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  • Photo of gravestones in a cemetery
  • Young person's hand touching old person's hand
  • My grandparent's wedding
  • Gravestones in a cemetery
  • Family tree chart and photos
  • Old family photographs and heirlooms
  • Looking at a family photo of a woman
  • World War I Army pals
  • Windswept tree on a hillside
  • Looking up the word family in a dictionary
  • My parents' wedding

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When I started researching my family tree a rather scary number of years ago (just before my first daughter was born - she's 30 soon!), family history was a rather esoteric hobby. There were a few books on the subject in the local library, but not many. There had been one, pretty obscure TV series in the UK on the subject a few years earlier, but I confess it had passed me - and most of the rest of the nation - by at the time.

Now, family history is mainstream. Prime time TV series are sponsored by the likes of Ancestry, GenesReunited and FindMyPast. Major events are held at venues such as the NEC and London Olympia every year and thousands of people have caught the bug. It seems to be a pastime whose time is no longer past. Why I wonder?

Well, I think there are a number of reasons.

The internet and genealogy: a marriage made in heaven

One is to do with practicality. When I started out in genealogy, researching your family tree meant at best booking time on a microfilm reader at the local library to view the census reels, at worst travelling many miles to the nearest record office to look at dusty old tomes and barely illegible parchment documents (though actually, if I'm honest, I always loved that part of it!).

Today, with the advent of the internet, and increasing online access to easily read transcripts, high-speed indexes and digitised images, one can do a lot of research from the comfort of one's own home and in just a few hours you can achieve more than would have been possible in years previously.

The truth of the matter is that we are living in an information age and genealogy is an information-based activity. Family history is booming today at least in part because the internet is booming, and the two go hand-in-glove.

Looking for our lost roots?

But I wonder if there's not more to it than that?

Don't we also live in an age when many of us live in different cities, maybe even in different countries or on different continents, from where our parents or grandparents lived, let alone our ancestors from centuries past?

We routinely travel around the world, whether on business or for pleasure, visiting places our forebears had probably never heard of, and would only be likely to see if they went there to fight a war.

Many of us do jobs where the output of our labours is invisible, insubstantial and intangible: few of us today in the western world are fortunate enough at the end of the day to be able to pick something up, hold it in our hands and proudly say "I made that!".

I wonder whether the popularity of family history today is not also in some way connected with our modern lifestyles? Isn't there also an element of nostalgic hankering after a (possibly largely imaginary) lost world of solidity, certainty and "rootedness"? Do we envy our ancestors their connection with a particular locality, with its land and soil?

The thrill of the chase

But that doesn't explain why some of us are enthralled by this hobby even when the focus of our research has nothing to do with us personally. Having exhausted our own families, many of us who have "caught the family history bug" will then start researching other families completely unconnected with our own. Why's that?

Well, the truth is, I think, that many of us are just what I like to call research junkies. We got a thrill out of discovering our own past and can't give it up. We want to feel the euphoria of discovery again and again and again.

How many of us would, I wonder, admit to being addicted to the detective work that genealogy entails? My guess is that Sherlock Holmes was a research junkie too, and only resorted to cocaine when he didn't have a case to solve.