Monday, October 3, 2011

Working In the Garden of Genealogy: Farmers or Field Hands?

Over at Marian Pierre-Louis’s blog Roots and Rambles, there’s a discussion going on about the market for professional genealogists and other such things.  She started the discussion by linking to my earlier post (see here) and then posed these questions:  

Is the role of professional genealogists disappearing?  Are their services no longer needed?  Should they focus more on providing education services?  Do you feel genealogists haven't focused on education enough? Is it time to pack our bags and go?

I tend to be wordy, so rather than clutter up her “Comments” section, I thought I’d chime in over here.

There’s an old saying, sometimes attributed to Joseph P. Kennedy (JFK’s father), that goes something like this: “When your shoeshine boy is offering you investment advice, it’s time to get out of the market.”  Of course, old Joe Kennedy didn’t mean that all the money had dried up, just that savvy investors needed to look elsewhere, in places where nobody else was looking.

In other words, when everybody and their brother thinks they’re all of a sudden market experts or Warren Buffett wannabes, the real experts, having already recognized that the boom is over and that the bubble has quietly burst,  are now quietly looking elsewhere. 

In a way, something similar has been happening in genealogy during the past decade (even though I don’t think the family history boom is over in any way. Not by a long shot!

There’s a whole lot more genealogy being done than when I started in 1961.  More and more people are paying more and more money for things genealogical, including hiring professionals. More and more people are finding the genealogy niche markets, like I did with reprint maps way back in 1977.  Tim Sullivan’s reaches a hugely larger market than John Sittner’s original Ancestry, publisher of “The Source.” 

All of this is a good thing.

More and more people have been taking courses and seminars – both online and in-the-flesh, joining study groups and tuning it to podcasts and webinars, better educating themselves in the field with the hope of turning “pro” someday.  

I know this because they tell me directly at conferences where I speak and sell books. This is, of course, a good thing and makes for better genealogy overall, as more folks know more stuff and do better work for themselves and others. 

However, we’ve yet to see the market analyses that show there’s a huge amount of (a.) pent-up customer demand with (b.) corresponding purchasing power; i.e., customers with cash just waiting for more professional genealogists to appear and solve their brick-wall problems.

In a lot of respects, it reminds me of my days as a retail antiquarian bookseller. 

It seemed like every other person coming into the shop wanted to own a bookstore when he or she retired, mostly because he or she “just loved” books and thought it would be neat to spend the rest of their lives surrounded by old books, reading, reading, reading all the live-long day.  (Clue: real bookstore owners don't have time to read on the job...)

I wish they’d call me now; I have a great inventory of rare stuff to sell them at a great price to get them started.

Once “Antiques Roadshow” got popular, the “public at large” was convinced that every book more than 50 years old was supremely valuable and folks could never quite understand why I wouldn’t offer them hundreds – no, thousands – of dollars for their beat up family bibles and A.L. Burt reprints that they brought into the shop to sell.  It was almost like what the saw on the “Roadshow”, they thought.

Even later, folks would drop in with a book they wanted to sell and tell me how much it was worth.  After all, they already looked it up on the internet.  They zeroed in on a price they liked, disregarded the hundreds of others priced much, much lower, ignored both “points” and condition, and glossed over the fact that it was an ex-library book, with all the stamps and other marks.  The “internet” said it was worth $300, and, of course, the internet is always right.

The internet will also tell you you’re descended from Julius Caesar and the Queen of Sheba, too.

So, genealogists see that is now a public company with subscriber numbers in seven figures and that “Who Do You Think You Are” has been renewed for yet another season.  Ergo, genealogy is “hot.”  The public seems to be eating this stuff up and is spending money on genealogy hand over fist.

It’s only a matter of time when genealogy will spread, Amway-like, through every American sub-division and the market for professionals will go through the roof.

Maybe. Maybe not. 

The point of my original post was to point out that “the public at large” doesn’t quite understand what we do or why and how we do it and that the lack of understanding will have a negative effect on funding the public resources that we use (libraries and archives) and on keeping public records open and available. We talk to each other about what we do, but folks outside the group aren’t getting the message, as evidenced by the people talking about genealogy on financial websites.  Those guys are the “public at large”, not the folks reading this or Marian’s excellent blog.

