Friday, March 2, 2012

WDYTYAL--What has caused the excitement in England and why are they able to have so much interest in genealogy?

Again, I realize these are broad sweeping generalizations. These are my opinions and hearsay only. You can take them for what they're worth. The talk in the vendor's hall is where I get the real truth at home--I think I found a few pieces of truth in the vendors hall in London too.

According to some fellow exhibitors and the speakers I talked to, Who Do You Think You Are Live's best year was three years ago when they reached approximately 20,000 people. Last year the conference had approximately 14,000 and this year they were apparently down to around 10,000. I trust those approximate numbers better than any official numbers because I know as a vendor you have a good feel for what the numbers really are. Each of the days saw different people, and while I'm not as experienced at feeling such big crowds as a vendor, I'm thinking 10,000 to 12,000 felt about right compared to the 4,000 we saw at RootsTech a couple of weeks before. I'm told that the organizing company changed this year but that the marketing was not substantially different.

One well established vendor said he thought that although there were about 1/2 the number of people as in past years, he thought that the numbers of serious genealogists has increased. He said last year it felt that the serious genealogist were about 50/50 with complete beginners, but this year it felt like there were about 1/3 beginners to 2/3 more serious genealogists. He surmised that the tv show had brought them in and now many of the beginners were turning more serious. I would agree that we did not talk to as many beginner genealogists as we thought we were going to see.

As I asked around, I think the general consensus was that the hobby of family history has been building in England for about the last 10-15 years. There were a number of reasons people gave me for the surge in interest. The biggest one of course is the tv show Who Do You Think You Are. Apparently it is one of the bbc's flagship shows--not just another popular show, but one of the most popular. Then, in the last ten years there has been 5 major magazines. Though one person suggested the magazines as being a reason for the surge in interest, I think that magazines can't cause interest but rather ride the tide of the interest--you could start 5 magazines in America but they wouldn't necessarily succeed.

My observation is that the British are more inclined to be genealogists because they are closer to the history than we are here in America. Going to the local historical center gives a British person a chance to come face to face with their distant history in a heartbeat; experiences that are once in a lifetime for Americans. In fact, the study of family history is actually called "local history". The societies are very popular because the people in the societies are local history experts. If I was to become an expert in my local history, neither I nor my neighbors would have any family history connections to the area. That small society backbone is really important in England, but hard to replicate here because we all have to reach in so many different directions in our research.

Likewise history is just closer at hand and more real in Great Britain. One of the speakers I was able to talk to, Janet Few, laughed about hearing about an American genealogist getting excited over a 50 year old record. She said "heavens, my house is 400 years old". We aren't built that way in the States. Especially in the west, our archaeological digs are for history that goes back 100 years. In England that's just your normal redecorating.

I went to Who Do You Think You Are Live looking for what created the excitement there so that we could bring it home and create more excitement in this country. I think there are alot of things we should be doing to make the hobby more interesting and accessible. I'm writing next about how our conferences need to change. But one of my fears did play out, I think the British are already closer to their history than we are in America and perhaps more interested. There is a strong ethic here for striking out on a new path, becoming a self-made person. It's sad that the tv show isn't doing as well here. I'm afraid we're just not as close to our history.

Do you think I'm right?


Catherine N said...

What channel is WDYTYA USA broadcast on in the States? If it's not shown on one of the major channels, that may be the problem for the lack of interest in it. In the UK, our TV service is being changed from analogue signal to digital. At the moment anyone with only analogue can only get 5 channels, 2 of which are BBC1 and BBC2, the channels that have in the past shown the UK version of WDYTYA. When everyone has to change to digital, they will have access to many more satalite channels and the BBC will be in for some strong competition. It will be interesting to see how WDYTYA stands up then.

Randy Seaver said...

I think we have just as many local history experts as they do in England. It's just that American genealogists haven't figuredo ut how to access them.

We need a Jay Verkler type of vision on how to bring their expert knowledge into the genealogy world for all to access and learn from.

Unfortunately, many of those local experts are not online and will eventually die off.

Geolover said...

I think the USA version of WDYTYA is not as well produced as the UK version. One factor in this is the point you have made several times - the difference in connection with locality. While my latest immigrant ancestor crossed ca. 1854 from Canada, much of the show's emphasis has been on celebrities' non-USA roots. Another factor is minimal attention to the actual research process.