Posts Tagged ‘offline genealogy records’

Genlighten ♥ The “Tip of the Iceberg” Illustration

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010


I came across this photo today as I was preparing this month’s issue of the Genlighten newsletter. In the picture, I’m giving my 3-minute pitch to the panel of judges at the midVentures25 competition held a few weeks back.

One of my slides included the now-famous “Tip of the Iceberg” illustration commissioned and owned by the California Genealogical Society. It communicates in an exceptionally clear way the fact that most genealogical records simply aren’t online. Since this remains a big component of Genlighten’s value proposition (“We help you find the offline records you need via a network of local researchers with access to remote repositories”) I wanted to make sure I drove this point home to the judges in a memorable way. From the questions and comments I got, I’m pretty sure it worked.

Five Steps to a Successful Lookup Offering

Monday, March 15th, 2010


We’ve gotten a bunch of new lookup offerings submitted for our approval by potential providers over the past few weeks. Some of them we look at and immediately say to ourselves “Wow…this [guy/gal] gets it!” Others give us a little more pause. In this post, I hope to share the things we think make for a highly-appealing lookup listing — one that will get potential clients clicking “Add to Cart”. Here goes:

1) Offer to Lookup Records That Aren’t Available Elsewhere Online

Genlighten is about helping people find offline records from local repositories. Try to avoid offering lookups for documents that your clients could easily find online at Ancestry or FamilySearch. Of course, if a record is offered online for $40 and you can profitably offer to look it up offline for $10, go right ahead!

2) Craft a Concise Headline Referencing the Locality

Here your goal is to get clients to click on “Get Details” from our basic search results page. Limit your headline to about 50 characters so it doesn’t get truncated.

Good examples: “Jefferson County Kentucky Probate Records”, “Bloomington-Normal Obits from the Pantagraph”. You don’t need to include the date range covered in your headline. Just put it in the “date range” field and we’ll insert it at the end of your headline automatically.

3) Don’t Forget to Put Details in Your “Detailed Description”

“Key Lookup Details” should include these elements:

  • The archive or repository where you’ll perform the lookup
  • How often you visit (and the resulting turnaround time clients can expect)
  • How you’ll perform your search (including the information you’ll need from the client)
  • An online index the client can search to obtain an index entry or certificate number for you to reference (if available)
  • What a “found” and “not found” result will mean for the client
  • What information the client is likely to obtain from the record
  • Limitations on the scope of the search you’ll perform (a single individual, a certain range of years, etc.)

4) Set Realistic Yet Affordable “Found” and “Not Found” Prices

Pricing your offerings is difficult, we know. Only you can decide what your costs are and what you need to earn for the time and effort you’ll spend. Set a price that seems fair to both you and your clients. If in doubt, ask yourself, “What would I be willing to pay for this lookup?”

5) Use the “Client Instructions” to Spell Out Exactly What You Need

Your job as a lookup provider will be easiest when you can reduce the process to a repeatable algorithm that takes specific known inputs and produces the desired record on a consistent basis. This obviously won’t work in many cases, but it’s a goal worth striving for. As you compose your instructions to the client, reduce the data you ask for to the absolute minimum necessary. Tweak this based on the queries you receive.


The main thing that sets the best lookup offerings on Genlighten apart from others is the level of detail they include. Details show that you’ve thought through the lookup process and that you know what you’re doing. They also inspire confidence in potential clients and yield requests that you can successfully fulfill. We’ve had site visitors tell us that they’ve seen lookups they’re interested in but they haven’t ordered because the descriptions were too vague.

We’re happy to offer suggestions and guidance with this process. Please feel free to contact us for help by e-mailing

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!