Sunday, July 22, 2018
It's the middle of the summer. Our local society, as we often put it, "goes dark" during the months of July and August. So...what did we do last week? Host a special seminar right in the middle of our vacation.
Granted, we had a special opportunity handed to us: one of our favorite speakers—Gena Philibert-Ortega—planned to be in the area, so we snagged her for a "double header" of two workshop presentations in one morning. (If you're in northern California, don't count on squeezing in to her sold-out presentation today for the California Genealogical Society. If you hurry, though, maybe you can get in on her speaking tour's last stop in Marin County on Thursday, July 26.)
That event successfully completed doesn't mean we can get back to vacation mode. Summer will be gone in a blink, and we will be back to monthly meetings, special interest groups, and our volunteer services of teaching workshops to beginners and offering one-to-one research coaching at our genealogical reference section in our downtown library. Add to that our board's dream: to offer special seminars on a regular basis to reach out to those from our community's many ethnic heritages to encourage them to delve into their own roots, too—like our plans for a workshop on researching Japanese-American ancestry.
Someone recently asked me if our group is growing. That's a hard question to answer. I think the situation was best framed by our former research coordinator, who took the long view with a foundational explanation in his presentation celebrating our sixtieth anniversary in 2012.
In his presentation, he reminded us that, at one point—long before the advent of online research resources like Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org—our local society was thriving. We were a busy group of volunteers, finding and replicating local records of genealogical significance and publishing them in books which we sold far and wide. Once that material could be accessed by the click of a mouse, our reason for being seemingly vanished.
In charting that year-over-year membership change for his presentation, his PowerPoint graph clearly showed a radical drop in membership at about the point at which Ancestry took off. Not much after that, our local book sales income drastically reduced, as well. In order to survive, we had to make changes.
Simply put, we needed to re-invent ourselves. This has been a gradual process, involving many approaches, as we reach out to a community of avocational genealogists who appreciate the need to gather together in support of each other's research progress.
As for that question—are we growing?—the answer is, yes, again...gradually. And differently. We are not the same group we were in the early 1990s or before. And we have more growing yet to do. Where once it was fine for members to meet in each of our homes in a round-robin effort to make space for our activities, we now need a place outside our members' houses to call our home. Where once we were simply an informal group of people working for the common good of the family history community, we've had to become official and obtain legal status as a nonprofit entity. Where once we were operating as a group of friends, we now need to run this organization like a business.
Sometimes, I feel like we are not up to that. I know that's how I feel when I'm struck by the realization that, just like any business, we need to have operated in such a way as to get our own credit rating. Who would have thought that looking for ancestors needed to be a business proposition? But we are—if we need to continue operating in today's nonprofit world.
We are leaders in our community, working to create opportunities for our members to advance their own ability to research their heritage. But when we are making a place for others—and a possibility for others—we need to learn how to step up to the next level. And that, for individuals or organizations, is called growth. It stretches us. And sometimes, that hurts.