Archive for the ‘Local Repositories and Archives’ Category

ExpertConnect’s going away. Can Genlighten take its place?

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

At Genlighten, we’ve tried to take the 37Signals approach towards our competitors:

People sometimes ask us how much we look at the competition. The answer: not much. We can’t control what they do. We can control what we do. So we focus on that.

Still, when I first heard about Ancestry’s plans to debut ExpertConnect just a few months before our beta launch in 2009, my stomach experienced one of those roller-coaster drops that tend to characterize startup life.

Now a year and a half later, ExpertConnect is shutting down. When I saw Ancestry’s e-mail in my inbox yesterday, I went through three reactions in rapid succession:

  • Cool, the 800-pound gorilla has left our market… we don’t have to compete with them anymore!
  • Uh-oh. If they can’t make this business work, how can we expect to?
  • Darn… I wish all our marvelous new features were ready to go right now!

Now that we’ve had a little time to process it, here’s our “official” response to Ancestry’s announcement:

To our current clients and providers:

  • Genlighten will continue to serve you in the months and years ahead. We’ve heard your feedback and we’re working hard to implement the improvements and new features you’ve asked for.
  • Our next release is currently targeted for the end of June. We’ll be inviting some of you to test the new version beginning in March or April. You’ll see an upgraded homepage, simplified navigation, a brand-new search capability, internal messaging, and an overall higher level of fit and finish.

To ExpertConnect users considering switching to Genlighten:

  • We’d love to tell you that we’re ready right now to step in and completely fill the void left by ExpertConnect’s departure. We’re not. But we expect to be there soon.
  • When we first launched, we focused Genlighten on offline record lookups rather than hourly research in order to differentiate ourselves somewhat from Ancestry. In response to client and provider requests, we are now revising our strategy. We plan to fully embrace high-end professional research offerings and online searches in addition to document retrieval and record lookups.
  • By joining us now, you’ll have the opportunity to exert a significant influence on the direction we take in response to ExpertConnect’s closure. We’d love to get your help in making Genlighten all you’d like it to be.

Our next release

When our new release is launched this summer, we plan to offer both new and existing users the baseline functionality ExpertConnect had, plus:

  • a flexible and customizable storefront interface optimized for client discovery and frictionless e-commerce.
  • no one-year “lock-in” of clients you acquire through Genlighten
  • active social media marketing of your profile and service listings
  • tools to let you promote your presence on Genlighten via your blog, Facebook, Twitter, Adwords and more
  • analytics to help you understand how to draw more traffic to your offerings.
  • search-optimized research tools for localities and repositories that will attract visitors to the site and spotlight our providers to prospective customers.

How we plan to succeed

Genlighten lacks Ancestry’s global reach, brand awareness, massive staff and financial backing. Still, size and strength apparently weren’t enough to make ExpertConnect “a winner“. [Note the first comment to that linked post on Dick Eastman's blog. It's a particular favorite of mine!]

We think there are some advantages to our small size that will keep us from getting “blown out of the water.” For one thing, we don’t need to make anywhere near as much money as Ancestry required to justify ExpertConnect’s existence. We’re completely bootstrapped, with no institutional investors, so we’re quite content to be a “lifestyle business.” At the same time, Genlighten is our core product, not an add-on to a much larger offering, so you can expect us to be focused on it for the long term. And there’s another upside to our small size: when you call us on the phone or e-mail us, you’re connecting directly with our founding team.


As you can imagine, this is an exciting time for our little startup. We hope you’ll share it with us! If this is your first time here, please explore the site and contact us with your questions and suggestions. If you’ve been with Genlighten for a while, please help us spread the word to your fellow genealogists. Either way, Thank you for your interest and support!

100% Digital Document Delivery — except where prohibited by law!

Monday, March 29th, 2010


Early in Genlighten’s development, we made a key decision about the way our providers would deliver the documents they retrieved to their clients. We would require that each provider have access to a digital scanner, so they could take the paper documents they found at the repository, scan them, and upload them to Genlighten in digital form. If the records they searched were on microfilm, a direct microfilm scan would work too. But no paper records were to be mailed to clients.

Rationale For Our All-Digital Strategy

We had five basic reasons for going with this approach:

  1. The client would effectively receive the record as soon as the provider uploaded it. No waiting for the record to arrive in the mail and no danger of the record getting damaged or lost in transit.
  2. The provider could add value to their lookup offering by enhancing the image contrast and otherwise improving the resulting document above and beyond the paper or microfilm record quality.
  3. The client would immediately be able to share the document with friends, archive it on their hard drive, and add it to their genealogy software or website.
  4. All three parties to the transaction would be able to clearly verify that the lookup had been completed successfully, since the client, the provider and Genlighten could each view the uploaded record.
  5. Since no snail-mail was involved, no physical addresses would need to be exchanged, enhancing privacy and security.

