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History is Big Business

May 19th, 2010 · 1 Comment


I have been using for the above phrase for many years. I say it with conviction in my voice while making sure to maintain eye contact. I believe it deep in my bones.

Why is the history business such an important issue for me and thousands of archivists across the country? Part of it is the growth in demand over the last 15 years by cable networks to fill their channel with documentary programming. Some of it is the keen interest I personally have in learning about the human condition and learning from those events. Mix that in with years of licensing negotiation and seeing how amazed producers are with what archivists can provide and I know that this is big business.

History as a hobby is having a surge in popularity as well. TV shows that put you in the historic moment or researching your ancestry are feeding from one of America’s top pastimes: genealogy. According to a Maritz marketing research poll back in 2000, 60% of Americans are interested in their ancestors. In 2002 the Internet genealogy market was estimated to be $200 million and as recently as March of 2010 the estimate of a $1 billion market was cited. When doing research about the history industry I found a title “Who knew the genealogy business would be so cut throat”. Articles and blogs are full of stats and predictions of this marketplace. The sheer volume of the discussion inherently points to the perceived value.

Couple the genealogy market with the thousands of documentaries about historic topics as well as original network programming about finding your ancestors and we have a distribution explosion! This great opportunity is open to advance the exposure of our collections and of history itself.

The caveat is that we have realized that licensing from these opportunities will not be the heaven sent funding that we hoped in the late 1990s. Licensing is more competitive now and budgets are tighter. It will provide funding but not at the Getty level.

What these historic documentaries and stockhouses also provide us is access to the public in ways that we would never have dreamed of 20 years ago.

Yes, the Getty licensed roughly 22 million images last year. Why not your archive?

The simple answer is money makes money. Most archives are not in a position of having excess cash, so the best advice is to work on collaborative venues for licensing, usage and copying your content. Many archives are working together instead of fighting for grant money. Cross-promotion and use of free and open source tools all provide things that only multi-million dollar organizations could afford 10 years ago. If marketing your collection allows generation of revenue for on-going preservation or digitization then this is a treasure you need to promote.

Many archives are even going into co-productions and signing contracts to put their imagery up with the big commercial venues. This leads to a bigger shot at wide distribution without the investment risk. As long as the contract provides for certain protections, this may be a viable option.

You have some real avenues for revenue generation these days, but you do need a niche, IT support, a marketing plan and most importantly legal advice!

More to come on this topic!

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Genealogy: A $1B Market? Maybe
ITV, Mormons and Family Trees

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Category: Archiving Challenges · Developing A Digital Collection · Licensing and Access · New Tools