Thursday, July 13, 2017
The Citizen Specialist
When it comes to examining just what our genealogical societies should be doing, in serving both members and community, we have to remember that, depending on the type of member, we may have a very different take on what that answer should be. The answer may well hinge on the viewpoint of each specific member.
As I've visited other local genealogical societies and talked with their board members, I've realized that some societies are vastly different than others. This is not necessarily owing solely to regional differences—size of city, geographic location, or even demographic differences. There is one other point that has come up in these conversations.
When we assume, as I mentioned yesterday, that societies likely have some similar organizational goals—preserving records, for instance, or educating members on genealogical research techniques—we are also presuming an underlying situation that those members being served are one specific type of constituency: avocational genealogists.
Those who join genealogical societies because they've "always wanted to do that" are usually self-identifying as novices who desire training to learn the basics. Yet not all people who join our societies are pursuing genealogical research as a hobby. It is this mix of those who "do" genealogy for their own personal satisfaction and those who engage in research as a business venture that will alter the characteristics of a local society.
I once visited a county genealogical society which had an enviable position. Though housed in a city much smaller than my own, this society boasted their own library, an active and hard-working board, and sponsorship of an impressive annual seminar—not to mention, they sported a membership count much larger than my local group's.
While talking to one of the board members about what their society has achieved, with my inside voice, I was silently berating my own organization for not accomplishing as much. That brow-beating came to a sudden halt, though, when I heard this person mention that, among those many members in their society, they had thirteen professional genealogists.
Thirteen? We have one.
In one way, I was jealous, of course. But in another way, I suddenly became aware of a dynamic I hadn't thought of before: the fact that each person researching his or her genealogy is doing so for an entirely different reason. When a majority of the persons coming to the membership table of a society are seeking help as a beginner, it creates an organization vastly different from that in which several professionals are gathering together.
Not that I wish to disparage amateur genealogists. In fact, I prefer the designation, "avocational." In many fields considered to be the domain of the professional, we are seeing room being made for those with a keen interest in the subject, though not the credentials considered necessary for a professional. In some fields, such as astronomy or ornithology, contributions being made by the "non-professional" are being referred to as having come from "citizen scientists."
And so it may well be with genealogy, as we see the spread of resources and training empowering the avocational to hone their skills. We've gone beyond the customary seminars and conferences to include learning options such as week-long institutes, year-long certificate programs and the like. A vast array of webinars now allow avocational and professional genealogists alike to pick up skills in specialized subtopics (like genetic genealogy) or regions of research (like eastern Europe).
It goes without saying that each member brings to our local society's table skills and interests that will influence the course of that society's goals and offerings. Taken together, those members' arrays contribute toward the mosaic that represents what our society will become for our community. Much as we are influenced by our community's socio-economic demographics, we are also influenced by the goals of our members. And a key factor swaying the outcome for societies may well be the seriousness of those stepping up to join our efforts.
While beginners bring the enthusiasm that sometimes provides the shot in the arm so needed by organizations, their membership needs—and ability to participate in building the organization—are vastly different than those of a professional genealogist. And yet, once again, there is that third segment of membership: the avocational genealogist who may well be honing skills to the point of becoming genealogy's equivalent of the citizen scientist.