Determining how popular genealogy is as a pastime and a profession is not as straightforward as one may imagine. If you ask any random group of people if they are interested in learning more about their family history, about ninety-nine percent of them would say they were. Everyone has a family history, after all, and those ancestors who comprise it each contributed to every modern person being who they are today. In fact, were it not for our ancestors, none of us would be here. Therefore, it is almost impossible to not have at least a cursory interest in genealogy in the broadest sense.
How popular is genealogy, really, though? It is said in many publications that genealogy is more popular now than ever, especially with the modern use of the Internet, which makes genealogy much easier to do from home than at any other time in history. To discover just how popular genealogy is right now, meaning how many people are actually doing it, rather than just expressing an interest in it, means asking a different question.
Take the same random group of people you asked about being interested in genealogy. Now, ask them if they are willing to commit time, resources, and money to discover more about their family history and ancestors, and about ninety percent, possibly more, would say “no.”
Those who are truly interested in genealogy are willing to put some effort into it. This is the same with any pastime or profession. People will only be willing to commit their valuable resources of time, energy, and money to things they really enjoy, and that are truly important to them. While most people would be happy for someone to do their genealogy for them and present them with the work, or to read a book on the history of a branch of their family, most of them simply don’t want to put the work into compiling a well-researched family history. They have other things that are more important to them.
Then, there are the “gappers.” These are people who take a gap in their genealogy work, sometimes for years or decades at a time. The people who take gaps often get interested in genealogy when they are children, teenagers, or young adults, and work on it until they get a full-time job or start a family. They will spend many years involved with their work and partner and children. Then, when they are older, or their kids are older, they go from full-time to part-time work, or retire, and begin doing genealogy work once more. These are people who have a genuine interest in genealogy, but not so much that other interests do not crowd it out of their lives at different times.
While this may mean genealogy is a smaller pastime for people who are actively involved in it, those people are the ones driving the field forward, and working on instilling an interest in it for future generations. It should also be remembered that genealogy is not really a pastime in the traditional sense; it is more than just a hobby. Genealogy is a genuine area of scholarly study that is intimately entwined with other areas of study like history, sociology, anthropology, and psychology. Those who are actively involved in genealogy are contributing to a wider field of academic study whether they realize it. This makes the vast majority of practitioners more than just hobbyists; they are scholars.
There are also different levels of involvement in genealogy. Of the active practitioners, the largest group is the one interested in their ancestors, and researches particular ancestors or certain family lines, but not their entire family tree. The second largest group would be people who have a copy of their family tree that they keep and add to it as they conduct more research when they are able. They believe knowing their family history and ancestors is important, and their family tree is valuable to them because of this. However, they may not put much work into it, or the work they do is minimal. In most instances, they received their family tree from a relative who did the work or hired someone to do it.
The smallest group is made up of people who are actively involved in conducting research on their ancestors on a regular basis and who make frequent contributions to the overall family tree. These are the people who are the most passionate about genealogy and probably look at it as a calling more than a mere hobby. It is okay that this group is the smallest since not everyone in a family needs to do genealogy research for the entire family to benefit from it. The passionate genealogists give information to those who appreciate family trees or want to hear stories about their ancestors. Either way, the passionate ones help maintain the interest in family history and ancestors among those who are not as engaged as they and keep their memories and stories alive for the whole family.
In fact, it is usually only one person in the family who actively does genealogy each generation. If you are involved in genealogy, you have probably heard stories from older relatives of a great-aunt or great-grandmother who was passionately involved in researching the family tree. Because the information the passionate researcher found can be passed down to the succeeding two or three generations with ease, it may be true that there is only one passionate genealogical researcher in every two or three generations of any given family.
Because of the different levels of interest of genealogy and the misleading general question of whether someone is interested in their family history, today’s publications may make it seem like more people are becoming active, passionate genealogists than is actually true. However, this doesn’t matter. As long as there is one genuinely passionate researcher in each family every two to three generations, the important work of remembering ancestors and preserving their stories is being done, ready for the rest of the family to read and for the next passionate one to come along to pick up on and continue.
Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)