Preface: A while ago, there was dialogue in the blogosphere about the future of the large genealogy companies such as Ancestry.com, FamilySearch Inc., and others. Notable writers such as James Tanner, Thomas MacEntee, Randy Seaver, and the Ancestry Insider, have written about this issue. Many more experts have commented on the blogs of those who have written on this issue. Two figures familiar to Geneablogie readers, lawyers Patricia Lust, of the firm Gried Avarice Mammon & Lust, and Noe Udont, a sole practitioner, have a slightly different take on the future of genealogy: that is the prospects for professional genealogists You may recall that the last time we saw them, they were in court, arguing over the designation of a genealogist as an expert witness in a probate case. They sat down with me recently to discuss the issue “Whither Professional Genealogists?”
Note: The views expressed by the participants are theirs alone and do not reflect the views of GeneaBlogie or any other person or entity.
GeneaBlogie: Welcome back, ladies. You know, at the outset people are going ask what business either of you have discussing this topic. Can you address that?
Lust: Well, it’s been an eventful year. Right after trial in December 2009, I went on sabbatical from the firm. I had been so energized by working with Jean Runner [the genealogist that Lust convinced the court to accept as an expert witness]. I got very much taken in by the idea of researching family history. And you know me–it’s gotta be all or nothing. So while I was researching, I was also studying. I mean, you know, I was used to working 70 hours a week at Gried Avarice, and I couldn’t slow down. So within about seven months, I felt ready for the BCG. And, ta-da, I’m a Certified Genealogist!
GeneaBlogie: Congratulations! So what are you doing now?
Lust: After my sabbatical, I went part-time with the firm and I do genealogy with the rest of my time. I opened my business called Lust for the Past as soon as I was certified.
GeneaBlogie: I recall that you had been a high school history teacher before you went to law school.
Lust: That’s right. And I earned an MLS degree, originally intending to be a law librarian, not a litigator, as it turned out.
Geneablogie: Any surprises in your own family history?
Lust: Not so far. I had a pretty good idea of my Irish, African-American, and Native American roots as I grew up . [laughs] I know, I know . . . I was the only red-haired, green-eyed black Indian in Milwaukee! By the way, I am an enrolled member of a Wisconsin tribe.
Geneablogie: So what about you, Noe? I’ve always been fascinated by your name.
Udont: Yes . . . well that was a little joke that my dad from Burma, who went by the single name of Dont, played on my Swedish mother. “U” is a form of honorific in Burma, somewhat equivalent to “Rra” in Botswana or “Mr.” in the West. So when my mom wanted to name me “Noe,” a good but unusual Scandinavian name, Dad started using “U” before his name. And my birth certificate says “Noe Udont.” When I was a teenager, Dad said my name was a prompt to good behavior!
GeneaBlogie: That’s quite a story. But tell us why you have any cred discussing professional genealogists?
Udont: Well, way before that probate trial with Pat, I was into genealogy. But there’s only so much I could do on my own from America given my background: first-generation Burmese-American. My mother did have several distant cousins in the States. I signed up for every Internet I came across and spent thousands of dollars on my search. I actually turned up a couple of Burmese relatives in the States. But I was frustrated, so I went out and hired a professional genealogist to help.
GeneaBlogie: So you have a perspective on this . . . .
Udont: Yes. Let me say first that the professional genealogist that I used was very good. I met her at a meeting of our local society. Again, because of the distance, and cultural and political issues in Burma, what she could do was limited. But what she did do was fabulous. Turns out I have some Chinese ancestors who came to America in the 19th century.
GeneaBlogie: So what’s your perspective on the future of professional genealogy?
Udont: Well, you have to start in the not-to-distant cultural past! Fifty years ago, I would venture to say that the majority–a super-majority of people who were engaged in genealogy were rich people, or social elites or religiously-motivated folks. Many did it themselves, despite the rigors of research in the pre-digital era. I would posit that only the very rich actually hired professional genealogists back then.
Lust: I’d agree with Noe from the historical perspective. Unlike her, I’m over fifty years old [laughs] and nobody I knew growing up in Milwaukee had a formal interest in their family history. Oh, they knew it alright–far better than kids today know their family history. But they knew it because they’d been taught it by their elders. The idea of hiring a professional genealogist would have been as ludicrous in my middle-class neighborhood as hiring a chauffeur!
Udont: All of which goes to my point–the market for professional genealogists historically was pretty limited.
GeneaBlogie: But what about today? “Roots” was supposedly a great turning point–and that was almost thirty-five years ago.
