Be assured: as much as I miss seeing my fellow local genealogical society members, I am not about to do the unthinkable and get together in public. Where I live, people are still wearing face masks, social distancing, and accessing their meals the old fashioned way (at home). We may yearn for the chance to see each other face to face, but we rarely do that any more, except for perhaps the occasional outdoor coffee meetup.
That is not to say, however, that we don't miss meeting with our fellow family history researchers.
Last month, I wondered how many others in local genealogical societies shared that yearning, and put together an invitation for board members of neighboring societies to join me in an online discussion of what each group is doing to keep connected with our membership. After all, when I put together my mailing list for that invitation, I noticed such a wide range of current activity levels—everything from high-tech-savvy webinar hosts to groups which hadn't met since COVID-19 quarantines shut their doors.
The idea was to come together to share ideas, learn from each other's questions and observations, and be an encouragement to each other. Thirteen other local board members from across northern California joined me and two of our own society's board members in a productive conversation.
The energy from positive encounters tells the tale of hitting the right spot, finding a needed salve for the crisis. Of course, energy can just be a feeling—and feelings can be fleeting—but it can also provide the clue that others are on the same wavelength, are noticing the same need, and want to delve into the issue further.
The same is true for assembling our own organizations. I don't know how other local societies are faring in this continuing quarantine season, but from the feedback I receive from our own members, the isolation and inability to engage in mentally-uplifting communication and interpersonal contact has been draining to our members. Over the past few months, our society has had its monthly program offerings stepped up notably, yet people still keep coming back for more. One member told me, "I'll be there, no matter what" we offered for extra meetings. As she put it, her life has been "like a flat tire" ever since the quarantine started. That makes for a long five months, so far.
Just as some local society members have found the online access to virtual meetings confounding—whether on account of inexperience with new computer programs or just inaccessibility to updated hardware for the newer forms of online communication—some societies are suffering from inability to connect, as well. Some I've found have posted an "out to lunch" equivalent on their website—wherever it has been co-hosted on their behalf—or simply have not updated their online presence at all.
With the proliferation of free webinar opportunities in the face of this pandemic—a goodwill gesture from major genealogy companies—perhaps some members of local societies have felt their need for the home-based organization to have become antiquated. After all, if all the society does is offer educational opportunities in the form of live speakers at monthly meetings, webinars featuring nationally-known genealogists will certainly one-up that modest offering. Mix in "free" and you have competition you can't beat.
But what does the local genealogical society actually stand for? Hopefully, much more than the chance to sit for yet another hour, learning something else about family history research. For the organization which infuses their programs not only with continuing education opportunities, but with interactive exchanges which not only benefit their members but give back to their local community, it may be a rough go of surviving as we head into this pandemic's future. Yet, even that can be overcome through virtual means. As we learn to use the tools now at hand to innovate getting our members together virtually, we will find we can replicate many of the experiences we used to think were only possible in a face to face venue.
Being adaptable determines an organization's ability to thrive in subsequent generations. While this current pandemic may be devastating, it does force us to rethink how we continue operations within this new social reality. Never have so many people learned so quickly how to adapt to so many technological tools—at least as far as online communication goes.
For those who can capitalize on this shift, our first order of business as leaders of genealogical societies must be to determine the details about getting together. If we can gather together virtually, how? Once we're assembled, for what purpose? Will it still be for the same meeting format and program? Or will we discover the need to rethink the content alongside the changing process of assembling?