Who are the serious genealogists?

Genealogy in Time magazine is consistently one of the most interesting online reads and they recently ran a thought- provoking  article called ‘How Popular is Genealogy?’  It is well worth reading in full because it makes a very good case that, despite the persistent myth that genealogy is one of the most popular internet hobbies, in fact far fewer people are actively devoting time and money to searching for their ancestors than might be imagined.

http://www.genealogyintime.com/articles/how-popular-is-genealogy-page01.html

Among the magazine’s conclusions is that there are different levels of interest in genealogy, that Ancestry.com dominates the marketplace, and that about 2.1 million people currently conduct ancestral research in the major English speaking countries.  They end by saying there is room therefore for growth.

What they don’t discuss or narrow down is the different characteristics of those who are ‘actively engaged’.  If we consider those 2.1  million people from the English speaking world, only a small minority are so actively engaged in ancestral research that they might be termed ‘serious’ genealogists.  Of course you can be a frequent visitor to genealogy websites, and active in all kinds of ways without actually being a very good genealogist, but I will leave that subject for another time.

We might estimate, (purely in a back of an envelope type of a way), that of those 2.1 million about 80% are building their trees using only the resources they can find online at one or two websites.  They could not be said to be serious, or at least not yet.  That would leave 420,000 who are slightly more determined and/or knowledgeable.  Of this number, perhaps 50% work hard at their tree for a number of years, only to put it to one side when they reach the end of all the sources that are easy to get at, or hit natural stopping points, or when they reach a self-set goal which might be to find out about one particular line and produce a chart for others in the family.  Now we are down to the elite 210,000 or so who are both active and continuously active over a long period of time.  Bear in mind, that this figure includes people in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as the UK and Ireland.  If we crudely proportion out those 210,000 according to the population of those respective countries then we get

  • 149,100 in the US
  • 29,400 in the UK
  • 16,800 in Canada
  • 10,500 in Australia
  • 2,100 in New Zealand
  • 2,100 in Eire

Of course I cannot claim these figures are likely to be very accurate, I just offer them up as a starting point for thinking about who we are and where we are living.  Here are some more figures which might be said to indicate the seriousness of a number of people researching British and Irish ancestry:

  • The Society of Genealogists has around 11,000 members.
  • Who Do You Think You Are Live 2014 attracted 13,128 visitors.
  • The Guild of One-Name Studies has around 2,600 members and over 8,400 registered surnames actively being researched [this group is probably one of the most highly dedicated group of genealogists anywhere in the world].
  • The National Archives report 10,000 downloads of some of their podcasts over a one year period.

What therefore makes a ‘serious’ genealogist?  I have put together some characteristics that might help define this:

  • Interested in finding out more than just names and dates
  • Talks of the addictive nature of genealogy
  • Does not follow just one ancestral line or surname
  • Visits record offices in person
  • Spends money engaging others to help their research
  • Has more than one website subscription
  • Member  of a family history society
  • Volunteers their time to genealogy
  • Runs a website/blog devoted to genealogy
  • Writes about their research, or writes up their research
  • Has a small library of books on genealogy
  • Wants to improve their research methods
  • Recognises the need to find out about more obscure sources
  • Takes courses to improve their knowledge
  • Wants to turn professional or is already professional
  • Wants to work to an agreed standard

What do you think?  How many are really serious about genealogy and not just in a ‘it is my favourite pastime’ type of way?

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17 Responses to Who are the serious genealogists?

  1. Gail Roger says:

    Are we grading on a curve? I rated 12 out of your 16 characteristics. Perhaps an interest in family history is something like a spectrum?

  2. pharostutors says:

    That is an interesting thought Gail. Those at the higher end are the most dedicated, those at the lower end, the least. Yes, I think that works. Perhaps there are other characteristics which I missed out?

  3. jowston says:

    So genealogy is a spectrum disorder? Hmm, you might have something there.

  4. Kirsty Gray says:

    Thanks for the Guild mention – we have 2,600 members and 8,400+ studies registered!

  5. pharostutors says:

    Thanks Kirsty, I will edit what was written.

  6. James says:

    Part of it is that there is a blurred line between genealogy and family history, which I have long considered to be two distinct disciplines.

    • pharostutors says:

      Couldn’t agree more, and we will do a post on that subject before too long. Of course, there are overlaps and most people do both, but it all comes down to how one defines ‘family history’. Genealogy has a perfectly good definition already – the compiling and making of pedigrees.

  7. Jayne says:

    I agree with your 16 characteristics and can plead ‘guilty’ to 13 of them. I think another might be the urge to research family trees of family and friends!

    Sadly, there are many who are ‘name collectors’ and sadder still, are those who add ancestors to their tree and don’t seem to care whether they are their genuine ancestors or not.

    I’ve just been in contact with a ‘cousin’ who believes our Peel family is from the same one as the famous Sir Robert Peel – he’s not the only one, many have joined themselves to Sir Robert’s family according to online family trees. However, I’ve just spent £5 on a Will which shows we’re NOT related to this family, and then looked a little further in the parish registers, and found the register of a child’s burial which confirms it – this is free for everyone to see on LOPC.