Lust: Well, I think the market for professional genealogists remains limited. There are a couple government jobs, a few museum and society jobs, a handful of corporate jobs and that’s about it. Everybody else is trying to take private clients and basically end up making most of their income such as it is, from teaching, writing, and speaking.
Udont: If that’s so, why are so many people trying to become professional genealogists?
Lust: Because it’s fun and challenging and some think it’s easy money. Every other stay-at-home mom and her sister want to be genealogists. Just like every waiter in New York City thinks he’s going to Broadway and every used car salesman in the San Fernando Valley has a movie script to sell.
Udont: Well, that’s a bit nasty!
Lust: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to trash SAHMs. Some of the best researchers I know are stay-at-home moms. Anyway, we’ve strayed from the point. I just think the majority of professional genealogists are not making a lot of money from private clients. And for those who are, their margins are awfully slim.
GeneaBlogie: Is that likely to change once we far clear of the economic doldrums?
Lust: I don’t think so. I think that when people have more money to spend, they’re not going to rush out and spend it on genealogists. On genealogy itself, perhaps, but not on genealogists as such.
Udont: What do you mean?
Lust: I believe there is a market for genealogical information, but that’s because people want to do it themselves. And they want to do it themselves for a whole lot of reasons.
GeneaBlogie: What are some of those reasons?
Lust: Some are almost metaphysical or spiritual–a desire to get in touch with the ancestors on a very personal level. With others, they want to hear the stories first hand and find the artifacts themselves. They’re not interested in publishing a hard-cover bound book, The History of the Lusts in America. We’re far more informal than that today. And people still think that professional researchers are too expensive.
Udont: Well, I’ve told my story. I think professional genealogists are great when you have a pretty complex problem.
Lust: That’s true, But these days with information relatively more available to everyone, nobody’s looking to have a complete 10 or 12 or more generation genealogy handed to them on a silver platter by a pro.
GeneaBlogie: So what is that professional genealogists are doing these days?
Lust: As I said, they’re mainly teaching writing and making in presentations to the wannabes and the serious family historian; and they go to conferences where they see the same faces over and over again. They’re preaching to the converted.
Udont: That sounds pessimistic.
Lust: It is. I think the bell has tolled for the professional genealogist who expects to make money from private clients, with the exception of a handful of top names the field for a handful of wealthy or wealthy-wannabes.
GeneaBlogie: I want to approach this next question with all due respect. Pat, to what extent is your viewpoint informed by your own business, Lust for the Past?
Lust: I came into the business with my eyes wide-open. I do what I do because it’s my passion and frankly I could survive without the income. Notice how many professional genealogists have more than one household income?
GeneaBlogie: Is that true?
Udont: Well, I certainly don’t know. In fact, this whole discussion has been a bit light on empirical data.
Lust: Here’s some data: in the metro area where I live, there are about 2.5 million people. There are only four listed members of APG and one of those takes no clients. Worldwide, APG has got only about 2,000 members.
Udont: That’ s just one data set. It doesn’t necessarily prove anything about the profession in general.
Lust: I knew you would say that! So I looked up some more data; this stuff is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They publish a quarterly occupational outlook which forecasts employment trends for particular occupations. And BLS has just recently published its 2010-2011 Occupational Outlook Handbook, which assesses employment opportunities over the 2008-2018 decade.
Udont: So what do they say about genealogists?
Lust: Well, I took notice first of all that they lump genealogists with historians, who are further tossed in the category of “Social Scientists, Other.” That category covers archaeologists, anthropologists, and geographers, in addition to historians. The government projects that anthropologists and archaeologists will see a 28% growth in employment by 2018 and that geographers will experience a 26% growth. But for historians, the projected job growth is only 11%, which is about average for all occupations. The BLS says this slow rate of growth “reflect[s] the relatively few jobs outside of [government].” Keep in mind that the figure is for all “historians” including genealogists.
Udont: So how would you summarize your point? Are you saying that there’s no future in genealogy? With the growth of interest in the field, I think there will be more jobs outside of government as companies continue to enter the market and genea-tourism begins to take off as the Baby Boomer generation retires. That shows the flaw in the government data.
Lust: I’m making a very narrow point: that the market for genealogists taking on private clients will grow very slowly, if not decline. There will, if not already, an oversupply of genealogists.
GeneaBlogie: Ladies, why don’t we leave it there for now and see what our readers have to say?
So what do you say? What’s your perspective?
March 9, 2011 Wednesday at 5:20 pm