In 1976, Alex Haley’s book, Roots, was an instant best seller. In 1977, Roots, became a TV miniseries that broke records for viewership. It was the compelling story of Kunta Kinte, a man captured in Ghana, enslaved and brought to the United States. Kunta Kinte never forgot his African family and heritage, proudly and passionately passing on his ancestor’s names and stories.
Roots and Kunta Kinte’s story awakened viewers curiosity and a desire to know about one’s own family and history. Genealogy, once a primarily scholarly pursuit, was now the “hobby” of people everywhere. In the 10-15 years following Roots, I and many thousands of Americans haunted the libraries, courthouses, archives, cemeteries and other repositories of family and historical data. We used the postal system to request records and kept findings on paper and filed our research in binders and filing cabinets.
Many libraries offered genealogy classes, provided family group and pedigree forms and help to the new wave of researchers. State and county genealogical societies emerged and grew. Existing national genealogy groups reached out to the new researchers and urged them to become members. Of course, the commercial market recognized the potential in the genealogy craze and how-to books, subscription magazines and journals sprang up, as did designer pedigree charts.
Back in those days, many family researchers were dedicated to good methodologies, accuracy and took pride in their findings. Many others were happy to find ancestors and fill in pedigree charts to take to their family reunions. Then there were many whose genealogy research fell somewhere between serious researchers and pedigree chartists.
Through the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s technology and the internet were developing fast, becoming accessible to anyone. In 1983 Ancestry launched a genealogy newsletter, then a popular subscription magazine that accelerated the growth of family research enthusiasts. In 1996, Ancestry opened an online, fee based, searchable database, which was an immediate success! Other databases and informational sites quickly populated the internet with genealogy offerings – most fee based, some free.
Today genealogy is a $2 billion industry and holds 2nd place as the most popular “hobby” in the United States. But is genealogy a “hobby” or a serious research endeavor? That depends. Our national genealogical organizations have changed their message over the past few years, from “hobby” status offerings to greater emphasis on the scholarly research process, documentation and proof standards.
There are many reasons for this change of focus, not the least of which was pressure from research professionals, a question of sustainability of the “hobby” status, and market feasibility. Family researchers were showing signs of frustration, realizing they lacked the resource knowledge and research skills to compile a “real family tree.” Many wanted to “get organized” and understand how to research effectively.
As a result, we began to see a shift in programming and the marketing message resulting in emphasis on research skills, documentation, analysis of evidence and writing accurate family stories. The shift in focus also precipitated new revenue in genealogical resources.
National and state conferences now regularly headline speakers known for their expertise in research skills and methods, organization and writing classes too. The Genealogy Proof Standard and DNA are essential course offerings too. Genealogical and Public Libraries also offer ongoing programming in these subjects – classes fill quickly.
There are still varying tiers of those pursuing their family histories, but the more focused family historian is a rapidly growing segment. That segment needs the libraries, the archives and ethnic museums, court houses, cemeteries, vital records, military papers, historical venues, and technology and the internet too. Perhaps even more important is that segment is helping keep history alive.
Bonnie Samuel, All Rights Reserved,©2018