Wednesday, August 9, 2006

If Genealogy interest is so high, why are the numbers down?

Back in early July, Dick Eastman on his blog asked this question, and received quite a few comments, including two from me. Dick made the observations that:

Fact #1: Genealogy is more popular today than ever before. It is the second or third or fourth most popular topic on the Web, depending upon whose sources you care to cite.

Fact #2: Attendance at all genealogy venues is down. The average attendance at genealogy conferences is declining. (Note that I wrote "average." There are some notable exceptions.) Membership in genealogy societies is also declining. Finally, the number of visitors to most major genealogy libraries reportedly is declining.

Is it just me, or does anyone else see a contradiction in these two "facts?" If interest in genealogy is growing, why aren't we seeing more and more people at conferences, libraries, and society meetings?

You can read the rest of his article and the comments at the link above. It was a good discussion, with a number of views represented.

In my opinion, the two big factors that caused the decline include:

1) The proliferation of genealogy resources on the Internet.

2) The aging of our genealogy population.

The Internet is very seductive - you can spend months collecting new data for your family, without knowing a whole lot about doing real genealogy research in original sources. This type of "pajamas research" appeals to the generation of boomers (still working) who want everything "now." Unfortunately, many don't want, or don't realize the need, to take the next step and go to a library, join a society or attend a conference.

The aging of those who have done "real research" and don't do much Internet research precludes them, physically and financially, from going to conferences or attending society meetings. It's unfortunate, but true.

That's why societies have to change their programs to incorporate a blend of traditional and Internet topics, help their members get to libraries, publicize the conferences, etc.

While Dick and others are concerned about conferences, since that is a big part of their genealogy work, many of us are more concerned about our local societies.

My view is that in almost every situation, the 80-20 rule of societal interaction applies:

1) In our society of 300 million people, about 20% express an "interest" in genealogy - say 60 million people.

2) Of those with an "interest," 20% have done some real research, the others are just theoretically interested - so say 12 million have done some research.

3) Of those who have done research, about 20% have actively pursued genealogy research (have a colelction of records, software, databases, etc) - say 2.4 million people.

4) About 20% of those folks are fairly active now in pursuing their ancestry, the rest have let it lapse or can't pursue it now due to any number of reasons - so we're down to about 500,000 people who are currently "fairly active".

5) About 20% of those "fairly active" research folks are in local, regional or national societies, the other 80% either can't afford it, do their research independent of any group, etc - say about 100,000 people.

6) About 20% of those folks in the local societies are "real active" - they are officers, volunteers, speakers, attendees at nearly every meeting, etc. The other 80% attend once in awhile or don't count society activities as a high priority, but as a "nice to do once in awhile." So we're down to maybe 20,000 real active people.

7) About 20% of those folks who are real active on the local level become speakers, attend conferences occasionally, and consider becoming a professional - that's maybe 4,000 people.

8) About 20% of those folks are actively engaged in the genealogy profession - they write books, magazine articles and research articles, they attend and speak at conferences, they work for clients, they are accredited, etc. That adds up to about 1,000 people.

So why are only 1,000 (more or less) regularly attending the major conferences? It comes down to those 4,000 people in 7) above - their health, travel costs, schedule conflicts, and other factors, I think. About 20% attend, of whom some are the item 8) professionals!

The above is just my own theory, but in my local area it sort of pans out. My small Chula Vista (city has 200,000 population)society has 80 members - we have about 20 who attend just about every meeting, 4 are regular speakers, none is a professional. The larger San Diego (city has population of 1.2 million) society has about 400 members, has an average meeting attendance of 80 or so, has 15 to 20 who are speakers, and several who are professionals. The percentages don't add up exactly, but you get the idea.

So how can we increase the membership in societies and increase attendance at confderences? We need to attract more people in groups 3) and 4) above by communicating better and by offering new and different programs at times convenient to these people. Many of them work, and cannot attend a weekday society meeting. We also need to get these people back to the library to pursue research in original sources - records not found on the internet (yet! See yesterdays post on Arlene Eakle's article).

I'll close this long-winded analysis here, but I welcome your thoughts and comments! Did anyone read the whole thing? You get a gold genealogy star today!


Jasia said...

Bravo Randy! You have a very well thought out and articulated position. You make a good case for considering society/conference attendence numbers with a mathematical formula in mind. It certainly makes sense to me.

You have some interesting suggestions for what can be done to improve the situation as well. Let me guess, you're in one of those 20% groups aren't you?

Anonymous said...

The last two major genealogical conferences I have attended had well over 1000 people and close to 2000 people or more. Both were in Utah - one in St. George and the other in Bountiful. At the St. George Jamboree the following was written on the website of that event:

"1,000 PEOPLE ATTENDED. [Editor's note: the Dixie Center estimated traffic at well over 2000.] The pronominal success of this large-scale genealogy conference should send a message to others. It isn't necessary to charge $200+ for people to attend a multi-day, multi-track genealogy conference. Also, the keynote address and the vendor areas were open to the general public without requiring the very minimal $25 per day entrance fee. This encouraged newbies to find out about the conference before registering for classes.

VENDORS REPORTED RECORD SALES. Maybe folks had money to spend since they weren't paying a high price to get in the door? Not sure why this is happening, but for two years in a row, vendors have reported record sales from this single venue in particular compared to two other national conferences.

and the other conference's web site had between 1500 to 2000 in attendance. The speakers were excellent at both places and lecture topics were geared to both professional and non-professional genealogist to attend.

If the numbers are down at the national conventions it may be because people are attending these less expensive and very good conventions.

Jeanette Daniels

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SEfromNC said...

I was especially interested in the analysis - our genealogy society has gone from about 100 people at a meeting in the late 70s to 5 at our last meeting. Trying to think of ways to resuscitate it.

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