TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Kai Ryssdal: If you were listening real close up at the very top of the show, you might have picked up on a new PBS documentary that premieres tonight. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates has been working on a project called “Faces in America,” using genealogy and DNA testing to track the shared American experience. NBC is working on a new genealogy show, too, using celebrities to tell the story. But it’s not just celebrities and professors that think genealogy is cool. Knowing where you came from is becoming quite a business. Megan Smolenyak is a professional genealogist. Welcome to the program.
Megan Smolenyak: Good to talk to you as well.
Ryssdal: Is there a way to figure out exactly how big genealogy is?
Smolenyak: You know, it’s hard to get some really hard and fast numbers, but just to give you some indication, Ancestory.com, which is the largest company in the industry, just went public last November. And in the last quarter, their subscription rate soared about 17 percent.
Ryssdal: So even though the economy is tricky, people are still willing to plop down $20 or $30 a month for a site subscription?
Smolenyak: You know, it seems so. I’m wondering if it isn’t, perhaps, one of those fields that is slightly recession proof in the sense that when times are hard people tend to return to basic values and family, and this fits right in there. And comparatively speaking, it’s a very affordable hobby.
Ryssdal: Is there a way for you to judge how sticky this is? I mean people get curious for a month or two and then it sort of goes away?
Smolenyak: You know, it actually is very addicting. What happens usually is people will get interested, maybe, say, their parents’ 50th wedding anniversary is coming up, so they think they’ll dabble a little bit, but then once they find out something they didn’t know before, they become curious. And it becomes your own personal history mystery, and you just keep on chasing clue after clue after clue.
Ryssdal: Now obviously for you things are going pretty well. You’ve worked with Dr. Gates on his program. And you’ve worked with the NBC show. But generally speaking how is business for genealogists out there?
Smolenyak: Overall, the field is going gangbusters. I mean the fact that they’re going to be not one but two primetime genealogy television series tells you something about it.
Ryssdal: What else do you guys do, though? I mean, it can’t all be help me find out who my great uncle four times removed was.
Smolenyak: No, there’s all sorts of applications. I mean, for instance, I have a contract with the U.S. Army where I track down the families of soldiers who are still unaccounted for from old conflicts. There are groups of genealogists who help coroners’ offices track down the next of kin for people whose identities are known but who sadly are unclaimed. So there are lot of different applications for genealogy.
Ryssdal: Is there a difference in the kind of genealogy you do? I mean, there’s the search for ancestors, right, and then there’s the search for living family.
Smolenyak: Yeah, yeah, back when I started people were only interested in the dearly departed. But now there’s much more interest in connecting with the living relatives as well. And one of the great things with the Internet, and with DNA, too, it’s possible now not only to find those second, third, and fourth cousins, but even those twelfth and fifteenth cousins. I can show up in Ireland or Slovakia and be treated like family.
Ryssdal: Speaking of showing up in Ireland or Slovakia, I mean, people actually invest money in finding their ancestors, they take these trips, they spend a whole bunch of money doing this.
Smolenyak: If people can find out what town their ancestors are from, they’ll spend the money, and they’ll come and they’ll visit repeatedly. You’ll actually find people buying homes in the villages that their ancestors once lived. So there is this whole sort of sub-industry of genealogical tourism.
Ryssdal: Is it a little bit, though, like the airline industry, or the travel agent industry, I guess, right, that the rise of technology and the ease of me doing it myself might take you guys out of the loop somehow?
Smolenyak: There is some truth to that. Everybody likes to chase their own story. But inevitably people will hit brick walls at some point in the course of your research and that’s when they’ll end up turning to the professional.
Ryssdal: Megan Smolenyak. She is a professional genealogist. Megan, thanks a lot.
Smolenyak: Thank you.