I read an interesting article over Marian’s Roots and Rambles today that brought up an intriguing point – is it a bad time to be a professional genealogist? My initial thought on reading the title was – are we reaching the cap on professionals in the field perhaps? Is there not enough demand for the number of people who want to do it professionally (a concern for me, who would like to become a professional!)? But after reading Marian’s thoughts and the blogpost that inspired her (an excellent commentary on ‘Genea-Investors’ and what they may be telling us found at Mnemosyne’s Magic Mirror - do give it a read!), I realized the issue is deeper. It’s about fads.
Fads come and they go. They are famous for coming around again, like bell-bottoms or platform shoes or knitting. They become cool, there’s a burst of interest, and then they fade for years, eventually resurfacing (along with the photos from the last time), much to the horror of those who embraced them before and regret, and to the joy of those who missed it the first time and can’t wait to be part of the trend. Fads come. Fads go. They don’t linger. Fads are not something you bank on, not something a company builds its glass house on.
Lots of people believe that genealogy is a fad. These people think that Ancestry.com is not a viable company for the long-term. I found this interesting article at Seekingalpha.com on why they believe that Ancestry.com IS a viable investment and they think the shares should be worth well over $60. But if you scroll down to the bottom, you’ll find two of the four comments reflecting that POV I mentioned – that genealogy is a fad. We can hardly apply the survey of such a limited sample to the population at large, but we should not dismiss it out of hand without considering what it means. The passionate genealogist will always argue that what they do is worthwhile – but are we a small core, or are we part of a larger growing subset that will continue to thrive?
The same Seeking Alpha article mentioned above made the general assumption that those who were most likely to subscribe to Ancestry.com were the 65+ population. As part of their argument for the viability of the company, they pointed out that there is still considerable growth in that population for Ancestry, but they also admitted they should also look outside of that demographic because they alone are likely not the ones doing the 1 million plus downloads of the Ancestry.com apps onto their mobile devices. I think they’re right. This trend is another showing the increasing interest in genealogy outside this area. I started my genealogy when I was 27. I am now 31. When I go to genealogy meetings, I do tend to be one of the younger ones there, but am I the only one? No. I am increasingly hearing stories of youth and others in their early adult years getting hooked on genealogy. This is making it clear to me that the image of a 65+ person doing their genealogy alone in the library is an out-dated, but lingering, image people have of genealogy. It isn’t the reality anymore.
But then – as Mel and Marian have helped ask in their own posts linked above – what is the reality? What is the future of the genealogy industry? What is the image of genealogy? What is the place of ancestry.com? What is the place of professional genealogists?
In my own humble musings, these are the answers I come to:
1) Is genealogy a fad? Not really. Genealogy isn’t going anywhere. It may be experiencing a fad, but I don’t think it will ever fade into oblivion. The current upsurge indicates to me a deeper hunger in the American people to know WHO THEY ARE.
2) Why is genealogy experiencing this upsurge then? Simply put, I believe what makes us American drives us to want to know who we are more than many other societies. All people of all cultures have an inherent curiosity about who they are and where they come from, but after working with countless international students and living abroad for a number of years, I have come to the realization that many Americans are confused. We are confused and we are hungry. We are hungry for the defining, delineating elements of culture we see in other societies, the elements that create identity. Yes, Americans have an identity, but it’s usually a conflicting mishmash of things left over from what our forefathers gave up as part of the American dream. Immigrants come to the United States to sever old connections, to begin again, to start fresh. You see, there are conflicting ideals in America – we value culture and heritage and we tell people to honor that, but we also expect everyone to give up enough of it that we can all fit in, be equal and belong to this ‘melting pot’ of America. Those who give these things up create an uncertainty for later generations that makes them unsure of who they are. Yes, they’re American – but what is American? There’s Greek-American, Italian-American, Native American, African-American, and so many more. But if you don’t fit into a neat ‘category’, what are you? Who are you? If you look at history, people have always clung fiercely to group identity – tribe, family, clan. Many of us have lost that, shed that, along with the rites of passage that used to mark adulthood for our children. I’ve read articles about teenagers acting out and searching for themselves because they lack this clear delineation between childhood and adulthood. It may not fit every situation, but it has a grain of truth to it, I think.
