I 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.