  8. I score 15 out of 16 in terms of attributes. I do not wish to make this a career – I am retired for ever from any such activity. I am a late comer to genealogy, 10 years and a few months to be exact. I entered genealogy research with an Ancestry subscription, buying credits on the original Find My Past (now a subscriber), and buying DNA kits for myself and siblings. I do a lot on line but also travel to record offices. I do need to take some more courses (have PLCGS from the National Institute for Genealogical Studies) just to ensure that I am obeying the rules of a good genealogist but need to find the time. I joined the Guild of one name studies 7 years ago and I spend all of my free time since retiring in 2007 on genealogy. Last year at WDYTYAL I joined the Society of Genealogists and need to get on their website more often. Interesting article. Thank you.

  9. Helen poses an interesting question about the popularity of genealogy. Many other commentators have made similar comments in recent months. One such was James Tanner’s post on Finding the Genealogy Community on his Genealogy’s Star blog (4 March 2014). Among the questions he asked was whether such a community actually exists. And how does one define what a genealogist is?

    There is certainly a difference between those who are “actively engaged” as Helen says, and others who just dabble, going online occasionally to find another cousin. In a recently published article, Become a Better Genealogist, in Chinook, the journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society, Helen references a 2003 paper by Elizabeth Shown Mills in which Mills suggested there are three types of genealogists – Family Tree Climbers, Traditional Genealogists and Generational Historians. Mills’ paper can be read online courtesy of the NGS. (I hope Helen will write more about the subject of the Chinook article in a future post here.)

    Overall, among many writers on the subject, as I commented on one of Tanner’s posts (Is Genealogy Broken – 3 March 2014), “[t]here appears to be a lot of angst and hand-wringing lately over the future of genealogical (or family history) research as well as about the excellence (or lack thereof) in many studies and projects. I believe we should keep in mind that this is still very much a hobby for most people.” There are many well-qualified experts (thank goodness) who make a living researching and teaching, many of whom are part of the Pharos group. Many people would like to think of genealogy as a major area of study, whether sociological or scientific in nature, it really is neither. The hundreds of associations and myriad of public and commercial websites are there to help with information and methods of study but cannot be considered as being organizations that affect the quality of life or protection of citizens.

    With apologies to the Society of Genealogists, while a membership total of 11,000 is impressive, it pales in comparison to most professional organizations, such as those related to engineering, which number members in the tens of thousands in Britain alone. Your family tree may be well-researched, extensively documented and perfectly organized, but the work that went into the project does not have the consequence or value of the studies others have gone through to become engineers, doctors, teachers or scientists.

    I believe that learning more about doing proper genealogical research is great and one should strive to become a “serious” genealogist, but researching your ancestors is really just another way for most of us to make our free time more interesting. As I commented further to Tanner, “[l]et’s not get carried away by thinking that, if we do the best we can to assemble information about the history of our families, it will result in some significant improvements to the human condition or the world’s economy.”

    I think genealogy for most people is done for fun, even though many of us seem to spend most of our waking hours on it. We should all strive to just enjoy doing family history research to the extent we are able or have the time, and not worry about whether others are equally as dedicated.

  10. Carole Steers says:

    I scored 15 as I haven’t (yet) paid anyone to help me get past my brick walls. I’m not ruling it out but I have spoken to Dave Annal and others about it but they suggested I’d done as much as a ‘professional’ would do anyway.

  11. ggrannum says:

    I suppose I am 15.5 – I don’t research more than one line or family – not mine anyway. I completely agree with the addictive part of the hobby and in my case could upgrade it to obsession. That feeling where you have hit the brick-wall and rack your brain and anyone else’s who’ll listen on how to break through – and you won’t be happy until you have exhausted all avenues to find the answer. This in turn improves your research skills, your understanding of those records and their relationship with others records, and your knowledge of history and society. You may then become the expert and share your new-found knowledge.

  12. John says:

    We should be grateful for all those folks who approach genealogy as a pastime. Let\s have more of them as the Ancestrys of this world would never work as diligently as they do just in pursuit of the small professional market.
    Interesting that the definition of genealogy as the compiling and making of pedigrees is no longer the one adopted by the US Board for Certification of Genealogists. For them it’s the study of families in genetic and historical context. See their complete definition at http://www.bcgcertification.org/.
    Also interesting that the original motivation for the post, Genealogy In Time magazine and a disproportionate number of the comments here are Canadian.

  13. pharostutors says:

    John, thanks for your comment. You raise two interesting points. Firstly, definitions and who they are used by. Secondly, whether or not active engagement or ‘serious intent’ in genealogy is skewed more to some countries than others. I believe it might be! I have always thought that the British tend to devote themselves to records, while the North Americans (inc. Canadians) are more interested in, or have a more highly developed sense of technique and methods, and I think that is a function of the relative difficulty of obtaining records from far way, while here in Britain, we are awash with them. Of course, that is changing now that so much is online. I wonder if that means that methods and technique will tend to decline in popularity in North America?

  14. Annick H says:

    Well I wish I could visit repositories (number 4) in person! Remember that not all of us have roots in the USA. I am the ONLY one in my family on this side of the Atlantic. So when I win the lottery!!!!! maybe I can commute to France and Italy more often and do more SERIOUS research.
    Annick

  15. Sherry Irvine says:

    I would add something to the list which I think sets the serious genealogists apart and that is taking an equal interest in people, places, and records. The first two are obvious. But records seldom get the same attention, yet, they have a history too. It is the careful blending of information of all three that makes research serious, and more likely to be successful.

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