Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/12/2011 (3605 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
You might have seen the intriguing ads for Ancestry.ca on television or on the back of a bus. "Who will you find?" the ads ask.
Ancestry.ca calls itself the "world's largest online family history resource." It turns out that Canadian family historians spend a lot of time and money tracing their roots. A pair of Carleton University academics -- one a historian, the other a business professor -- have embarked on a groundbreaking research project to find out why we do it and how much of our time and money we invest in the search.
Genealogy is a multibillion-dollar global industry. Ancestry.ca, for example, gives some services away free but charges subscriptions for access to other databases that can cost as much as $30 a month, says Del Muise, a professor emeritus of history at Carleton. Companies such as Ancestry.ca have agents who act as "pickers," looking for historical records that people searching for their roots might be willing to pay to access.
"They are taking databases in the public domain and digitizing them and selling it back to the people. The secret of what they do is that they take databases like the census and they figure out a way to search it," Muise says.
Some databases are free or free for a limited time. But family historians often get hooked and continue to pay for access to records, tracing not just a straight line but all the branches on their family tree.
As well, there are more than a dozen magazines devoted to genealogy. Professional genealogists are monetizing their blogs. And people who are searching for their roots spend money on more than subscriptions to databases, says Leighann Neilson, a professor of marketing. They might plan vacations to visit their ancestral homeland, take a course in life-writing or scrapbooking or discover a sudden fondness for Irish whiskey or decorating with plaid.
"My brother has a tattoo he wants to ink in the colours of the family tartan. It all comes from the same impetus," Neilson says. "I'm interested in how we maintain these multiple affinities."
In searching her own family tree -- and paying to access some databases -- Neilson found out the family line almost died out within a few weeks in 1920 during a secondary outbreak of the Spanish influenza. She believes people often underestimate how much they spend on family history.
"It's kind of like adding up how much you spend on shoes in a year. You really don't want to know."
Muise and Neilson's research has included a survey of family historians. They want to know the demographics of family historians and why they do it. The survey closed at the end of November and attracted about 2,400 responses.
"We're trying to probe how people have a consciousness of the past that they work through by doing this sort of thing," Muise says. "We're seeing that people are engaging in genealogy partially for identity purposes. It helps them to understand who they are."
Early responses suggest some family historians start just because they're curious. Others start because they see themselves as a connecting link between older and younger generations. Some mention a specific event, often the death of a relative who leaves documents, photos or letters.
In a previous survey about Canadians and their pasts, Muise discovered about 20 per cent of the 3,500 adults who responded had worked on genealogy or family history. Extrapolate that number and it means five or six million Canadians have an interest in the subject, he says. The Internet has revolutionized genealogy, and the vast majority of family historians now work online.
Neilson believes the family-history industry might be revving up as baby boomers look to retirement and families become more widely dispersed.
Genealogy got a bump in interest in the U.S as a result of the American bicentennial in 1976 and interest in the 1977 television miniseries Roots, based on Alex Haley's book.
In Canada, there's another possible explosion of interest as we near 2017, Canada's 150th birthday, Neilson says.
Muise and Neilson will blog about their findings as they analyze the responses to the survey. You can read the blog at genealogyincanada.blog spot.com. For more information, visit www.canadas history.ca and click on Learn.
-- Postmedia News