Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Why join a genealogy society?

I posted yesterday about finding my comments in the July 2007 issue of Family Tree Magazine in an article about declining membership in genealogy societies. I received an email query from Diane Haddad in February, who wanted to know more information in response to my blog post last August. Her query to me concerned this comment in my blog post:

"... You can spend months collecting new data for your family, without knowing a whole lot about doing real genealogy research in original sources. This type of 'pajamas research' appeals to the generation of boomers (still working) who want everything 'now.' Unfortunately, many don't want, or don't realize the need, to take the next step and go to a library, join a society or attend a conference."

Diane's two questions were:


1. If one of those "pajamas researchers" asked you "I research on Ancestry.com and other online databases, I network with other genealogists through mailing lists, and I make it to the library every once in a while. Why do I need to join a society to do 'real research'?" What would you tell him?

My response was:

What you are describing is "searching," not "researching." While Ancestry.com, other online databases, message board and mailing list posts, and books at the library are wonderful resources that help us find probable ancestors and other researchers, they are not enough to "prove" relationships. In most cases, those online resources and library books are based on data submitted by other researchers, and do not [always] contain primary information from original sources. You cannot prove relationships using this information - but you can use the information to find the information that will prove relationships.

"Real research" will take you into the land, probate, court, tax, vital, military and other original sources that document relationships and events in each person's life. These records are, in general, not digitized or indexed online. They can only be found at county courthouses, historical societies, the National Archives, in manuscripts at local repositories, or on microfilm that can be borrowed from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Note that the goal of the Family History Library is to digitize and index these records.

So why join a genealogy society? The simple answer is "So that you can take advantage of the collected and shared knowledge of a group of experienced genealogists, and can broaden your own knowledge through educational classes, seminars and guest speakers." The local societies are the entry to the world of genealogy education.

Each researcher knows something about one or more subjects, or one or more localities, and inevitably your interests will overlap their interests. Most genealogists are very willing to share their knowledge, and to help other researchers. Many of these people have many years of experience (many from before there was an Internet), and their knowledge is invaluable. Genealogy education is a lifelong experience that is tremendously rewarding for each researcher. Hopefully, if you gain specialized information and significant experience, you can share your knowledge with others in a genealogy society, as a program or seminar speaker, or as a writer.


Question 2. Perhaps it¹s not so much that people need it now - maybe they're casually interested in genealogy, don't have time to more fully pursue the hobby, or first encountered genealogy through the Internet and haven't yet learned societies exist. They're not in your 20 percent. Can societies change to appeal to these people (and should they)? If so, how?

My answer was:

The reality of local genealogy societies (and to some extent, regional and national societies) is that they are mainly composed of retired people who have the time and interest to do genealogy research and enjoy the social aspect of societies. Many local societies have seen their membership drop significantly due to aging and the perception by some that the "Internet has everything I need." Consequently, it is necessary for all societies to try to attract those that are casually interested or are unaware that local societies exist.

How to appeal to those people is difficult - it can only be done by offering services that will draw them to classes, meetings, seminars or societies. FREE services are better than a perceived high cost. Publicity about society events in newspapers, on library bulletin boards, or on web sites may attract these people. Weekend or evening programs may attract people who are working during the week. A society working with a local library to reach out to the community with "Family History Day" or "Consult a Genealogist" programs may attract those who have an interest but little time.

Those who use the Internet will eventually come across local genealogy societies if the societies have advertised their meetings and services on the Internet - society web pages, links on county USGenWeb pages, or links on personal web sites or blogs. Communication is the key - the society needs to communicate their presence and attract the potential member to participate in the society activities.


Diane used some of my sentences above and skillfully wove them into her article. I usually provide "too much" information in responses like this knowing that a skillful writer will be able to extract the nuggets and leave the fool's gold behind.

I wanted to post this for those of you who don't receive, or read, Family Tree Magazine. And it is a very valid question - why join a genealogy society?

What do you think? Am I on the mark, or did I miss it? What would you add or take away?


Anonymous said...

Is there a benefit to joining an out-of-state society? For example: I'm from Michigan, but I currently live in another state. Is there anything to be gained by joining a local society here, where I have no family ties?

Becky Wiseman said...

Randy, I think you nailed it! At least as far as why people should join a society. The other side of the coin, so to speak, is once people have joined, how do we get them "involved" in the society? Our small local society has about 100 or so members. Of those probably half are out of state. But of the half who live within the state about 3/4 live in the county. So that means a "core" group of maybe 40 people or so that could work on projects, attend meetings regularly, etc. We're lucky to get 20-25 members to the monthly meetings where we usually have a speaker from the community or nearby. Of those members who attend meetings, less than half volunteer for various committees, officer positions, workshops, etc. It gets a bit frustrating for the same group of 10-12 people that are doing all the work! But, we keep on doing it because it is worthwhile and rewarding. But how do we get other members involved?

Miriam Robbins said...

Randy, I'd like to answer the question from "anonymous." There ARE many benefits from joining out-of-state societies in that most have newletters or quarterlies that include articles of local history, indexes of local records, and list queries from other researchers whose ancestors were from that location. Also, many genealogical societies publish books of local records, and offer them for sale at discount to members.

One of the biggest falacies, however, is to NOT join your local society because your ancestors did not live in the area where you now reside. My parents and I are first generation Washingtonians (for the most part; a couple of my ancestors lived temporarily in this state). My parents and many preceding generations were born in Michigan; so for many years, I did not join the Eastern Washington Genealogical Society. After I joined, I discovered probably 90% of our society's members did not have Washington ancestors, either. I missed out on over 15 years of learning from more experienced genealogists and attending workshops that would have further increased my knowledge by believing my local society would not benefit me!

I say, join your local society first (and be an ACTIVE member), then join the societies from your ancestral locations.

Unknown said...

I think that you are right on the mark Randy. Your answers are excellent and really cover all the bases. We experienced a steady loss of members in our Society and put forth a concentrated effort to increase public awareness of our existence by doing the very things that you mentioned. We worked with our local library and offered two free genealogy courses a year to the public, as well as hosting a Family History Day to introduce and educate those interested in starting their research. In the last year and a half we have added 76 new members in a modest sized community, which increased our membership by 50% to 229.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, Miriam!

That is exactly the type of response I was hoping for.

Christina | AmiExpat.com said...

I'm in a different boat than most. I live in Germany, where the "local" American genealogy society is 6 hours away. I don't have the budget for a lot of travel to local US archives, so I mainly join societies with lots of online content, like NEHGS. I do pop by all the local society homepages from where my ancestors lived from time to time, just to see what they are up to - most of their pages haven't been updated in years. I think your idea of advertising more on their sites is great. An easy way to increase membership, I think, would be to offer their society newsletters in email form.

Anonymous said...

An important "intangible" benefit of participating in genealogy societies and user groups is the fellowship with others who can appreciate your research problems and successes. Even if they don't have advice to help you get beyond your brick wall, a good society will give you the moral support to keep trying.