Posts Tagged ‘Wired’

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!