Who’s Driving This Bus? – The Image, Industry and Future of Genealogy Is In YOUR Hands!

Oxbottom road fork.

Where is the future of genealogy headed?

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?

© 2011, copyright Genealady & JustFolks


Who’s Driving This Bus? – The Image, Industry and Future of Genealogy Is In YOUR Hands! — 12 Comments

  1. Excellent post! Thanks for the mention. You know, I checked the Family Tree Magazine distribution stats – only 55,000 subscriptions. That measures a portion, perhaps 20% of the total, of those “really into” genealogy to the extent that they’re willing to pay for a magazine subscription. The other 200,000 odd folks are just kind of interested once in awhile, and might go to a local society meeting if it’s conveneient or sounds interesting. I really think that the number of “really addicted” folksl ike me is fairly small – in the 10,000 range (about 20% of that number go to the majro conferences).

    On the other hand, there are 1.5 million Ancestry subscribers, but how many of them really use it on a regular basis? Again, my guess is 20%. I may be wrong!

    Thanks for the interesting read.

    • Yeah, I happen to buy FTM pretty regularly, but I don’t have a subscription – it’d probably save me money if I did, hehe. But I guess I’m willing to sacrifice the savings for the flexibility of not buying it if I decide there’s not enough articles to interest me. You’re right, though, we’re definitely a subset, and it’s hard to know what the future holds – will technology allow us to branch out more and draw more people in, or are we just finding new ways to communicate amongst our own group?

      Thanks for dropping by, Randy! :)

  2. Great post! I love the direction you went in! There are so many good topics that you have touched on. I particularly like your statement “I myself had no idea who I was growing up – I felt like blank slate.” I felt the same way growing up. That is food for thought for another blog post!

  3. A really interesting and thought-provoking post, and I agree with most of what you say. I would question a couple of things, however.

    You say, “Is this the image we want of genealogy? That anyone can do it?” I’m sure you didn’t mean it but that comes over as rather elitist. Yes, I believe that anyone can do genealogy. I’ve personally had the pleasure of helping quite a few people take the first steps. Some of them had little formal education but were able to grasp the important principles of research and apply them corretly. Indeed, I would say they were actually more cautious about interpreting the evidence they found, because they had little confidence in their own abilities. I’ve found some of the most dangerous genealogists to be highly educated people, whose clever minds can see a range of possible connections and who gradually become wedded to one of their own hypotheses, despite a lack of hard evidence.

    Also, we need to beware thinking that the genealogical circles we move in, or the sites we use, are the ones that matter. I love Thomas MacEntee but I’m sure he would be the first to admit that he is in no way essential to doing good genealogy. Some researchers are still deeply suspicious of Family Search because the old IGI contained many inaccurate patron submissions. I have a foot in both the UK and US genealogy camps and, with a few honourable exceptions, both sides carry on as if the other did not exist. We have much to learn from each other (and from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and others) so let’s all get out more!

    • You make wonderful points, Caroline, and on a re-read I see exactly what you mean about my phrasing, and I was far too vague. That’s what I get for publishing a post so late at night. 😉 You helped me clarify what I meant to say, so let me rephrase-

      “Is this the image we want of genealogy? That anyone can do it?” – you are absolutely right, anyone can and should do genealogy. It’s a wonderful thing and as a teacher myself I am often in the position of gatekeeper to information that I try to spread far and wide to my students to help them get involved if they have the slightest inkling. What I should have said was, ‘That anyone can do it in a haphazard fashion without an understanding of basic principlies’. And what I mean by that is being sure they have their own family and aren’t perpetuating mistakes. I, too, am guilty of that in the beginning – I call it ‘shaky leaf syndrome’ and I addressed it in a post in the left column called ‘Beware Those Shaky Addictive Leaves’. I would love to see Ancestry.com doing more to mainstream genealogy while including basic educational principles instead of saying, ‘Oh, just come find stuff!’. To me, their slogan indicates it will all be easy, and it won’t be. But there’s a joy there that should be shared, and I want it to be, certainly!

      As to the genealogical circles we move in – I may not have been clear in my post, alas, but your point was exactly the one I was trying to make. Sitting across from that woman, I realized – heck, she’s been doing genealogy for ages and she has no clue about this! We live in different worlds, and she’s been getting on just fine! I MYSELF need to reach out more and try to learn from them as much as I share what I know. It’s interesting to see the coming together of generations who started traditionally and are going online and those who started online and are going traditional.

      Wonderful points and thank you for reading and clarifying.

