02 January 2012


     Of all the developments that I have witnessed in the genealogy world in last three decades, the most profound change has been the evolution of family history researchers into a commercial consumer group. We are now a target audience, a market segment--in short, customers. When I began serious genealogy research thirty years ago, my biggest budget items were notepads and stamps, plus an occasional long distance telephone bill. Now I have a huge genealogy budget, with "big ticket items," such as my online database subscriptions, costing hundreds each year. Throw in a research trip to Ireland every few years, annual dues to a few organizations, upgraded computer programs, DNA testing, webinars, and attendance fees at a conference or two, and genealogy becomes a very expensive undertaking.
     The rising costs are a problem in more than a budgeting sense. I am at the point where my budget now has an effect on my research. With many churches and online sites now charging for record requests, I have to weigh the costs of what records I request and when. I have poured so much money into the "pay per retrieved record" sites that I no longer go on "fishing expeditions." I miss my fishing expeditions, and my research has suffered. While casting a wide research net did not always catch an ancestor, some of my "dead end" searches have been very valuable in weeding out red herring ancestors and false leads. But if I am spending this much money, I want hits, not misses.
     I do understand the work and funds involved in researching records, especially for church secretaries with other pressing duties. I know that placing records online costs time and money. But what makes me angry is that I believe that novice family historians are affected adversely by the marketing methods of some genealogy suppliers.
     Current advertising campaigns entice genealogy consumers by stressing  either 1) how easy genealogy is if you use their services or join their organization, or 2) how hard genealogy is without their aid. I am not targeting commercial sites, I have found some bothersome marketing slogans used by groups, organizations, and even individuals.
     The result is often off-putting for people who might otherwise pursue their family history. I've had more than one researcher tell me, "I went to so-and-so's talk, and he made genealogy sound so hard. I can't do it myself, and I don't have the money to hire someone (or join the organization or buy a computer product, etc.)."
     But what bothers me the most is the marketing that promises ease--if you subscribe to the site or you use a service, finding your ancestors is as easy as paying the fee. I've had multiple instances of persons handing me census returns, family trees, and church records of individuals who are not their ancestors.
     "But I paid for this!" "I did a search for 'John Magee' and this was the number one result!" "But this stuff was online, and I followed the bells and whistles as instructed!" "Someone in Ireland looked this up for me!"
     I have had a very hard time convincing most of these people that the "research" was plain wrong, and that their money was wasted.
     Contrary to modern marketing slogans, a family historian DOES have to know a few things about his or her ancestors before conducting research. We have to know enough facts about our family history to determine whether the results we obtain are truly those of our ancestors. We have to use our brains and our knowledge of record sources and family history to determine if a "hit" is a record of our ancestor's. So far, I know of no search engine or algorithm that can perform that function for us.
     Genealogy has become a consumer good, and like all purchasers, we have to be educated and aware if we value return on our dollar (or Euro or pound or loonie).