Planet Web: The History Makers

Ten years ago, my mother decided to trace her Swedish roots. She knew the Prytz family came from Malmo in Southern Sweden but not much else. After months of writing letters to local libraries and other archives, she had to put aside the frustrating quest. Last week she started the search again. This time, though, she used the Internet.

Today, according to the National Genealogical Society, more than 80 million Americans are involved in tracing their roots. Fran Shane, NGS executive director, says that genealogy is the country's second most popular hobby after gardening - another form of root work. "Everyone's got genealogy," says Shane, "It puts a face on history." And it's the Net that has primed this craze. With so much genealogical information now available online, people all over the world are starting to dig around the family tree. Quite simply, says Shane, "the marketplace is huge."

Rob Armstrong certainly thinks so. Armstrong is the CEO of Genealogy.com, one of the market leaders in the family history game. Genealogy.com is no fly-by-night startup. It was launched last November as a partnership that includes Mattel's Broderbund division, A&E Television Networks and Hearst Interactive Media. In its first round of fundraising, it secured $37.5 million.

With genealogy Internet sites receiving more than two million unique visitors in August 1999 alone, Armstrong believes the market is only just beginning to grow. Ninety-five percent of the U.S. population has some interest in their family history, he estimates. "As we go about driving down the time and effort it takes to do the hobby, its popularity will increase."

Genealogy.com and its main rival, Ancestry.com, offer amateur and professional family sleuths the ability to search hundreds of databases containing millions of names and snippets of information - be they census records, the social security death index, or the Civil War Research Database. "Almost nobody enjoys going through rolls of microfilm," says Armstrong, describing one of the laborious pre-Internet methods of research. Still, there's a thin line between aiding the search and killing the fun.

"Twenty years ago the challenge was finding any piece of information. Now the challenge is finding the right piece," says Armstrong. As Ancestry.com CEO Paul Allen puts it, today "there is the technology to bring all these records together and allow people to find out where they came from."

At a price, of course. Although some of the databases on both sites are free to the public, to get access to the really juicy areas of information, you have to subscribe. Ancestry.com has 130,000 subscribers, and much of its information is proprietary. The same is true for Genealogy.com, although it has another string on its bow: Broderbund also produces FamilyTreeMaker, the best-selling genealogical software in the world. More than two million copies of FamilyTreeMaker have been sold, and while Armstrong believes all that of Genealogy.com's content will ultimately move to the Web, the software remains the gateway to genealogy for most consumers.

But should you have to pay for access to your family's personal history, especially when many of the records lie in the public domain? Both Genealogy.com and Ancestry.com would argue that it's the service, not the records themselves, for which people are paying. But the streamlining of genealogical research does highlight, once again, the thorny struggle between the Internet of free information and the Internet of rampant capitalism.

"Myfamily.com [the parent of Ancestry.com] and Broderbund are in it for the money, and I like that," argues Shane of NGS, stressing that, in their entrepreneurial quest, both companies have vastly improved U.S. genealogy's research tools.

One of Genealogy.com's most recent coups was to help fund and sponsor a new Web site called the Ellis Island American Family Immigration History Center, which will launch in 2001. This site, operated by the nonprofit Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, will, for the first time, present fully digitized port-of-entry information on the more than 17 million people who immigrated through New York Harbor from 1892 to 1924 - "a priceless" genealogical resource, according to Shane.

By helping the public gain access to such an important source of information, Genealogy.com is helping to ensure the growth of its own industry and also getting the best possible advertising. But could the relationship be pushed even further? After all, it's not that hard to see FamilyTreeMaker software also being advertised on the nonprofit Ellis Island site. Armstrong says any marketing will be "more subtle than that," while Peg Zitko, public affairs director for the foundation, has no qualms about the partnership. "They've made a major commitment," she says. "It's the way nonprofits can make the money they need to do the good work they do."

For those with qualms about the ownership of genealogical research, an ally is at hand. One of the central beliefs held by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the eternal and binding nature of the family. Because of that belief, the church has always placed great importance on genealogy. Today, it has more than two billion names and records stored in its Salt Lake City library.

Last November, it made available 35 million ancestral lineage files and 620 million individual name records on its Familysearch.org Web site - free of charge. "When you're in the position of an institution," says Randy Bryson, director of the Family Search Internet genealogical service, "you can stand as a professor, rather than a CEO." By posting the information on its Web site, Familysearch.org is creating a library that will stand apart from the commercial sites.

As with everything else in the world of U.S. e-commerce, the next step for companies like Genealogy.com and Ancestry.com is to go global. "Clearly, we believe there are enormous assets out there that will forward the hobby internationally and in the U.S.," says Armstrong, while pointing out that in many countries, information is not in the public domain. For those regions with an oral historical tradition, it's not written down at all. And when it comes to international genealogical research, the corporate world might want to imitate the Mormons. With more than 3,400 family history centers in over 60 countries, the Church, says Bryson, has always been "global in outlook."

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