Back to our roots - we've the chance to be the hub of a million-euro history business
Genealogy is a growing industry that offers employment prospects and tax revenues, writes Brian Donovan
Published 29/12/2013 | 02:30
WE MAY not think of our heritage as an engine for economic development -- but that was what was revealed in early December at a series of Oireachtas sessions organised by the Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht at the instigation of Deputy Catherine Murphy.
Several parties were called to make submissions to help determine what the Government should be doing to promote genealogy, and establish its value. They heard from representatives of the volunteer sector, cultural institutions, and local heritage centres, all of which gave submissions highlighting their own activities and what they felt was the way forward. The three main commercial players in Ireland all spoke.
This included my own company, Eneclann, which has for the last 15 years been at the forefront of technical innovation, digitisation of records and promotion of Irish family history around the globe.
Also present were representatives of industry goliath, ancestry.com, who recently established its international HQ in Dublin.
The third player -- DC Thomson Family History, who runs findmypast.com -- was also there. In 2010, DC Thomson established an Irish operation in JV (joint venture) partnership with Eneclann, and we now operate the largest Irish family history website worldwide with over 70 million Irish records.
The big story here is the development of the genealogy industry, both in Ireland and overseas. Although it's developed in plain sight, until recently it had somehow fallen below almost everyone's radar.
In the last 15 years, we've had a digital revolution in Irish family history. There are now over 100 million Irish family history records online. These records are much more accessible than they have ever been before, and they are easier to search. And we have seen an exponential growth in the numbers of people tracing their Irish origins at home and abroad.
The engines to this change are the internet and popular entertainment. Genealogy is no longer seen as a hobby for aristocrats. There's an understanding that every family has a story that can be traced. Genealogy is now a major worldwide pursuit.
And what is the size of this genealogy audience? Marketing surveys in the US show a dramatic trend, with recent figures showing that 73 per cent of the adult population (173 million people) are "interested", and 17 per cent (40 million people) are "very interested". Ancestry.com has about two million paying subscribers.
Surveys of this nature have not been carried out in Ireland and Britain, but the success of family history TV shows as well as the strong commercial success of Irish and UK-based online publishers like findmypast suggest the trend is the same. In Ireland alone, findmypast has more than 70,000 registered users.
This is the face of 21st century genealogy. It is serviced almost entirely by online genealogy publishers. In Ireland, the National Archives has played an important role in this process, through the release of the 1901 and 1911 census, and is now pioneering partnership with the private sector to release a steady stream of new records at no cost to the taxpayer.
It is hoped that other cultural institutions will follow suit -- but there is a lack of understanding of the possibilities online publishers can bring to our heritage. The development of the genealogy business offers great opportunities for tourism and employment, with minimal State funding. What Government spending goes on archives should be focused on core functions of collection, preservation and public access.
The Government needs to familiarise itself with the genealogy business and what it means for the Irish economy. Currently we have an excellent opportunity to turn this country into a European genealogy hub -- rather like the phenomenon in Utah in the USA.
But this requires the Government and senior civil servants facilitating this development and enabling innovation by freeing access to historic records, changing data protection guidelines, empowering the cultural sector to partner with publishers and other innovators.
This will allow us to better connect to the diaspora. Remember, tens of millions of people worldwide have an emotional connection to this island that other countries can only envy. But to maintain these connections with successive generations and strengthen these links, we need to connect these people to their personal heritage.
While all sectors in Irish genealogy have a role to play, we will never reach the numbers we could, or develop the domestic value that's possible, if we continue with the idea that genealogy can only be a free, State-provided service.
Genealogy is a business, a growing industry that offers employment prospects and tax revenues. The worldwide value of the market is around €3.5-4bn, and it has been growing at rates of over 20 per cent per annum. Given the scale of Irish emigration and the diaspora in general, this is an important metric in determining the potential value of Irish genealogy.
Brian Donovan is the CEO of Eneclann. The firm is currently seeking investors via the Employment and Investment Incentive Scheme (EII). See www.eneclann.ie/eii
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