Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Where Are We Today? -- An Overview of Genealogy -- Part Three

One of the more dramatic changes in the overall genealogical community has been the proliferation of genealogy conferences. The number of local and national conferences in all parts of the country has skyrocketed. The big conferences continue to draw participants while the smaller conferences multiply. But what is even more dramatic is the explosion of Webinars and Webcasts. I expect that you could attend a conference or a webinar every week for an entire year if you wanted to do so and had the time and money necessary. One example of what is coming in the near future, is the call by RootsTech 2014 to have 600 satellite conferences throughout the world; more than ten a week even if they were spread out evenly over an entire year.

It is true that the vast majority of these conferences are local affairs with perhaps a hundred participants or so in attendance; but the large number raises a question as to whether the increase is due to an increased interest in genealogy and greater public participation or simply a response to the increase in conferences? The concern is that the increase is in the nature of a "bubble." Is there really a demand for so many conferences? Do we need to start changing the way conferences are conducted to continue to attract participants?

One of the effects I observed during the currently ongoing economic downturn, was that many of vendors who attended conferences in the past had disappeared. They were either purchased outright by other vendors or had gone out of business. Some of the smaller conferences that had attracted large commercial vendors, have been left without participation by the major genealogy companies. Some of the largest companies have stopped supporting smaller conferences altogether. Since the very small conferences rely mainly on club or society dues and a smaller or no entrance fee, they have not been impacted by the decrease in vendor support. In many cases, the conferences are put on entirely by volunteers at a location such as a church or clubhouse that does not add overhead to the conference. On the other end of the spectrum, the very large conferences in major venues are being forced to grow even larger to maintain the increasing costs of holding a conference. I predict that we will see the larger conferences either moving to smaller venues with less "big city" overhead or consolidating as is being done with the RootsTech 2015 unified conference with the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) Conference.

It looks like, for the present, the number of conferences, webinars, webcasts and similar activities will continue to expand. It will be interesting to see how many of the medium-sized conferences will either lose out to the "free" competition or change to another format.

If there is one area of genealogy that I see floundering, it is societies and clubs. There are a few notable exceptions but the atmosphere for societies is rapidly changing and from my perspective the societies are not changing rapidly enough to survive. Percentage wise, few of the societies have a vibrant online presence and their functions are being rapidly undermined by social networking. In Arizona, for example, the local societies have abandoned most of the traditional activities that used to attract new members. Instead, they have become ingrown groups of individuals with little contact to the active online world. Now, in saying this, I fully expect that I will receive dozens or more comments from members of societies that will claim that their society is growing and vibrant. Please note that I did not say that all societies fell into this category but that the majority were struggling with the changes in the genealogical community.

I would expect societies, as they are traditionally constituted, will disappear at an increasing rate unless they can come up with a way to become technologically relevant and attractive to new members.

How are the genealogical oriented businesses doing? I already pointed out that the very large international companies seem to be holding their own and growing. But what about the small, individually owned businesses? As I observe above, they are suffering along with other small businesses in the present economic environment. From time to time, I see new businesses announced but genealogy per se confers no protection to a small business and they are subject to the same failure rate as small businesses generally.

As far as the big businesses are concerned, they will keep getting bigger and absorb more of the smaller companies, especially those with databases of records or innovative technology. There is always the possibility that another big company will appear to give some competition to the big four, but that is not as likely now as it was a few years ago.

I guess I still have a few more subjects to cover, so here is what is left to come in the last installment.
  • Records acquisition and scanning
  • Resources
  • Availability of Records and Government Involvement


  1. Good observations James especially about the decline of societies as well as how some vendors are pulling out of national and local conferences.

    Some of my own observations:

    1. The rise in webinars within the genealogy community came about in conjunction with a downturn in the economy (less money to travel to genealogy conferences) as well as an increase in the number of users with broadband Internet access.

    2. Many vendors at conferences are not seeing ROI (return on investment) for having a booth, traveling, etc. especially when the attendance numbers don't seem to jive with the official numbers. Long time vendors at some events have decided that losing money has to take a backseat to event/society loyalty.

    3. Over the coming years expect to see a duality with in-person and livestreaming participation at genealogy conferences - and vendors picking up the tab to sponsor the live streaming.

    4. The key to success success and longevity is to get beyond the hyper-local focus and reach out to the virtual member via online programs.

    1. Very good observations. I agree with each of your points. I have already attended a local conference by Google Hangout and I would assume that would happen more frequently as people get used to the idea of having remote participation.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with your opinion on societies, especially concerning the smaller genealogy groups.