But What If…

When we decided to go the all-digital route, we knew that we’d eventually run into requests for exceptions, and we figured we’d deal with them as they arose. One obvious edge case: what to do about 50-page probate files? What if providers couldn’t easily get a hold of a scanner with a sheet feeder and they balked at having to scan 50 pages one-by-one? After much deliberation, we decided that in such situations providers could mail the paper copies to “Genlighten World Headquarters”, and we’d take care of the scanning and uploading ourselves on the provider’s behalf. If the volume got to be too much, we saw ourselves outsourcing the task to a service such as Officedrop and deducting the cost from the provider’s share of the lookup fee. So far, no one’s asked us to do that yet.

An Unexpected Legal Issue

But just recently, we had a new provider — Jade Schmitt — come to us with a unique problem. She wanted to offer lookups for pre-1907 birth, marriage and death records for Wisconsin from the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS). Cool — that’s just the kind of thing we’re looking for. But there was a weird catch. Jade told us that it’s illegal to make digital copies of vital records at the WHS.

We checked it out with the State of Wisconsin, and the official we talked with confirmed: no digitizing the WHS records. There was, however, an intriguing potential loophole. It’s only illegal to scan those records within Wisconsin. So if Jade drove to the Wisconsin-Illinois state line and handed the paper copies to us, we could scan them on our side of the border. (Or she could simply mail them to us, but that’d be a lot less fun!)

1/4 Mile Ahead, Crazy Pete’s Genealogical Document Scanning

When I heard this, I immediately thought of those signs that always greet us on the other side of the Wisconsin border whenever we drive north on I-94: “Crazy Pete’s Fireworks Stand (and cheese!), 1/4 Mile Ahead.”  Now imagine Jade driving down from Wisconsin, crossing into Illinois, and seeing the sign “Next Exit, Crazy Pete’s Genealogical Document Scanning.” That’s what this law could apparently lead to!

A Temporary Exception

Until we can nail down this loophole a little more, and hopefully get some kind of formal legal document that ensures we’re always going to be on the right side of the law, we’ve decided to make an exception to our 100% digital document delivery policy for Jade. So she’ll be mailing out paper copies to fulfill the lookup requests she receives.

If you’ve got any suggestions to offer regarding Wisconsin public records law and digital scanning, we’d love to hear from you!

Follow Friday: Joe Beine’s Genealogy Roots Blog

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

fair_angelsRecently on Genlighten we’ve had an influx of new users registering for the site and posting lookup offerings. While most of them represent exactly what we have in mind — local researchers visiting nearby repositories to retrieve and digitize records that are only available offline — some have gone in a different direction than we’d like to see.

These “lookups from online sources” have offered to look up records for a fee that are already available on Footnote or the FamilySearch Record Pilot for free. We see nothing inherently wrong with this (presuming the client is made aware of the free alternative should they wish to search it themselves) but it doesn’t really fit the vision we have for Genlighten.

Genlighten is all about Offline genealogy records

Just as Footnote calls themselves “The place for original historical documents online” we’d like to be, in part at least, “the place to get help retrieving original offline historical documents”. That’s how we’d like to position/differentiate ourselves relative to our competitors. It’s become obvious that we need to spell that out more clearly on our site and in our promotional materials, and you’ll see us doing that in the weeks and months ahead.

In the meantime, one of the things we’re now doing is reviewing each new lookup offering we get before letting it go “live” and making sure that the records the provider offers to search aren’t already available online for free. A great place for us to go and check this out is Joe Beine‘s marvelous sites listing birth/marriage records and death records available online. [He has several other sites worth checking out for other record types as well.]

Joe’s performed a tremendous service for genealogy researchers everywhere. He’s constantly updating his sites; when he does, he lists those updates on his Genealogy Roots Blog. You won’t find a lot of posts here about Joe’s own research or on the usual geneablogging memes — just high-quality links and actionable advice on places you can find the records you want (usually for free!)

If you’re not already following Joe’s blog, I encourage you to do so… you’ll come back again and again and find stuff you never would have guessed was online.