  4. Great post!!! I have been working on my family tree for a few years off and on. I still consider myself a beginner because I have so much to learn. I try to gain more knowledge by reading how others are working on their family tree and how they gather information. Thanks for your posting.

  5. Great post Dana! I agree with a lot of the things you say. Most especially about getting word out in different arenas. I was actually at a Quarter Throw Down to support our local Volunteer Fire Department and spent quite a bit of time discussing genealogy with some of the other ladies there!

    I also felt like a ‘blank slate’ growing up. I always attributed it to not having any extended family around. A lot of my cousins all have relationships with each other and memories that I just don’t have. My Dad was in the Marines and ended up stationed in North Carolina and then settling here in Maryland. So all our family is actually in other parts of the country. Except for a lone distant cousin that also ended up stationed here in the same county (Small world huh!). Now that I’m researching my genealogy I’m seeing myself in my family for the first time. I’m finding that my Great-Grandmother Llewellyn was so much like me (even a budding genealogist!).

    To be perfectly honest, I think in a day and age where bullying is rampant and kids are very much unsure of things outside of cell phones and video games, genealogy has the possibility to really help people recover emotionally. While not everything you learn is good, it really helps to know that just like you, your ancestors struggled and worked hard and you’re the proof that they made it through the other end.

  6. Dana,

    Great points. There are a couple of things I’d like to add. First and foremost is that Ancestry.com is a business. Their main business model is to get as many subscribers as possible in order to make money for its shareholders. They are beholden to their shareholders. Knowing this model and main goal, it behooves them to have a mainstream T.V. show with celebrities and an ad campaign to get those folks outside of the industry interested in looking for their ancestry so they can be like “X” celebrity. That is their goal. Everything else is a byproduct.

    They must, however, not alienate the genealogy industry and they must walk a fine line between not upsetting the industry and making money for their shareholders. Does Ancestry.com have a responsibility to educate their customers? Well, only insomuch that it increases revenue.

    However, this can be a good thing for professional genealogists who are willing to think outside the box at how they can turn this into a business opportunity. If Ancestry.com isn’t going to educate the customers who else can?

    Additionally, any company that has a sales department experiences the phenomenon of one-time customers versus repeat customers. It is a juggling act because to increase revenue you must have an X number of new customers and an X number of repeat customers.

    It would be interesting to know the stats on how many Ancestry.com subscription customers are repeat and how many of them are one and never come back. Additionally, a number on why the customer left would be extremely important to professional genealogists wanting to include some type of education in their business model to determine if providing ongoing education to these people would get them to come back to genealogy. That is, of course, if they even left. They could have let their subscription lapse for any number of reasons. I’m just using Ancestry.com because it has the biggest influence.

    Because of Ancestry.com’s business model and ad campaigns there a whole more people looking for their ancestry. This means a certain percentage will drop and go away forever. A certain percentage will continue and quite possibly be doing everything wrong. A certain percentage will seek other sites for help. And so on and so forth. Now, you may see this as muddying up genealogy because these folks aren’t doing it right.

    But me? I thank Ancestry.com for doing all my mainstream marketing for me. You know, the one I could never afford? I thank them for bringing awareness to genealogy. While the whole world is a potential client for me (because every person has a family and every family has a history), Ancestry.com has made my probable client base that much closer to me. A client base that I don’t have to convince that they have a need for what I’m selling. As Zig Ziglar says, “Every sale has 5 basic obstacles: No need, no money, no hurry, no desire, and no trust.”

    How many of those hurdles is Ancestry.com leaping over for us as professional genealogists?

    My point is that there are many business opportunities for professional genealogists if they are willing to look for them.

    ~Caroline Pointer

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful response, Caroline – it has taught me a lot! I am not a professional and my opinions are humble ones. Your points about business models and the niche opportunities being created for the proactive professional are ones I hadn’t considered at all, so thank you! This discussion has been very educational for me. I really appreciate you taking the time to help me look at it from a new perspective and expand my understanding.

  7. Thank you for a great post and great comments added to this interesting series of discussions. Part of me recalls similar sets of discussions as a ‘small business accountant’ in the 1970-1990 period… many parallels!

    On our ‘education responsibility’ issue: [Like others] I write a regular column (one or two articles a week) in a general interest (online) “newspaper” – Examiner.com – on ‘family history and genealogy.’ I write it primarily for the beginner, though I know many of my readers are genealogists of varied background. One of the comments, above, mentioned “building awareness” which I view as a primary ‘educational responsibility’ as also a GeneaBlogger and researcher. One more viewpoint.

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