Posts Tagged ‘The Long Tail’

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.

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

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010
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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!

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”?

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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!