Another vote for “On-Demand Digitization of Historical Documents”

Friday, February 26th, 2010

Like so many other historical archives, the National Archives of Australia is facing a budget shortfall. Their solution? They’re closing smaller regional offices and relying more on an existing service that lets patron request records via the web:

According to the Director-General of the Australian Archives, Ross Gibbs, the proposed closures were consistent with a growing reality that very few people walk into the NAA offices to peek into the collection.

The overwhelming majority make contact from their desk, ask the archivists to find what they need and send it to them.

This negates the need for regional offices. It is possible to store the documents in a central location and send them wherever they are needed. Last year more than two million people logged onto the NAA website and many requested documents that were scanned and emailed to them.

Welcome to the digital age.

Indeed. Here at Genlighten, we kind of like the idea of having people log on to a website and request documents that are scanned and uploaded to their accounts on that site.

Quote from the article “Priceless: National Archives in the digital age” from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s website. Via EOGN.

52 Weeks to Better Genealogy — Challenge #6: Online Databases at the WPL

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

Amy’s sending us back to our local public library this week for 52WtBG Challenge #6, but we get to visit it virtually this time. That’s good, since I’m already two days late with this.

Online Genealogy Databases

The WPL has Ancestry Library Edition, but you can’t use it remotely — only at the library itself.

Here are the online databases I can access at home with my library card number via the Wilmette Public Library’s website:

With no need to enter my library card number, I can also access some hand-built newspaper indexes of local interest, including:

A vanity search of our son’s name in the Wilmette Life index yielded 23 entries, including an article for each musical performance he participated in at New Trier High School.

There’s still plenty more for me to explore here… though these resources might not be of great help in my own research yet, it’ll be nice to be able to share them with patrons at the Wilmette Family History Center when they come in asking. We’re hoping that the current run of genealogy-focused television shows bring us some new first-timers over the next few months.

Was Your Ancestor a Lighthouse Keeper? A “Genealogy Long Tail” Example

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

lighthouse_keeperI visited the NARA Great Lakes Regional Archives this last week to fulfill a Naturalization Record lookup for a Genlighten client. As I was waiting for my researcher card paperwork to be processed, I looked through the finding aid brochures to see what other records this facility had. One caught my eye:

Selected Records Relating to Lighthouse Service Employees, 1801-1912

Cool! So if someone had an ancestor who they thought might have been a lighthouse keeper, I could look that person up and perhaps produce a document containing some basic info about them. For example, here’s what NARA says is contained in publication M1373:

Lighthouse Keepers and Assistant Keepers. NARA microfilm publication M1373, Registers of Lighthouse Keepers, 1845-1912 (6 rolls) includes lists of keepers and assistant keepers. The lists typically consist of the names, the district and the name of the light, the date of appointment, the date of resignation or discharge or death, and sometimes the annual salary. Most of the lists do not actually begin until 1849.

The NARA finding aid implies that these records would also include the birth place of the lighthouse keeper.

The Long Tail of Genealogy Records

So I immediately wondered: how many people would be interested in these records (and thus might request my lookup?) I managed to find a Rootsweb message board about lighthouse keepers. Between 2004-2010, there were — get this — 13 messages posted. I looked to see if either Ancestry or Footnote had digitized the NARA microfilm rolls. Nope.

These lighthouse-related collections seem to fit fairly well my definition of “Long Tail Genealogy Records“: to a small number of people they’d probably be quite interesting. But that number’s too small to make it worth Ancestry’s or Footnote’s or FamilySearch’s time and effort to scan them, index them, and make them available online.

Could Genlighten Help? Should It?

I suspect I’ll go ahead and offer a “Register of Lighthouse Keepers” Lookup, just for the heck of it. But if I decide to, I’ll need to ask myself a lot of practical questions first:

  • What happens if I actually get a request?
  • Will the price that the lighthouse keeper’s descendant is willing to pay be enough to make it worth my while to drive out of my way to the NARA facility just for that lookup?
  • Or should I offer a bunch of other lookups from NARA in hopes of aggregating enough requests to justify a weekly trip?
  • What should I call the lookup so it will Google well?
  • What search terms would someone use who was looking for such a record?
  • How should I define the locality for this lookup? By the state or state/county where the lighthouse was located?

Why Our Business Model Matters

A lot of these issues would go away if Genlighten’s business model involved simply quoting an hourly rate and than billing the client for my time. But because we’re all about fixed-fee lookups, it’s trickier. I have to carefully define the scope of the lookup I’ll perform for the fee I decide to charge. And with few requests likely to come in, it will be hard to iteratively adjust my pricing in response to client feedback.

