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.