Tuesday, June 25, 2013

High Time You Joined a Society

Having just attended a regional conference (and been lusting after a national one looming on the horizon), my mind naturally gravitates to the administrative benefits of being associated with genealogy groups, be they national or local in scope.

“Why is that?” you may ask.

There are several reasons: 
  • Educational opportunities
  • Research resources
  • Collaborative effort
  • Networking benefits

Before examining these, let’s remember what’s been happening in the family history research world over the last few decades.

Yes. I said decades.

If you have been one of those lonely researching souls sequestered in a dusty corner of an archival institution or library, cranking away at a microfilm reading machine, you understand what I mean: we don’t do that sort of work much any more.

Now, we sequester ourselves in the comforts of our own homes, where we can perform many of those solitary searches online.

Somehow, crossing the midst of that digital divide, we’ve retreated farther and farther from any inclination to get out and share our research trials, tribulations, and even victories, with others, face to face.

Becoming involved in a genealogy organization, whether local or regional, helps counter that tendency—and gives us a much needed break from the monotony of the solitude. It also gives us a chance to “Give Back”—the more experienced genealogists helping the novice researchers—and pass along techniques to the next generation.

Besides these altruistic ideals, let’s take a closer look at those practical reasons I mentioned above.

Educational Opportunities

Though I’d like to think I know everything, I admit I sometimes fall short of the mark. I suspect you feel the same way about your genealogical research, too. Having a local genealogical society to resort to for those training needs can make all the difference.

The benefit of groups is in the power to aggregate resources, and educational opportunity is one such resource. While you could spend a fortune flitting from state to state, chasing all the training sessions offered by other societies, by joining—or forming—one of your own, you benefit from the collective power of the local group to attract and feature effective trainers who can speak to the research needs of your organization.

With a local group, instead of merely being a passive learner just there to soak up whatever opportunities stumble across your path, you can take an active hand in shaping your own future educational opportunities. Groups are small enough to accept—more than that, welcome—your input, yet large enough to convert best-laid plans into action.

By joining together with local or regional groups, you can meet and discover others who share your research interests, and together seek out learning opportunities that will benefit the larger community.

At the same time, you might be pleasantly surprised to discover that the knowledge you have already gained may be just the technique or facet someone else in the group could benefit from learning—and voilĂ !—you may find yourself becoming an instructor, too.

Research Resources

The power of groups is in what they can achieve by putting their minds together and tackling problems.

One such longstanding problem for the genealogical researcher has always been accessing appropriate resources.

In a group such as a genealogical society, members can determine which resources they can make available to their local community. Genealogy societies become preservers of history and advocates for the family history saga of their own community’s roots. Many local genealogical societies see this as part of their mission in two ways:
  • Assembling a collection of books and documents pertinent to the needs of their members as well as the heritage of their community
  • Preserving documents and even publishing books reflecting historic records of the people and places within their geographic area

Some societies have assembled impressive collections of books, manuscripts and other collectibles not commonly accessible to researchers elsewhere. I know my own local society has worked on such projects since their inception nearly half a century ago. I’m certainly grateful to another such society—the San Mateo County Genealogical Society in Redwood City, California—for the material I’ve found in their collection when working on some of my own projects.

I rather suspect that respected libraries such as the Allen County Public Library started their genealogical collection in much the same way as many county societies have done. Whether we realize it or not, there are many such groups dotting the archival landscape of our continent, which year after year continue to focus on achieving the goal of providing excellent research resources.

Collaborative Effort

We talk often about the power of groups to achieve what individuals would be hard-pressed to accomplish on their own. Past generations might have expressed that concept through the saying, “Many hands make light work.”

Now, the buzz word is “Crowdsourcing.”

Either way, it reflects something so many of us have intuitively realized: we get so much more done if we come together as a single-minded group with a goal.

If your interest—and, unfortunately, your “brick wall”—is, say, Eastern European ancestry, why sit in your kitchen and bemoan the lack of online resources? Get in touch with fellow group members at your community’s genealogical society, and form an interest group.

