A newsletter reader this week sent an e-mail asking a simple question:
In short, the answer is "No." In fact, I question the "fact." I don't believe that genealogy is as popular as often claimed. Let's look at the facts.
I have heard two slightly different claims:
- Genealogy is the most popular (or second or third or fourth most popular) topic on the World Wide Web.
- Genealogy is the most popular (or second or third or fourth most popular) hobby/personal interest in the United States.
I have no doubt that genealogy is very popular. For proof, I can point out that more than 40,000 people read this newsletter every week. FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com are some of the more popular sites on the Web with hundreds of thousands of users. Local genealogy libraries and Family History Centers serve thousands of patrons every day. The study of one's family tree obviously is a popular activity among Americans, but is it really the second most popular interest? Or tenth most popular? Or fiftieth?
The only reputable survey that I know of was published in American Demographics magazine in 1995. The survey reported that some 113 million adults in the US, or four out of ten of us, were at least somewhat interested in family history. This survey appears to prove that genealogy is one of America's most popular hobbies.
I do believe this article's accuracy, but I suggest you closely examine the question asked: "at least somewhat interested." If you approached 100 strangers on the street and asked each of them if they were "at least somewhat interested" in their family tree, how many would answer in the affirmative?
Now, what happens if you ask 100 strangers if they are VERY interested in their family tree or if they have ever done anything at all to discover more about their ancestry? I don't know the answer to that, but I suspect it would be much less than four out of ten.
While many people may claim to be "somewhat interested," I dare say that most of them have never been to a genealogy library or to a courthouse. Most have never cranked a single roll of microfilm in their lives. How many people in your neighborhood do that? Some may have looked at one or two free online genealogy databases to find people of the same last name, but does that count as being interested in genealogy? I don't think they are very interested if they have never gone beyond the simplest of searches.
The American Demographics magazine survey was conducted in 1995, when the World Wide Web was in its infancy. In that year, probably 90% of all Americans had never seen the Web. In fact, some had yet to hear of it. What a difference we have seen the the past fourteen years! Today we do know that genealogy is a very popular topic on the web. I suspect there are more genealogists today than in 1995.
In short, while the 1995 survey in American Demographics magazine may be interesting, I believe it is no longer valid. The genealogy world has changed greatly since 1995. I would not trust a survey that is fourteen years old to provide meaningful answers about anything that is popular on today's World Wide Web.
The other surveys that I am aware of were conducted by Maritz Research. These surveys asked similar vague questions:
- Are you at least “somewhat interested” in tracing your family history?
- Are you at least “somewhat involved” with genealogy?
Sixty percent of the respondents said they were at least “somewhat interested,” and 45% claimed to be at least “somewhat involved” with genealogy. That sounds promising. However, again, let's examine the questions.
What is the definition of "at least somewhat?" Does "at least somewhat interested" mean, "I remember grandmother talking about that?" Or does it mean, "I have a database on my computer or a notebook on the shelf containing the results of my own search?"
The other thing that bothers me about the Maritz Research is the fact that it was commissioned and paid for by Broderbund, the former producers of Family Tree Maker software. One has to wonder how accurate a survey is when the company paying the researchers has a very biased interest in the results.
The reports of the Maritz Research surveys always reported glowing results and then casually mentioned that Family Tree Maker was the best-selling genealogy program in the world. The same reports usually did not mention that the company that produced Family Tree Maker commissioned and paid for the entire survey.
I wonder what the percentages would be in response to this question:
To be sure, genealogy is very popular on the World Wide Web. A search for the word "genealogy" on Google returns more than 97 million occurrences of the word. Time Magazine even named genealogy as one of the four most popular topics on the Internet in its 19 April 1999 cover article. (Sex, finance, and sports were the other three.)
My question is this: Does this high number of web sites reflect the true popularity of genealogy, or is it merely a reflection of the fact that today's genealogy programs can create thousands of web pages from one person's database? I suspect the answer is a blend of both.
The fact that 97 million web pages contain the word "genealogy" does not equate to 97 million people posting their own ancestry. In fact, it might be only tens of thousands of people using their genealogy programs to create thousands of web pages each.
If genealogy is truly one of the four most popular personal interests of Americans, we should be able to prove that by other means, right? We should be able to measure the dollars being spent, the popularity of local and national conferences, the number of magazines that serve this personal interest, and more. These are all tried and true measurements used by tens of thousands of marketing firms and others.
Let's start with magazines. If genealogy were truly as popular as our nation's interest in sports, at least one genealogy magazine would have a circulation similar to that of Sports Illustrated. Sadly, I do not know of such a genealogy publication. I could make the same argument about Newsweek, Oprah Magazine, Boating Magazine, Field & Stream, This Old House, Travel & Leisure Magazine, Better Homes & Gardens, Popular Mechanics, various movie fan magazines, and many more. There is no genealogy magazine in a list of the 100 most popular magazines of today. The magazine stand at your local drug store or grocery store probably contains no genealogy magazines at all. Larger bookstores typically do have genealogy magazines available, but not nearly as many as for other topics, such as sports, automobiles, needlework, camping, or pets. If I stop at the local magazine rack, I get the impression that more people are interested in poodles than in their ancestry.
How about national conventions?
The national Star Wars convention draws 40,000 to 50,000 attendees per year. The National Rifle Association's conventions attract 60,000+ attendees. The national convention of ham radio operators draws 25,000 to 30,000 attendees every year to Dayton, Ohio. A local health and fitness expo in Phoenix draws 70,000 attendees, and I suspect most of them live within 100 miles of the conference location. Local golfing, hunting, or fishing conferences near me regularly draw 10,000 people and, again, I suspect that most attendees live within 100 miles of the convention center.
Then there are hundreds of local and regional antique fairs, hot rod shows, boating shows, sportsmen's shows, and more. Many of these attract tens of thousands of people; some attract hundreds of thousands.
So, how big are the national genealogical conferences? In recent years, the two largest conferences attracted only 800 to 1,600 attendees each. Is this an indication that genealogy is one of the five most popular personal interests among Americans?
Finally, let's examine the businesses that serve this personal interest. I do not have sales figures available, but obviously the golfing industry serves a multi-billion dollar marketplace. So do firms that sell to hunting, fishing, gardening, health & fitness, pets, firearms, stamp collecting enthusiasts, and other companies that serve personal interests.
What is the total dollar amount spent on genealogy per year? While I am sure it is a significant sum, it must be a pittance when compared to the other personal interests just mentioned. Let's compare the money spent against that of other personal interests: golf, hunting, fishing, etc.
In summation, I will suggest that genealogy is indeed a very popular activity among Americans. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million, people are actively looking for their family heritage. However, that number pales in comparison to some other personal interests that I have mentioned.
Do you believe there are more genealogists than that? Is genealogy one of the top five personal interests in America? I have one challenge for you: find some believable statistics to prove it!