Of course, I could define an “off-the-shelf” lookup for part of the research and then direct the client to use our custom request capability to pursue the remainder. That’s what we encourage our providers to do for probate records and other hard-to-know-the-scope-in-advance lookups. Hmm… lots of possibilities there.

Was Your Ancestor a Lighthouse Keeper?

If so, I’d love to hear from you. Likewise if you need naturalization records for states in the NARA Great Lakes Region, or any other lookup for a record held by NARA Great Lakes that isn’t available online.

Follow Friday: FamilySearch Labs Blog

Friday, January 29th, 2010


Like many genealogists, I’m anxious for the LDS Church to  open up New FamilySearch (or whatever it’s eventually going to be called) to a broader (i.e., non-LDS) audience. In the meantime, I’m eager to hear the latest from their development team: new features, new records collections, opportunities to get involved or give feedback… you get the idea.

An Inside Source

One place I can go to get this info is the FamilySearch Labs Blog. Here, various members of the group developing NFS cover the latest progress they’ve made. The most common post author is Senior Project Manager Dan Lawyer, but Grant Skousen and several others also contribute from time to time. They don’t post every day, and they don’t offer tons of specifics, but at least I can get a feel for the major milestones they’re hitting, even if the news is mostly after-the-fact.

A Thought-Provoking Post

One recent post that caught my attention was entitled Obstacles in the Genealogical Workflow by Dan. Though extremely low-key, I thought it hit on a crucial point that genealogy software needs to address but seldom does: recognizing the chaotic thought processes most researchers experience  and trying to tame them to allow greater productivity. Ideally, genealogy software wouldn’t just store records or offer them up for searching… it would accompany us on our genealogical journey and offer coaching, support, and encouragement at just the right times. Here’s the key workflow diagram’s from Dan’s post:


I’m sure it’s pretty obvious why I liked this diagram: notice that box in the lower right corner. It indicates that gathering and searching for genealogical records involves three stages: tapping personal knowledge, mining online records, and finally, retrieving offline records. Naturally, we think Genlighten can become a huge help in the offline record retrieval stage of the genealogical workflow process.

Its Continuing Mission

I look forward to hearing about the NFS rollout to Southeast Asia, and about NFS’  eventual availability to those without a membership number and a confirmation date. Sure, the Ancestry Insider will probably be all over that news when it comes, but I suspect Dan and his team will offer a perspective on those accomplishments that won’t be available anywhere else. I encourage you to include their blog in your RSS feed subscription list.

How long before “It’s not all online” isn’t true anymore?

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Courtesy California Genealogical Society and Library

David Rencher, FamilySearch’s “Chief Genealogical Officer” stopped by the Genlighten booth at NGS in North Carolina last year and we had a pleasant chat together. He asked a question that I’ve thought about often but never come up with a perfect answer to:

How will Genlighten’s business model stay viable over the long term as more and more records become available online?

As you already know if you’ve been reading this blog for long or if you’re one of our users, Genlighten’s unique selling proposition is that we help you find offline genealogy records — the ones that are only accessible in libraries, archives, courthouses, historical societies, etc.. In fact, when a provider signs up and offers to do lookups solely using their Ancestry or Footnote subscriptions, we ask them to modify those offerings to utilize an offline source instead.

Beneath the Tip of the Iceberg

Our unspoken assumption here is that many more records are available offline than online. Or as the marvelous image shown here depicts it, the biggest part of the iceberg is below the surface. I stand confidently behind that assumption, despite the fact that I can’t back it up with any meaningful data or statistics.

David’s question implied that he foresees a time when the statement “Most genealogy records aren’t online” won’t hold true anymore. And in fact, he’s in charge of an organization — FamilySearch — that is working hard to digitize and index every single reel in its vast collection of microfilmed records. Whether it takes five years or ten, they will eventually achieve their goal. Whither offline genealogy research (and our business model) then?

The Power of Family Search Indexing

This point hit home particularly hard for me this last December. I visited the Massachusetts State Archives just outside of Boston, mostly to see what kinds of records Genlighten providers could retrieve there, but also to do some of my own research. I was excited to see how many records were available on microfilm and could be scanned at low cost. Within minutes, I easily found the marriage certificate for my Walter Ferdinand Knapp and Rosamond Guilford.

A local Boston provider, I reasoned, (or one with access to the corresponding FHL film) could just as easily provide Massachusetts marriage record lookups for a reasonable fee and still be well-compensated for their forty-minute trip on the Red Line. Cool! Now I just needed to recruit the right providers and help them take advantage of the opportunities available.