Evidently, someone already has done something like that. Witness the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International out of Saint Paul, Minnesota. Or the Canadian organization, Eastern European Genealogical Society in Winnipeg, Manitoba. How do you suppose they got started?

The point is, even if there isn’t already a special interest group tailored to your research needs, every group started with a few people energized with a mission. If there are two of you with a desire to research the same area, you can share your passion with others and multiply your effort and your resources.

Networking Benefits

Networking opportunities can be among the most useful tools in the researcher’s toolbox. People—and the relationships they share—are not only part and parcel of those families we cherish so much, but are the very essence fueling the success of our research projects. When we connect with others, there is an unaccountable synergy that can supercharge our efforts.

The key is finding those others.

The meet-and-greet aspect of local associations (amplified, of course, in larger regional groups and especially in national venues) allows us to find out who else is out there, and more importantly, who else is seeking the same answers we’d love to find.

When we take the time to come together in groups of mutual interest, we give ourselves the chance to find out how our hidden puzzle pieces fit the parts of others’ research puzzles.

Sometimes, that can directly impact our own work.

Other times, this connecting becomes a game of “I Have, I Need.” Sometimes, we have something others could use—if only they knew we had it. Other times, if we just speak up about our own research needs, someone will get the chance to hear and make a new connection.

It’s been over a year since I joined my own county’s genealogical society. Just the other evening, our group gathered for our annual potluck dinner. After the meal, it’s a tradition for each member present to share a story about his or her favorite ancestor. Some of the stories are humorous, some incredible. Some become show-and-tell with artifacts and photographs passed around the circle.

During that time, we learn a lot about the history of this town and county we call home. You can just tell the enthusiasm radiating from some of the newer researchers in the amazement over what they’ve discovered about a family member in the past year. We share a few laughs about ridiculous situations recounted by descendants. And shake our heads in incredulity at some of the stories about places we pass by on a daily basis.

No matter whether the weather cooperates or not, the potluck menu accommodates us or not—everyone comes away from this occasion satisfied by the chance to gather together and share our enthusiasm for something we are all passionate about.

And that, really, becomes my reminder that it is good for us to keep gathering together.


  1. You know something? Sitting down to a nice friendly dinner with like-minded folks would be a most pleasant time. It's a bit of a shame those of us that "collaborate" via Internet (blogs and comments for example) can't easily share some bread.

    1. Well if I could..I would cook for y'all! We are spread out so far apart! Nice thought Iggy! :)

  2. I have a Vault that is about 15 feet long and 8 feet wide FULL of books..most on Genealogy Research. It used to be quite a group. Then they had a falling out with the Historical Society..and so far I have been unable to lure any of them back. Bad feelings run deep in small communities. Anyway..I have many old resources and will save them..but no one ever uses them. I am not sure IF what is in the vault is all online. We (the Museum) has very little online. Sorry to bend your ear..just frustrating knowing all the info is there and not being used.:(

    1. Far Side, I have heard of that same thing happening in other counties. So sad. Don't understand the dynamics that tear things apart so irreparably. And it isn't necessarily limited to small communities...

  3. Wise words. And you are right . . . the ACPL itself probably started this way. The academic world and the social world are both moving towards collaboration, and it's a way to get so much done! Much better than sitting alone. What I like about social media is that it is a form of collaboration, too. Very motivational post.

    1. Thank you, Mariann. I think it is so energizing to realize the potential of that form of collaboration you mentioned.

  4. Great article! Would love to join more societies BUT money is a bit tight right now. I love the New England Genealogical Historical Society and its like 85.00 to join. So I e mailed them and asked if I could pay monthly a small amount each month to cover my membership? Nope..no can do. I also did that with GENI and wanted to be billed monthly like ancestry instead of a large sum...they finally answered me after 3 more emails from me and said No! I would love to really be involved more with the old school clubs so I will keep trying!


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