How about this as a measure of the market:  first show me the section labeled “Genealogy” in your local Barnes and Noble.   

They have a labeled section for “Teen Paranormal Romance” but not for “Genealogy”, at least not where I live.  Apparently there’s a market for “TPR”, suggesting that there are more teens interested in having paranormal romances than folks interested in their genealogy.   

Here’s a market lesson to take away: when it’s ready for prime time, like Home Repair, Self-Help, Mysticism or Cooking, B&N will have a section for it.

Next – imagine what would happen if “Who Do You Think You Are” announced that they were done with “celebrity” genealogy;  next season, it was all about a grocery store cashier in Kansas, a bank teller named Horace, and a little old Italian lady from Syracuse, New York, all trying to  find their ancestors.  Where would the show’s ratings go then?   (Do you wanna flush those ratings, or should I…)   

Those currently high ratings come from folks who want to see their favorite stars in a reality TV setting, not folks who want to watch a reality show featuring their next door neighbor doing strange things.  They already have “Cops” for that…

You watch it because it’s about genealogy and if you must know, you’re way, way down the “long tail” of the TV ratings curve. You’d watch it if it were on C-SPAN at 2 AM (if only you could stay awake). 

Most folks wouldn’t. It’s called being in the minority.

Finally, here’s the real test: when there’s national conference JUST for professional genealogists held in a hotel conference room that seats at least 200 people and ONLY those folks who make a middle-class living doing professional genealogy (with no other income stream, no second job, no trust fund, no working spouse, no pension or other means of support) are allowed to attend, then there’s evidence of a viable market – but only if all those seats are filled.  

The first test of “admission” is if you’re filing a separate “Schedule C”, “Subchapter S” or corporate business return for your professional genealogy biz or receiving a W-2 or 1099 from a genealogy business as an employee.  The next is if you’re supporting a family of four, making mortgage and car payments and can still afford to send kids to college on your “professional genealogy” earnings alone.

I'm not saying that only folks who make a lot of money are professionals - far from it.  I'm not saying that the market for professional genealogists won't continue to expand.  I'm simply saying that the market is not huge.  And that there are many more tattoo artists than genealogists who earn a lot of money without any other visible means of support. 

Maybe you could already make the cut as a professional genealogist; if so,congratulations!  But remember - there aren't a lot of folks like you out there.

There will always be a market for professional genealogists, but we have a long way to go before the potential customer base is large enough to absorb everybody who wants to be a professional. 

Sure, you might have studied French for eight years in school and have a great accent, but there are only so many glamorous UN General Assembly translator jobs in New York City to be had. You might have to settle for being an elementary school substitute teacher instead. Or you may have to be satisfied with something else altogether.

Or better yet, you might decide to create your own niche business and grow your own market.

Voltaire’s Candide said it well hundreds of years ago: Il faut cultiver son jardin.  You have to cultivate your own garden.  Create your own market.  Become THE expert. Don’t follow; lead the pack.

Consider this: the young guy who sold me my new cell phone yesterday at the Verizon Wireless store told me he had both a bachelor’s degree and a shiny new master’s degree. Apparently the market demand for whatever his specific field was hasn’t grown as fast as the number of competing degreed graduates – which is why he’s now standing up for eight hours, chatting with the general public and selling phones.  

Nothing wrong with that, but probably not what he expected leaving high school.

Once again, the people – the public at large - who don’t do family history or understand the genealogical research process or know how to separate evidentiary wheat from chaff think what we do is simple.  It’s not.  They can’t see what value it has.  We can. 

For all of us who do this, we need keep on explaining, advising, encouraging and telling them our story. 

Some of us can tell them HOW to do it; that’s a different, more specialized educational activity.  We can all, however, keep telling them WHY we do it and WHY they should want to.

It’s what might be called “growing the market.”  Best to do it now in the days of plenty than in a time of drought.


  1. Whereas I had a vague idea of what I wanted to say, you managed to clarify my own thoughts for me :) Let's not forget we're all in this because we share a passion, whether we make money with it or not.

  2. Fabulous summary. Wish I could have said it as well. ;)

  3. As a passionate pro, I've found this discussion really interesting and agree that the way to "cultivate the garden" is to specialise and find a niche market. I think there will always be a market for professional genealogists who can access local records, although clients may want to spend less in times of economic downturn.