Traditionally, genealogy junkies have been more likely to have a SuperGold card in their wallet than a student ID.
“An addiction” is how family historians and genealogists often describe what they do, and slowly, more young people are getting hooked.
August is Family History Month, and everyone is invited to attend workshops and lectures on family research at Auckland’s libraries. Although most people who attend these events are middle-aged or senior citizens, family history librarian Seonaid Lewis says she is seeing more young people taking an interest.
New Zealand Society of Genealogists president Michelle Patient says she has also noticed younger people getting into it. She is involved in a Facebook group where many members are in their 20s and 30s. These younger people usually had some kind of disconnect in their family, or a missing relative, and were “trying to fill a hole”, she says.
But most NZSG members are over 45, and usually retired, says Patient.
As people get older and start to realise their mortality, they become more interested in learning about their history and roots, she says.
“You don’t even think about your roots. In your 20s and 30s you’re busy creating your own identity.”
Lewis, the organiser of Family History Month, puts the gradual demographic shift she is seeing down to new technology.
“Because it’s a lot more focussed on comperuterisation, that brings the younger generation through. It is on the internet.”
In an effort to get children and teenagers interested in their background, the NZSG has plans to include schools in its next Family History Fair.
Lewis is also working on getting young people into family research, and encourages school groups to visit the family research centres in Auckland’s libraries and look into their ancestry.
“I consider it extremely important. It provides people with a sense of their own history. If you don’t know where you came from, if you don’t know what your roots are, what point is there in the future?”
Jan Gow, 72, former NZSG president, the only Kiwi fellow of the London Society of Genealogists, says although the platforms for research are different now, the research method is very much the same.
“We’re still looking at the footprints that people leave,” she says, referring to birth, death and marriage certificates, as well as things like articles and announcements in newspapers.
New technology means she can find the records for three generations of a family in 30 minutes and in her pyjamas, says Gow, who was awarded a Queen’s Service Medal in 2011 for servies to geneological research. But researchers have to be careful.
“It’s easier, but with a catch. It’s very easy to go down the wrong track.”
A person could end up with an entire family tree that was incorrect, she says.
The BillionGraves project is an example of technology bringing genealogy into the 21st century. Users photograph graves in their local cemetery with a GPS-enabled smart phone and upload the pictures to the BillionGraves website, where the headstone information is transcribed.
The project aims to collect one billion graves.
Despite initiatives like this, Gow says she is worried about the future of genealogy because researchers will have to rely solely on technology.
“A lot of our records now are only electronic, so in actual fact it will almost probably be harder. They won’t have paper records to fall back on.”
For now, though, some researchers still “live in pencil and paper land”, says Patient. Others have gone completely digital.
Gow falls into the latter camp. She took two laptops and a tablet on her last research trip and she “won’t go near a hotel that doesn’t have free Wi-Fi”.