these certain projects, I usually am tasked with crafting a 4-5 generation family tree.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
One misconception people often have about my job is that it is easy for anyone to get started in family history. You can take an AncestryDNA test to learn about your ethnicity and connect with distant cousins. You can also create an online tree at Ancestry by entering what you know about your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Ancestry then provides hints to records that might reveal more about your ancestors and their lives.
But, eventually everyone is going to run into a genealogical "brick wall." They are going to reach the limits of their existing ability to determine if the record they are looking at is really for their ancestor or just someone with the same name. They are going to run out of things to search online and not know what archive or library holds the records they need to take the next step. They are going to recognise that they don't understand the science behind DNA enough to draw correct conclusions about the relationships being revealed through their DNA matches. All of those things are skills that professional genealogists have developed over time.
What are your average work hours?
I typically work an eight hour day at Ancestry, but also travel one or two weekends a month, speaking at genealogy conferences or events. During the evenings and on Saturdays, I work on private client research, which takes on average two to four hours a day.
What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?
I love working on research projects with other genealogists. Everyone has different skills, different genealogy methodologies that they use, and varying knowledge of records availability. Working collaboratively on a research project usually means we can finish it in a fraction of the time. Even if we are all working on our own projects, by sitting in an open office environment, we can bounce ideas off of each other and ask questions. I find that collaboration enhances my work experience and speeds up the process. Sometimes the circumstance is such that I just don't have access to the records that I need to answer a specific research question. Reaching out to a genealogical research firm, like ProGenealogists (an Ancestry company), for assistance with locating and accessing records is often much faster than trying to make those discoveries myself.
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? What do they do instead?
Most professional genealogists tend to specialize in specific geographic areas, time periods or types of research. My specialties are Jewish immigration into the United States, autosomal DNA match analysis for identifying biological family, and descendancy research (working down the tree identifying descendants of a particular ancestor as opposed to working up the tree identifying ancestors of a particular individual). I have colleagues who specialize in other areas. One is a former lawyer and current law professor who is the "go to" resource in the genealogy community when you need to understand how laws throughout time affect the records that are created. I have another colleague who is an expert on the Quaker faith and the records created by those practicing that religion. Still others are specialists in Native American research or colonial U.S. research, for example.
What's the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
Getting access to records that are not online is single handedly the hardest part of my job. In the U.S., every state has different privacy and access laws regarding birth, marriage and death records. Knowing those limitations and working around them can be frustrating.
Then there's the possibility that records we need to answer a specific genealogical question simply just don't exist. The 1890 U.S. Federal Census was destroyed in a fire, leaving a huge gap in records at a critical time when many people were immigrating into this country. Some states weren't able to consistently keep birth and death records until the early 1900s, making it difficult to trace some families back through that time. You really have to get creative to work around some of these issues. For example, some states took a state census in 1885 and 1895. If you know which states those are and where to find those records, you can fill in some of the gaps left by the missing 1890 federal census. City directories from the late 1800s could also be a beneficial asset, many of which are online at Ancestry, although some are only available at a local library in the area of interest, which can pose a workaround.
What's the most enjoyable part of the job?
My favourite thing lately is the work I've been doing with AncestryDNA, which enables people to uncover their ethnic mix, discover distant relatives, and find new details about their unique family history. I've had a dozen or more opportunities in the past six months of reuniting adoptees with their birth families. When it all works out well and everyone is happy about the reunion, there is nothing more fulfilling.
What kind of money can one expect to make at your job?
Some professional genealogists work in a specific archive or library and are not interested in doing full blown research projects. They are familiar with the archive and are often utilised as a resource for other genealogists or individuals who need a record pulled, copied and delivered. These individuals typically charge between $US10 and $US25 an hour for this service. Some professionals choose to be a generalist or project managers for larger projects. They typically charge anywhere from $US50 to $US125 an hour and sometimes sub-contract pieces of the research out to specialists based on where the research takes them. Some professionals have a very specific set of skills around a time period, a type of research, or a language and can charge more. If travel is required, those expenses are usually charged directly to the client.
How do you "move up" in your field?
The key to advancement in family history as a profession is to always be learning. There are a lot of really great educational opportunities for professional genealogists, such as the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, which is held every January, and the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research, which is held every June. Also, becoming an expert in a particular area and then teaching classes, blogging, or blogging about that topic can quickly increase your visibility in the industry, while helping others sharpen their genealogy skills. There are also a number of certification and accreditation opportunities for those who wish to take that route. These organisations test your skills and provide valuable feedback about strengths and weaknesses in varying areas of the standards in our field of study, specifically the Genealogical Proof Standard.
Those considering a career in professional genealogy might also think about interning or apprenticing with a professional genealogist.
What do your clients under/over value?
Technology is changing the way we do family history. Ancestry has more than 16 billion historical records available online and adds approximately 2 million every day. But, even with those impressive numbers, not all records needed are available online. Sometimes you have to wait for a reply to snail mail request to an archive for a death certificate or a marriage record, before you can jump back online and continue your research armed with the new information provided. It's easy to get impatient and want to have all the information about your family history right now. But, family history is really a journey of discovery, not a sprint to see who has the most ancestors.
Typical research into a four to five generation family tree, starting with a living person, can take anywhere from 60-120 hours. The further back in time the research goes, the more hours need to be dedicated, and some families, especially those with recent immigrant ancestors, have to deal with non-English records adding an additional level of effort. If you want to uncover additional stories and details (further than just basic birth, marriage and death information) to learn more about the lives of your ancestors, the more hours it adds.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
Get yourself to a genealogy conference and take as many classes as you can. Googling the name of your city or state and "genealogy society" will help you locate relevant organisations. By attending a conference, it will quickly be apparent to you that you don't know what you don't know. Your skills and knowledge level will be tested and stretched. You will leave with a list of books and additional online classes that you need to get your hands on to continue your education so that you are ready to take clients.
Another helpful tip is to have a professional genealogist take a look at your family tree and give you constructive feedback. Again, you will learn more about your strengths and weaknesses as a genealogy researcher by seeing it through someone else's eyes.
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