...and some small apology to Tennyson, because I'm not talking about ships.
(EDIT: I consider this a valid question, don't get me wrong; it's only when a fossilized Laurel uses it as an excuse for not keeping up with current research that it annoys me, as in the example below. A proper understanding of where we are as a society in our research is essential to proper judgement of up and coming candidates.)
The point is important, I think, because while the bar for admission has been raised, the very neccessary corollary of this phenomenon is that as the bar rises, the baseline knowledge available to everyone has also been raised, and quite considerably.
I got into an awful argument with someone once who insisted that the criteria for Laurel should be the same as it was when they were made Laurel - in 1982. To accept this, one has to also accept that general knowledge of any period covered in the SCA (especially well-covered ones) has not changed since the early 1980s. Patently, this is untrue.
It is disingenuous to insist that our standards should remain the same. When I started, The Intarwebs as we use them today did not exist - certainly all the websites I can access at the touch of a button right now were not in place. If I wanted to start in Elizabethan costuming today, I not only have websites with oodles of good research, I have patterns I can buy, extant examples to look at, and a bunch of scholarly work I can access, all with the merest flick of my mouse. If I decide I need a particular book (and assuming someone hasn't already scanned and posted all the relevant parts online), I can do a search on any number of book search engines.
For example, a while back, someone asked me about dolls in period - ten minutes of research on teh webz brought me a vast amount of information, dating from the Bronze Age to the 17th century (thank you, LACMA and The British Museum). Try doing that 20 years ago.
No, there's much more information available starting out. If you want to be a Laurel these days, you have to push the envelope.
Unfair! cries the dissent, but then - wasn't Laurel always about pushing the envelope? People claim it was "easier" to get a Laurel back then, but they're thinking of the research from their current perspective of what's available. When the only research you could do was to hope for the object you wanted to be on display at the time you visited a museum, pray for an out-of-print book to be available through inter-library-loan, or beg for a reasonably quick snail-mail answer from a museum where they might or might not speak your language, research even at a more basic level was hard, and the awarding of Laurels reflected the dearth of easily available information. Those who went above and beyond to try and research their art - those who pushed the envelope - were recognized for their work in bringing new information to the masses.
In Atlantia - and many other kingdoms, if not all (but I can only speak for the one I know), one of the absolutes of consideration for Laurel is teaching what you know to others in some form, preferably as widely as possible. We have rather ruined the "trade secret" aspect of medieval guild work, but it has resulted in a widepread dissemination of information that has allowed people to learn about their chosen art without having to reinvent the wheel. And so we all benefit, even as the bar is raised.
Take Elizabethan costuming. The last time 16th century costume research was really fashionable was in the late 1800s. There was a small revival in the 1960s of sociological analyses of the 16th and 17th ("early modern") centuries, but for the longest time, the two most accurate books on 16thc. English costume were both by Janet Arnold. And one of them was prohibitively expensive. Finding new things and new information was hard - especially in a society that is famously adverse to accepting new information. Laurels had to work pretty hard for their bread and butter, as I recall. In the mid-90s, Elizabethan England became hot again, and now all sorts of resources exist. The work that got someone a Laurel in 1985 is no longer enough - it has already been done (and can be found all over the web). Show us something everyone doesn't know. It doesn't have to be completely new, just not well-known within the SCA community.
The bar will always rise - but remember the aphorism "a rising tide lifts all boats"? Rising standards are a good thing - they mean that a newcomer has a good chance of getting the right information the first time around. Less time is wasted, people look better, scholarship becomes more widespread. Remember that teaching requirement? When one person starts teaching about something new, everyone now has access to it, even if they didn't do the work to find it. It's the original work, not the ability to memorize what other people have researched, that makes the Laurel.
So how does one make one's mark? Happily, even in the most explored areas of the past, there are vast (huge!) tracts of information still unferreted (yes, even in Elizabethan costuming). Scads of things still unreproduced (I'm working on one right now). Areas unexplored. If you have the stuff to be a Laurel, you'll find them. It is harder to impress people now with generalized knowledge of heavily covered areas, but even the heavily covered areas are only superficially understood by most people - look at my explorations into coifs, and the Maidstone jacket. Sure, making something really cool takes time, but if you don't have the patience, then you're not thinking like a Laurel.
(I'd give y'all some ideas, but really, you need to think them up for yourselves. Besides, I need projects.)
The past is still a vast undiscovered country (yeah, that one was from Star Trek - I quote both high and low) (Uh, and in its original unmodified form, from Hamlet. FYI.). Each newly discovered fact by virtue of becoming known, raises the bar, but again, this is a good thing. If we kept our standards static, a Laurel would no longer be something to aspire to. If it were easy to get, no-one would want it, right?
Postscript: Yes, our standards have raised, but any reasonable Laurel will not hold a new candidate to unfair standards - for instance, I weigh new candidates against the general level of work in the kingdom as a whole, not some unattainable Ph.D standard. If they are significantly better than the average, then we're in business (and the serious assessment begins!).