Working with Genealogical Societies

Genealogist Bob Rettammel shares his experiences in working with genealogical societies in this advice-filled post at GenBiz Solutions!

Working with Genealogical Societies

[Editor’s Note: Bob Rettammel is a professional genealogist and owner of Rettammel Genealogy Service.]

As a working genealogist one has to be able to develop relationships and network with genealogy societies both nearby and at a distance. This blog article will talk about my experience in developing a working relationship with county and regional genealogical societies, including what I think about prior to making contact, how I make the contact, and what the results and long-term benefits are to my business.

First Experience with a Genealogical or Historic Society

Like most of you doing genealogy as a business today, my first experience working with or at a local genealogical society (sometimes referred to as a historical society) was when I started my own family research. My own interest in genealogy began many years back as a teenager spending summers in a small town in Juneau County, Wisconsin where my parents’ families both had roots dating back to the late 1800’s.

As an adult my genealogical research began by visiting the county courthouse register of deeds for any vital records. As I made these early visits over 15 years ago I happened to work next to a person who was a local historiographer for Juneau County. At one point I was not sure of some information in an index and what it indicated for my relative’s record on file. The local researcher was extremely helpful and clarified what the index information indicated to help find the actual record on-site. As I spent a couple hours going through records, I was proactive in asking about what research she was doing and what tips she had for the local records. I learned that she was part of the county historical society which helped researchers and established genealogists collect records for family history. At the time of this unexpected meeting and conversation I asked for the contact information of this historical society. Sometime after this I contacted the local society by email and provided a synopsis of my surname research (research log) and asked what other information (records/data) the society might be able to locate. Within a day I received a response back from a representative of the county historic society who referred me to the person I had met at my first visit to the county register of deeds office!

In working further with this researcher I was able to learn that on my father’s maternal German side, my great-grandfather had a local record called a Declaration of Intent to become a citizen back in the early 1900’s. A person does a Declaration of Intent as the first step (first paper) in becoming a citizen, renounces allegiance to former homeland and declares intent to become U.S. citizen. The local county historiographer for the society was able to help locate a primary record of my great-grandfather; the record indicated the date of arrival to America and the port of entry location. It was so exciting to learn this information and to see a copy of the actual record. Plus it helped establish my family timeline of entry to America, when they might have arrived in the Wisconsin county, where I might find a passenger list for my great-grandfather, what town in Germany he left, and maybe family or neighbors he might have traveled with.

As a Genealogical Business Owner

Besides my first genealogical research experience with a local society as a consumer, what has my business experience learned in working with genealogical societies?

I recommend that when you start a genealogical business to collect a list of your local, county and state-wide genealogy society contacts. To gather such information you can go to your local library or find them on the Internet. The key is just to have easy access to a list that you as a business owner can quickly access when doing work for your clients. You can either keep a hard copy, an electronic document or spreadsheet. Whatever works for you is the key to having a system that helps you to be efficient and timely for your clients.

As a working genealogist I have learned that developing relationships or contacts with genealogical societies is important to a successful business and satisfied clients. In my business I have traveled to local genealogy or historic societies and charged mileage for use of my own personal vehicle for travel. For my business I have determined that a radius of about 100 miles from my home office is reasonable for clients. For clients that have records or needs outside of this mileage radius, I work with Area Research Centers in my State, and local genealogy society researchers who can look for records on site to help my client. [In a prior GenBiz Solutions article, I refer to this as a strategy for collaborating with other genealogists]. Prior to any extra expense for my client, I first provide a detailed written explanation by email about what other resources we may need to finish record collection. I don’t believe additional work should be done without full disclosure to the client that other expenses may incur to locate the records originally requested or that are newly found and will add to the family history search.

For example in the last year I had a client whose paternal family was located in a city that has an active historical society. Prior to going to this location I made sure to have my research log for this family current with findings. The main item for those starting a genealogy business is to think about your purpose and what you are looking for when you start field research for a client. I made contact with the local historic society through email and a follow-up telephone call to work out a date to visit and what records I was expecting to review during my scheduled visit. My experience has been that the local societies like to have time prior to a genealogist’s visit to prepare properly, so they can have the necessary index or books available along with someone there to help with questions. Remember that many of these local societies are managed by volunteers who like to help those doing family history searches. As a business owner it is prudent to leave the society a donation for their services. Remember you may use their services another time or another genealogist will, so acknowledging them is beneficial to all of us.

The result of my travel and time at the city (local) historical society was fruitful in the amount of information I found for the client’s family, including information about the business they owned over 100 years ago in the city. Due to the business and civic events this family was involved with I found a number of historic pictures that were not known by my client’s family.

A most recent experience for a client looking for probate records led me to make contact with a local society that is some distance from my location. This society after reviewing my request and credentials sent (at no cost) the records to an Area Research Center near me, where I reviewed the probate records. This is an example of how a genealogist works with their local societies and regional genealogical centers to find and provide access to the records for business clients.

Working with fellow genealogists, volunteers, and librarians can be rewarding for its shared passion of family history, and making connections can aid in your professional development and in the marketing of your business. Plus we always learn something new and enhance our skills as professional genealogists.

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About Bob Rettammel

About Bob Rettammel

Hello my name is Bob Rettammel, I have been interested in genealogy since I was a teenager, while working with my uncle, who brought out boxes of old pictures that were in upstairs rooms of the family house. Those days 40 years ago brought to life family members on my paternal side that I never met, especially my grandfather.  That summer I put together a photo album of old pictures and that was the start of my interest in the past.

I am a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists and Dane County Area Genealogical Society (DCAGS), in Madison, WI. I recently became President of DCAGS.

I have visited Europe a number of times and Germany in 1990 (Austria, Bavaria and southern Germany) and spring 2014 to Berlin and Hamburg, where I visited some German genealogists that continue to help with my own family search.

I have a Masters Degree in Sociology from Marquette University.