Has Genealogy Peaked as a Hobby?

When I worked at the Public Archives of Canada during the 1970’s, the research world was very different.  Most of our clients were “repeat offenders”.  Typically, they were initiated into the seductive world of primary sources as graduate students and continued as our clients and friends into old age.   We did see genealogists, but like their bretheren in history, they were mostly pro’s — old campaigners doing work for clients.

Then, along came “Roots”, the t.v. docu-drama which captured the North American imagination.  (In my opinion, we would have discovered genealogy anyway, and if “Roots” hadn’t been there, something else would have been the trigger.  -But that’s a discussion for another day.)

Now, before someone conjures up the old nastiness about elitist archives being democratized by genealogy I should say that, at the archives where I worked, we wanted and welcomed the general public.  What we weren’t prepared for were the numbers.  Archive budgets were no better in the 1970’s then they are today.  Space and staff were barely adequate.  Moreover, we did not have personal computers back then.  Access was  achieved via paper finding aides or the ubiquitous filing cards.

The numbers of visitors “doing” genealogy grew throughout the 1980’s.  In the early 1990’s, I was working in a small, local archive.   We had previously been open two days a week, usually for two or three clients.  By the early 1990’s, we were open four days a week, and it was not unusual during the summer to find twelve or even fifteen people crowded into the reading room.

There were big changes in the research traffic besides raw numbers, but I think that an important indicator was that over two-thirds of visitors said that it was their first or second visit to our site.  Over half said it was their first visit to us and over twenty percent said that it was their first visit to an archive of any kind.  The result was that staff spent an incredible amount of time with researchers, not only introducing them to our particular collection and institutional finding aides, but also teaching them how primary source research is done.  After a long day or two and the usual comprehension struggle, the clients left smiling and happy, never to be seen by us again.  They moved on to the next archive needed, on their once-in-a-lifetime quest.  Few old pro’s.  Few “repeat offenders”.

Now, twenty years later, I see that the traffic at my local archives has changed yet again.  Although the reading room is busy, most of the clients appear to be a local band of  savants.  Engaged on long-term projects, they return day after day, for weeks on end.   They out-number the few wide-eyed first-timers.  In fact, the archives feels much more like it did in the 1970’s.  I see that staff spends much less time teaching visitors the fundamentals as most clients are experienced and know just what they need.

Are there just as many genealogists as in the late 1980’s, but now using the internet instead of visiting archives?  I wonder.   Website data to which I am privy suggests that web traffic consists of a large proportion of skilled “regulars”, coming in and out for different topics.  The one-time-only personal quest folk are still there, but the number of hits (research visits) is equalled or excelled by the repeat traffic.

To me this suggests that genealogy as a general grass-roots passion indulged by nearly everybody is gradually shifting back to belonging to a specific interest group.   This happy cohort of  family history detectives may be larger than it was before ‘Roots’ but a cohort it is, nevertheless.   The needs of these 21st century genealogists will be different from those of the 1980’s and 1990’s.  This means that we can expect usage of archives to change, yet again.


Filed under Archives, Historical Societies, History, Ontario, Museums

7 responses to “Has Genealogy Peaked as a Hobby?

  1. It’s funny that you should write this today, as I recently read an essay by an archives student on similar lines. The student suggested that as more and more of the popular family history materials we hold are made available online, so the archives search room will return to being a haunt of those researching more specialized topics.

    It does seem to be a logical conclusion to the archival community’s response to the demands of genealogists. The family historians are slowly getting the immediate online access to resources that they’ve always wanted. For archivists, we can hope that the eventual outcome of this process is that we can give more attention to the backlogs of cataloguing that built up while we were struggling to cope with the huge influx of genealogists. Perhaps…

  2. I for one don’t see genealogy waning – either as a hobby or as a profession – in the near future. With the increasing number of Baby Boomers reaching retirement age, researching one’s ancestry will continue to be a poplar pursuit for many. Some will even turn what was a hobby into a retirement career.

    The change in the number of visitors may be due to a misconception among those new to genealogy that everything can be found on the Internet. Libraries, archives and genealogical/historical societies need to counter such misperceptions with social media marketing campaigns which target those users. The California Genealogical Society (http://www.calgensoc.org/) and their recent “Tip of the Iceberg” poster is a great example of how an effective campaign can be run.

  3. Thank you for a very thought-provoking post. In my own encounters with “genies” and genealogists, I am struck by the number of people who count themselves as “doing” or “into” genealogy, but who access information only online.

    Perhaps those one-time visitors who you used to train in using your archives are now surfing the web instead, leaving the hands-on archive work to the more experienced. If this is true, the number of current visitors to repositories is not an accurate reflection of the popularity (or lack thereof) of genealogy as a hobby, pastime, or career. It will be interesting to see how this level is determined by the marketing industry!

  4. S

    Another thing to wonder about is the value of seeing the original document and its tangible nature.

    Are today’s genealogists willing to fore go seeing and touching the original in favor of increased and easy access from the Internet that provides scanned reproductions of the originals?

    Also, many genealogists pay for Ancestry.com when it’s possible their local public library has provides free access to it through their subscription. Has the trend away from visiting archives for these records led to an increased commercialism of one’s family history?

  5. An interesting article and reply.

    If it is true, that many family historians tend to use on-line sources (and I think that you are right) what will this mean to the usage of cultural heritage institutions?

    An increasing demand for digitization of new records as well as new types of records? Or – on the contrary: that records which were previously used by family historians as originals at the archives, will loose attention, because they are not “promoted” by other users as well as archive staff?

  6. Although we do have several people who patronize our library for the sole purpose of using our genealogy resources, people also use our local historical society, which has a very good collection of family histories in this area. I feel this is a trend that, over time, will increase in interest and volume in this community as well as nationwide. I, as a baby boomer, albeit a late one, intend to research my family histories as well as my husbands upon my retirement.

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