I recently read a message on one of the online message boards that disturbed me a bit. Apparently this person is rather new to genealogy and was experiencing some frustrations. He wrote, “I'm bummed though because I am not having any luck with Ancestry.com on finding any of my ancestors. Any advice on that?”
While genealogists have long dreamed of the day when we could sit at home and do all our family tree research via computer, we certainly have not arrived at that Utopian state yet. There are millions of genealogy records available today online, but the data available in electronic format at this time only scratches the surface. The writer of this online message apparently was not aware of the other resources available. From his brief message I would assume that he had only looked at the World Wide Web. Perhaps he only looked at the one site. I must say that several people jumped in to answer his online remarks, and the writer soon received a lot of good advice. However, for every person who asks such a question, I wonder if there are many more who never ask.
I have never seen any statistics on the topic of electronic genealogy resources available, but my “gut feel” is that probably less than 2% of the records of genealogical interest have ever been computerized.
In short, even with all the online databases available today, the newcomer who uses only an online database has searched no more than a tiny fraction of the genealogy records available. The newcomer to family tree research still needs to find and use the excellent genealogy sources that have been available elsewhere for years. Luckily, this is easy to do -- and it is rather inexpensive.
Microfilmed records of hundreds of millions of births, marriages, deaths, census records, military records, land transfers, and more are available at no cost or low cost. You can rent the microfilms at any of the thousands of local Family History Centers. In addition, there are still more microfilms available at many larger libraries as well as at the U.S. National Archives Regional Libraries. Major libraries often have both books and microfilms, as do may local genealogy societies. A few societies, such as the New England Historic Genealogical Society, may have very large libraries and many staff members who can help. Of course, writing letters asking for copies of old records still works very well.
In short, perhaps the genealogy community needs to work still harder at attracting, encouraging, and educating newcomers. Maybe I should not say, “work harder;” perhaps I should say, “find new approaches.” The new approaches may, in fact, be easier than today’s methods. I suspect there are millions of people who now believe that they can have the instant gratification of “pop-top genealogy:” go online and find all your ancestors before the ten o’clock news. These newcomers are disappointed when that doesn’t happen. I suspect many newcomers quickly drop the project and move on to some other interest.
The biggest losers in this process are the would-be genealogists and their families; they do not obtain the family heritage information they seek. However, the providers of online genealogy information also lose out since these short-term genealogists probably will not come back next year to find newly-added information. If we could get these newcomers interested, motivated, and even excited, genealogy database vendors would profit from future sales. I suspect that genealogy societies would profit as well as seeing their membership numbers increase. Best of all, the newcomers and their families would benefit as they discover their true heritage.
What is the answer? I suspect there are several. However, I would suggest that local and national genealogical societies hold the key. How about offering coupons online that can be downloaded and printed, offering a free three-month membership in a local, regional, or even national society? Even better, how about a trial membership in an ethnic society of interest? I am sure an Ohio resident of Hungarian descent would love to find out more about the resources available from the Hungarian Genealogy Society of Greater Cleveland. Today, most Hungarian descendants in Ohio probably don’t even know that such societies exist.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could give these newcomers an opportunity to discover the world outside of the online databases? Not all of these newcomers will take advantage of such an offer, but a percentage of them will. A society web site's introduction should suggest that the newcomer fill out a form and click a “Submit” button, and voila! They receive a newsletter or two and get invited to the next local meeting.
As I see it, the primary distribution mechanism for these “coupons” should focus on the various online web sites. I do not think the commercial companies will create these “electronic coupons” by themselves. They simply do not have enough profit motive to do so. In these lean business times, we (the genealogists) cannot sit back and wait for a public-minded commercial company to invent this incentive for us. Instead, someone within our own community should invent the “electronic coupon” and then supply it to all the genealogy vendors at no cost. I suspect that most vendors would be willing to include such an “electronic coupon package” on their web sites.
Indeed, any society interested in such offers can contact me and I will be glad to publicize such offers on www.eogn.com. However, that is but one outlet; we need many more.
Hopefully we can encourage the person who wrote, “I'm bummed though because I am not having any luck … finding any of my ancestors.”
Any other suggestions?