Monday, April 25, 2011

21st Century Genealogical Societies

I listened to the first "My Society Radio" episode, presented by the Federation of Genealogical Societies,  on BlogTalkRadio today (it is archived here), and enjoyed Curt B. Witcher discussing how to bring genealogical societies into the 21st century with host Thomas MacEntee.  This radio show will be a weekly event on Saturdays at 2 pm. Eastern, 1 p.m. Central, 12 noon Mountain and 11 a.m. Pacific time.

Other bloggers have summarized the show in:

Bringing Genealogy Societies into the 21st Century: Recap by Amy Crow on the Amy's Genealogy, Etc., Blog.  Amy recaps the first show on the My Society Radio channel - some excellent advice here for societies!

Getting others involved in your genealogical society by Paula Stuart-Warren on the Paula's Genealogical Eclectica blog.  Paula has excellent suggestions for local societies to follow to bring their membership into the 21st century.

As a member of three local genealogical societies and two national societies, I think that I understand the dynamics of being a member and a society officer. 

I have some thoughts to offer:

*  Curt's recommendations are well thought out and certainly will help many societies improve their member touching and technology reach.

*  The one recommendation that I disagree with is that the publications go completely digital, eliminating the printed and mailed publication.  ALL genealogical societies include people who do not have Internet access, or are not savvy or trustful of the Internet for whatever reason.  Societies should not throw these people overboard because they are "old fashioned" or "won't change."  Societies need to adapt to the needs of ALL of their members.  Some societies email their publication as a PDF file to members with email and mail them (perhaps for an increased membership fee) to the members that prefer a printed copy.  Other societies put their publications online for free, or behind a subscription barrier, so that members can download them and print them at their leisure.  A society might have a technology oriented member pair up with a non-tech member and print a publication out for them.

*  Most of our local society members are not tech-savvy in the sense that they use the Internet to search for records, go to the society website, read blogs, are active on Facebook or other social networks, or use genealogy software.  It is a challenge for them to keep up with the genealogy world due to health, age or other interests.  In my local societies, perhaps 80% have email and appreciate society news, 20% are online at least several times each week doing research and are Internet capable, and maybe 5% do genealogy work nearly every day.  Only 25% to 40% come to the monthly program meetings, and only 5% to 10% come to the other educational meetings.  Most of those last two groups overlap with the ones that are online.

What is needed here is more education - classes, mentoring or coaching for the persons that cannot or will not use the Internet to find records.  My impression is that many of these persons would like to do more online, but need someone to sit with them on a regular basis and coach them to do basic computer tasks and then basic genealogy research tasks online.  Only by building up their knowledge and experience, in a safe, controlled way, can they gain the confidence to try it on their own.  Societies could have a "coaching" program that pairs tech-savvy persons to help "non-tech" person eager to learn on a regular schedule - once a week, or once a month at a home or a library.  Viewing a monthly presentation, even with a PDF handout with URLs to click will not work with many people until they are shown how to do it and try it themselves.  The ideal situation, in my mind, is using a computer laboratory (at a library, senior center or community center) to demonstrate and practice developng relatively simple computer skills (Windows, file management, photo management, online browsing, etc.).  Often, these lab classes cost money and have limited facilities.  Finding qualified instructors is also a problem. 

*  One of Curt's mantras was "high tech, high touch" - which means use both technology and personal communication (meetings, classes, phone calls, email) to stay in constant touch with a society's membership and provide the members with information about events, news, and opportunities.  If a society needs the high tech part of it, then they're going to need "fresh eyes" to provide it.  There are probably society members who have many of the skills required to create a website, a blog, an email list, a PDF file of a publication, etc.  Or a family member or friend who could provide some help or needs an activity.  So many people with talents hide in our local societies because we don't ask them for help.  Paula's post addressed several ways to provide the "high touch" at meetings and events.

*  The "fresh eyes" that Curt mentions will often be an online-only genealogist, who perhaps is not familiar with the classical genealogy research curriculum, but is a whiz at searching online databases.  These people are often working in society, have growing families, and only have time in the evenings and on weekends for genealogy meetings or classes.  If the local society only has programs during the day on weekdays, these folks will not participate.  The challenge for local societies is to find a way to bring these folks onboard without confusing or upsetting the current members who love getting out on the weekday for lunch and a society meeting.  Many of these current members can't or won't drive at night.  Another problem is that local libraries are cutting back on their evening and weekend hours to meet budget restrictions, and societies that meet at a library may find their meeting time options more limited than they used to be. 

How can societies bring the "fresh eyes" into the society?  Only by offering them something that they cannot get online in databases, webinars, online courses, articles, etc.  The major factor lacking for many of the tech-savvy and online researchers is knowledge of "how-to" research the classical materials - the 97% of genealogical content that is not yet online.  Basic genealogy classes in charts, organization, searching in repositories, local library locations and holdings, genealogy software, research principles, evidence evaluation, etc. can be offered by local societies covering both online and classical methods and resources. 

Once the "fresh eyes" are embedded in the local society, then they can be tapped to provide technology information or services to the society.  A collaboration between the technology-oriented and the non-tech groups is the ideal, but can be difficult to achieve.  Pairing a tech-savvy with a classical genealogist might help both persons become better researchers and society members.  Finding willing participants could be a challenge!

*  Society programs could take advantage of web-based technologies for their society program meetings.  Examples are: using a remote presentation at a program meeting (although speaker fees are pretty high for many small societies; using a free downloaded or live FamilySearch Research Course as a society program; using a free live or archived Webinar (see as a society program.  All of these require a high-speed Internet connection at the meeting venue, and the appropriate computer and projector equipment. 

My two cents, freely offered!  Please add your comments and suggestions to this blog post or in email -


geneabloggers said...

Great feedback Randy on the FGS Radio episode. The practices you mention are what I would include in the "walking the transition balance beam" between the techies and the non-techies. Right now I don't think most gen socs can go all digital - there has to be a way to reduce costs by going digital but also provide non-digital means of getting information.

Carol said...

This was a realistic post, the reality mixed with the "what ifs" of technology. Well done!

Some of your suggestions have been what my home society has been doing for several years, such as the newsletter via PDF to those who can deal with the technology, but, still offered via hard copy to our elders who are more than happy to pay $5.00 more a year in dues for the printed version. We even have one very computer savy lady who still values her hard copy and pays for it willingly.

Moderation and compromise, they work well in our societies, the same as they do in every day life.

Thanks Randy for a nice post!

Nancy Hendrickson said...

Really interesting post. I totally agree about not going totally digital, even though I'm a computer geek at heart! In my Society experience there are just too many people who aren't computer savvy (or comfortable) and going digital would leave them out of the process. And the last thing genealogy needs is less people.

Good points all around - thanks for the thoughtful post.