Just as I was about to tweet or blog about this discovery, though, what should appear in my Twitterstream but a link to a post about Massachusetts marriage records becoming available on the FamilySearch Record Search Pilot. I tried the site out, and lo and behold, in seconds I had the image of the very same marriage record I had just finished printing out. Thanks to FamilySearch indexing, that was one lookup opportunity that no longer seemed as attractive. Massachusetts Births and Death records still weren’t available online, but for how long?

A Prediction

longtail2I don’t know how FamilySearch decides which records to digitize and index next, but I can guess. They must know which FHL film sets are ordered most, and I suspect those ones get bumped up in priority. So in the short term, we should expect that films of records towards the left end of the long tail will become available online. FamilySearch and other organizations will gradually work their way down the long tail, digitizing and indexing as they go. Over time, more and more long tail records will become available at low or no cost online, just as obscure bands’ music can now be found on iTunes and films that only a few thousand people even know about are now available on Netflix.

Another Prediction

So Genlighten has four, maybe five years before its business model begins to evaporate? I can’t be sure, but I suspect not. At least, not due to a lack of offline records. I will go out on a limb and predict that for many years to come, as fast as old records are brought online, “new” old records will be discovered. In other words, the entire curve will rise.

Where will these new records come from? Diaries, generic government agency paperwork, medical records (despite HIPAA regulations), legal proceedings, SEC filings… I bet you can think of many more. The types of offline records that Genlighten providers will be asked to look up will change, but there will still be plenty of them to perform lookups for.

Of course in five to ten years paper, microfilm, and even electronic data storage as we know it may have been completely superseded by some grand and glorious new medium. Or Google may simply have achieved by then their goal to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” In which case, they’ll hopefully have already acquired us!

Nine Questions with Molly Kennedy

Monday, January 18th, 2010

When my wife and I first sketched out what we wanted Genlighten to become, our “target provider” — the prototype for the kind of person we hoped to recruit to retrieve and digitize records — was Molly Kennedy. Molly’s been offering reliable, reasonably-priced Illinois genealogy lookups  to satisfied customers for quite a while. We’re thrilled to have her as a provider on Genlighten, and we’re pleased to be able to spotlight her this week.


From MollyKennedy’s profile

Molly specializes in Illinois-based genealogical and historical research for hobbyists, heir-locator services, and authors.

Nine Questions with Molly

1)      How did you get started doing genealogy lookups/research?

Like most others, I imagine, I started researching my own family lines. In the late 1990′s through 2002 I was a volunteer for Random Acts, and I learned so much more about the different types of records available to me here in the Springfield Illinois area.

2)      Do you have a genealogy superpower? If so, what is it?

I have a form of eiditic memory — not for faces, nor names (although that would have saved me in many a social situation~) — but for the printed word, dates and numbers (such as Census findings).

3)      Describe a tricky research problem you’re particularly proud of having solved?

Finding birth-families of adoptees… 13 so far – using public records.  In most states, adoptive records are sealed in perpetuity, but usually there’s a clue or two that can be tracked using public records.

4)      What are the ideal elements you like to see in a well-formulated lookup request/research query?

It’s difficult to answer this question..   For efficiency, brevity is always good~  However, a lengthier description is often necessary, especially if the requester is unsure as to what types of records might be available to me.  Open communication is very important, so I don’t end up duplicating their own research efforts.

5)      What’s the most interesting record source or repository you’ve utilized in your area?

For facts – statistics – names & dates, I’d have to say the Illinois State Archives.

Once armed with the names, dates & locales, I’m then able to find & read news stories about these people & places & times, in microfilmed newspaper holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.  Reading about them ”puts flesh on the bones” (little genealogical humor~)

6)      What technical tools (hardware, software) do you use to produce the digital images you provide to clients?

Desktop PC using Windows XP; LexMark scanner/copier/printer; Kodak digital camera.

7)      Any new lookups you’re considering offering?

Considering adding to my Genlighten offerings, the ”Fishing Expedition” option.

“Fishing” = a small (i.e., “not found”) fee, for each IL death certificate (1916-1947) that I would check, but NOT print, if the info on the death cert does not match the info provided me.  If the right certificate is found, the regular “Found” fee would apply to that cert.

Very helpful & affordable, when the requester is trying to find an ancestor with a common name, i.e., members of a Smith family in Chicago~

8)      What advice would you give to someone who wants to get started as a lookup provider?