I myself had no idea who I was growing up – I felt like blank slate. I was a little this and a little that, but nothing that I could identify with, define myself with. So I went looking for my ancestors. And now, knowing them and where they came from and who they are – I suddenly feel like I know who I am. In genealogy, people discover themselves, their identity – past AND present. People might find a connection to an older culture or religion or tradition – even another country. Knowing how long my ‘people’ have been in this country, I finally, really, feel American. I always have been, but now that I know they were here before the Declaration, before the Constitution, before the country existed? I feel like a part of something greater, deeper, and that seeking is what people who turn to genealogy are often looking for. They’re confused about where they belong or they’re hungry to belong to someone or something. Through the history of their family, they often are able to find ways to feed the hunger and clarify the confusion. They find themselves. That’s not a fad. That will only grow as our society continues to isolate and disconnect through fragmented families, increasing technology and generational mobility.
3) What is the future of the genealogy industry? With my answers to #2 in mind, I believe it’s viable, long-term and isn’t going anywhere.
4) What is the image of genealogy? Ah, now HERE is where we have a problem. There is a major disconnect between the way the general public regards genealogy and the way enthusiasts regard it. Of course there is, really – think of how a motorcycle rider feels about his hog as opposed to someone watching him drive by who’s never cared to even try one out? And yet, motorcyclists have a reputation of ’cool’. Dangerous. Edgy. Fun. Genealogy, on the other hand, has an image of being something old people do. Go back and look at the comments of the Seeking Alpha article I referenced. There’s an example of a lay perspective right there. If we want genealogy to become mainstream, like motorcycles for lack of a better example, how do we accomplish that? How do we change the image overall? Do we let others do it, or do we do it ourselves? And how?
5) What is the place of Ancestry.com? I believe Ancestry is not going anywhere. It’s huge and viable. It will be fine. As for the image of genealogy, Ancestry.com is doing their part to make it mainstream with constant advertising – ‘you don’t have to know what you’re looking for, you just need to start looking’. Is this the image we want of genealogy? That anyone can do it? (NOTE: My phrasing here was less than ideal – please see my response to Caroline below in regards to it! Thanks Caroline! ) That, as Mel mentioned in his Mnemosyne blog, one person ‘did their genealogy’ in four months and was ‘done’? What exactly was done? And how was it done? If professionals don’t like the image of genealogy that ancestry.com is painting, or others, how are we going to fix that?
6) What is the place of professional genealogists? I happen to agree with Taco Goulooze, who commented on the Mnemosyne blogpost by Mel that professional genealogists have a rough time of it just now – but everyone does. The economy is bad. Genealogy is something for discretionary income for most, which is shrinking in many households. But I also agree that there needs to be a shift towards education. If more and more people are going to be doing their own genealogy, we need to teach them how. There needs to be a bigger outreach, more publicity in the right way. And that means whatever YOU think it needs to mean – I’m not here to say that one way of doing genealogy is necessarily better than another. I agree standards need to be taught and upheld, but I’m not here to lecture – I’m here to ask you to think about these questions for yourself.
In the end of it all, I have to completely bow to and agree with Mel’s final statement in his post: “Shouldn’t we all be working to tell our story better – and not just to our social-networking selves?” Geneabloggers – we are a small group. We are networked and like to keep our finger on the pulse of news in the industry, but what are we doing to spread that to those who aren’t on blogs? Or Twitter? Or online at all, really? When I went to the Idaho Genealogical Society annual meeting this last Saturday, I was one of the few people there who knew about geneablogs. In fact, a woman across from me told me she hadn’t been to familysearch.org in years – I can’t even comprehend that. It’s hard for me to imagine a genealogist not knowing about Thomas McEntee and Friday night BlogTalkRadio, or Randy Seaver’s SNGF or RootsTech or any of my favorite online websites for research or any of the other things we blog about and talk about and share in our networks on a regular basis. But most genealogists don’t. A few do. Some of them are very influential, too, and good at getting the word out about these things and resources to others. They’re the national names. They’re the ones who are helping to change the face of genealogy.
But what are the rest of us doing for the image of genealogy?
What am I doing?
What are YOU doing?
I have no easy answers. But I think we all need to start asking these questions – the future image and viability of genealogy as a true industry begins with each of us. We’re each of us driving this bus to its destination, and I say there’s no pee breaks until we figure out which roads we’re supposed to take – how about you?