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How Popular is Genealogy?

Updated on January 29, 2011
Bob Albee received a Presidential Leadership Award
Bob Albee received a Presidential Leadership Award

Bob Albee is one of the most accomplished and respected public works engineers in the country, having overseen Boston's central artery project and the building of a new airport tunnel.

Bob is also an amateur genealogist.

"For people to make that trip across the ocean, it meant that they gave up everything they had. I wanted to understand why everyone in (my) family line did that," Bob says in a genealogy video that he made to tell his family story.

Bob is not alone in his interest in genealogy. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of other people, share his passion. And you know a hobby has really hit the big time when it appears on the cover of Time magazine. Genealogy had that distinction as far back as 1999 - and the intervening decade has been more than kind to this most personal of pastimes.

But is genealogy really America's second most popular hobby - after gardening - as Fran Shane, formerly Executive Director of the National Genealogical Society, said?

Family Tree and Facebook

According to Family Tree magazine, 78% of Americans say that are interested in finding out more information about their ancestry and family history. And half of all American families have already researched their roots. Even younger people are interested in genealogy: according to some surveys a whopping 83% of 18 to 34 year olds have the bug (to one degree or another).

And where the young people are, Facebook is always close behind. Facebook's "We're Related" application that helps users connect with their family members is one of its top Apps - surpassing Texas HoldEm Poker, Bumper Sticker, and even Video in active monthly users - if you can believe that.

Bob Albee doesn't spend much time on Facebook, but he has traced his family history from Africa to Scandinavia, through William the Conqueror to the New World - where Bob's ancestors settled towns, battled Indians and fought in the Revolutionary War. His interest was particularly taken by his crofter ancestors.

Bob Albee helped transform Boston with one of the largest construction projects in this nation's history - Boston's "Big Dig".
Bob Albee helped transform Boston with one of the largest construction projects in this nation's history - Boston's "Big Dig".

Bob's ancestors were crofters

Crofters were small tenant farmers who used the common lands in Scotland to feed their families.

Bob's research revealed that around 1800, Scottish landlords began to enclose or fence the common lands to raise sheep for wool. And thousands of crofters – like his ancestors the McKinnons and the Frasers - were tossed out, losing their livelihood.

Some crofters fought back and some – like Bob's ancestors – emigrated to Canada.

One of Bob's "crofter" ancestors: Mary McKinnnon
One of Bob's "crofter" ancestors: Mary McKinnnon

Bob tells the story of the family crofters in a genealogy video - using modern day as well as historical images to bring that difficult period back to life with the benefit of modern technology.

It's not just individuals who have come to recognize the importance of immigrant stories in this land of (mostly) immigrants. Congress climbed onto the genealogy and ancestry bandwagons in 2002 when it officially designated October as National Family History Month. "With the advent of the Internet, there has been an explosion of interest in family history. An estimated 15 million Americans use the Internet each month to research their family history. Genealogy Internet sites are some of the most popular sites on the World Wide Web", Senator Orrin Hatch said at the time.

And well positioned among this swelling crowd of genealogy enthusiasts is Bob Albee, who has traced his American ancestors back around 10 generations. He was thrilled to discover that one ancestor founded towns - mere miles from where Bob currently lives just south of Boston. Bob visits those towns, and he stops by their graveyards.

Kicking gravestones

"What I particularly enjoy most is going around kicking gravestones and seeing what comes out of them", says Bob in the genealogy video which he put together using all the research that he did both online and in person.

Is genealogy the most popular hobby in the country? Dick Eastman in his popular Online Genealogy Newsletter examined that question in depth recently. He noted that when last he checked, 97 million web pages contained the word "genealogy". But he was not convinced.

Numbers attending conferences and magazines devoted to the subject just don't swamp the boat like fishing, golf or guns. "Genealogy is indeed a very popular activity among Americans", Eastman concludes. "Hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million, people are actively looking for their family heritage." But he's pretty sure that many more people are engaged in other popular hobbies.

Another ancestor Bob discovered: Stephen Deagle
Another ancestor Bob discovered: Stephen Deagle

Interest in genealogy

Lots and lots of people are certainly interested in genealogy. According to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc., over 113 million people in this country are actively engaged in genealogy and family history research. 

And millions are using the internet for their ancestry research - the numbers are now well up from Senator Hatch's estimate back in 2002. Ancestry.com reports that it now has over 3 million active users and over 1 million paying subscribers who have created over 12 million family trees.

And tens of millions of people are watching genealogy: NBC's genealogy video show Who Do You Think You Are? was so popular (around 7 million viewers for its 2010 debut) that it is coming out again in a second series in 2011 (Series 2 premier: February 4).

None of which surprises Bob Albee.

Bob has now completed his genealogy video and he held the world wide premier at a family reunion this Christmas just past. But the work of a genealogist is never really over. Bob will continue to research - both on the internet and in the nearby towns and graveyards. Because while he has answered his most burning question - why his ancestors risked all to come to this country - there are many other questions and a bundle of loose ends still at work in Bob's mind. And like any good engineer, Bob cannot abide unanswered questions and loose ends.

Genealogy video

Turning genealogy research into a professional genealogy video is one way to ensure that all that research is shown to its best advantage. Neat rows of folders on shelves, and a well stocked Ancestry.com site, are things to be proud of; but turning dusty old images and documents into a living, breathing documentary is something else again.

So, is the number of people actually doing genealogy one million - or is it ten million? Do more people fish, or surf the web looking for shoals of ancestors?

At the end of the day, the number hardly matters. Like the enthusiast with their fishing pole setting off before dawn, people like Bob Albee are in it because they just enjoy it. They thrill at the serendipity of that chance discovery, the surprising catch - or "kicking gravestones to see what comes out," to use Bob's words. And with genealogy video, amateur genealogists get to showcase their catch - a pleasure known to hunters, fishermen and genealogists alike.

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    • JaneA profile imageAUTHOR

      JaneA 

      7 years ago from California

      I just completed a video biography project for a 92 year old woman who has a FaceBook page and 28 friends - including a number of relatives - so you never know who you will find there!

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      7 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Wow - I never thought of looking for family members on Facebook! When I first signed up, I went on a mad search for old friends etc. but have not looked for anyone for some time. What a great idea!

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