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Digging for family roots has grown into a booming industry

Do you know who you are?

Who, who are you? I really want to know.

Anyone who watches CSI: Crime Scene Investigation will recognize these lines from the show's theme song. The primetime TV show is about a team of investigators who solve crimes by analyzing DNA and other forensic evidence. I call the song the Rooters Anthem. It's a perfect fit for those of us on a quest to confirm our ancestry.

Lest you think genealogy is still a hobby for retirees, consider these statistics:

The average age of rooters is now 40, according to Pamela Drake, who conducted a study on the topic for her master's thesis at California State University.

Family history is the second most popular hobby in America, according to the National Genealogy Society. (Some experts say it has already surpassed gardening as the country's number one pastime. Others contend that it is recognized globally as the world's largest leisure activity.)

The percentage of people interested in family history increased from 45 percent in 1996 to 60 percent in 2000, according to a poll conducted by Maritz Marketing Research Inc. The numbers are probably higher now. (You know something has arrived when it becomes a topic for pollsters).

Computers and the Internet are primarily responsible for the mushrooming interest in tracing one's roots.

35-million people in the United States use the Internet to research their roots, according to Maritz.

Sex sites get the most hits. Genealogy ranks second.

One search engine showed 7.2-million hits annually for sites using the term "genealogy" and 1.8-million hits on sites for "family history," according to Drake.

When the Ellis Island site went live, it got 450-million hits in the first three weeks, causing the system to crash.

The United Kingdom put its 1901 census online. The system crashed within four hours thanks to the 1-million people who tried to access the site simultaneously.

All this potential revenue has not been lost on big business. Genealogy is now a billion dollar industry. Companies smart enough to spot this trend early have raked in millions hawking everything from software for creating a family tree to CDs of compiled records to online subscriptions that allow customers to tap into various databases.

Interestingly, the travel industry has lagged behind in capitalizing on the trend, despite studies that show one in five people have traveled somewhere in the past year to conduct genealogical research. Imagine the possibilities for drumming up domestic travel venues.

On rare occasions, government has capitalized on consumer interest instead of resisting it. One Pennsylvania county makes enough money to pay a researcher $35,000 a year to help rooters and still comes out ahead. Managers at the federal government, though, knew a good thing when they saw it. Just a few years ago, you'd pay $10 each for Revolutionary and Civil War pension records. The National Archives & Records Administration now charges up to $37 each for the same thing. The Social Security Administration once sold copies of a person's application for a Social Security card for $7. Today they cost $27 each.

Aside from the technological advances that have made it far easier to trace one's tree, there are other reasons people want to know more about their ancestors. Interest in one's ethnic and racial heritage began with Alex Haley's Roots and hasn't abated since. A feeling of disconnectedness also permeates the population; comparatively few people spend their lives in the towns where they were born. Reaching into the past reestablishes those connections.

Whatever their motivation, researchers spend anywhere from $700 to $20,000 per year trying to discover who they are, according to Everton Publishers, a longtime leader in the genealogy field.

Donna Murray Allen welcomes your questions about genealogy and will respond to those of general interest in future columns. Sorry, she can't take phone calls, but you can write to her c/o Floridian, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail her at rootscolumnyahoo.com. You can read her column online at www.sptimes.com. Type Donna Murray Allen in the search box. Or visit her Web site: www.rootsdetective.com.

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