Learn EVERYTHING you can about access to the records in your area!  The biggest questions in genealogy are: ”Who’s got the records?”  “Where are the records?” and “How can I get copies?”   Sign up as a lookup volunteer, if still in the learning process.

9)      What other passions do you pursue when you’re not at the archives doing lookups/research?

Family, puzzles & reading (mostly detective/forensic fiction).

Lookups MollyKennedy offers:

Molly can retrieve death certificates for any Illinois county (for the years 1916-1947). She can also do Illinois obituary research at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum from over 5,000 Illinois-published newspapers.

Exploring The “Long Tail” of Genealogical Records

Monday, January 18th, 2010

I’ve been working on Genlighten’s TechStars application this weekend. I’m enough of a realist to recognize that our chances of getting accepted are slim, but I’m also enough of an optimist to forge ahead anyway. Here’s one of the key questions on the application and part of my draft answer thus far:

What’s new, interesting, or different about what your company will do?

Most genealogy websites offer popular document collections like the 1930 US Census – the “hits” of the online genealogy market. But the majority of records genealogy enthusiasts need aren’t online at all… they constitute the “long tail” of genealogy sources. Genlighten makes those records accessible. Our site enlists local researchers in communities across the US, Canada and Europe to perform on-demand retrieval and digitization of these obscure but crucial “offline” genealogy documents.

I’m not super pleased with this yet (too wordy, as my early drafts always are) but I think I’m on the right track. I see our ability to bring offline genealogy documents online as one of our key points of difference. And I think the concept of The Long Tail does an excellent job of explaining the significance of this difference to the genealogy market.

What is “The Long Tail”?


The Long Tail (Image taken from Andrew Hargadon's blog.)

Chris Anderson, the Chief Editor of Wired Magazine, popularized the term in an October 2004 essay. The primary examples he used to illustrate it were retail ones: Amazon and Netflix.

Booksellers have historically focused on delivering bestsellers to their customers. Movie theatres — no surprise — are desperate to book the blockbuster hits that will sell millions of movie tickets. But online retailers like Amazon and Netflix have changed the game. Sure, they still make tons of money off of bestsellers and hit movie rentals. But they also have made it possible for the average customer to discover obscure books and movies that they otherwise would never have encountered.

These titles — appealing as they do to only a tiny market niche — don’t seem like they’d even be worth having in inventory. Yet there’s so many of them, that even if each one sells or rents to very few people, Amazon and Netflix can still make money from them.

What’s this Got to Do with Genealogy?

That’s what I was just about to explain. I want you to try to think about genealogy documents for a moment as media products, like CDs, books or DVDs. What would you say are the “Billboard Top 10″ of genealogy records?

For my part, I’d go with the various collections of US Census Records: 1930, 1900, 1880, etc. If you’re from England maybe it’s the 1911 Census. These have an incredibly broad appeal to all types of genealogists. So maybe the 1900 Census is sort of like Elvis, while the 1911 Census is more like the Beatles. Or Coldplay. Whatever. These represent the “head” of the genealogy marketplace in the diagram above. So it’s no coincidence that Ancestry and Footnote feature these records prominently on their respective sites: they basically justify the price of a subscription.

What’s in the Genealogical Long Tail?

I’d argue that there’s a huge number of historical document collections that appeal strongly to a very small niche of genealogical consumers. Here are some examples of what I mean:

  • A transcription of the parish register from a German church in Redwood, Jefferson County, New York
  • A compilation of headstone inscriptions from a cemetery in Franklin County, Maine
  • Otoe County Nebraska obituaries from the Morton-James Public Library in Nebraska City

I’m sure you can think of your own examples. In fact, I’m betting that a few of your major brickwall breakthroughs came when you managed to come across exactly this type of obscure, long tail record.

These records might not make economic sense for the major for-profit websites to digitize anytime soon. They might not make it to the top of FamilySearch’s Record Pilot priority list for a while either.

So How Can I Find “Long Tail” Records?

At Genlighten, we think the answer lies in building a network of local researchers in towns large and small across the world, who have access to obscure records of genealogical importance and can digitize them on demand. There won’t always be professional genealogists in every tiny community, so we feel we need to recruit providers who don’t yet have a CG or an AG after their name, too. It hasn’t proven easy thus far, but we’re determined to make it happen.

We Could Use Your Help

First, I’d appreciate any critiques to my Techstars application answer. But more importantly, if you’d like to help make “long tail” offline genealogy records available online, we’d love to have you as one of our lookup providers. You can start by clicking that “Register Now” link on the upper right of this page. Thanks!