Friday, May 22, 2015

Genealogy Societies:
What Are They Good For?

It’s that long drive home from our local genealogical society meeting, the third Thursday of the month, that gets me thinking. Sometimes, we have great speakers and the presentations—or something mentioned by a fellow member, afterward—spark ideas. My brain starts spinning off those ideas, careening into other thoughts, and I come away from the drive home, energized.

Then I log in to my email, or check my feed to see what’s been posted lately in genealogy blogs, and I see the feeling is not always mutual. From reading some of those posts, one would gather that genealogical societies are a dying breed. That their time has come—and gone. That they’re wearing out their welcome mat in this bright new age of instant access to digitized records.

That may be true, but.

Since when are we not social creatures? I like what one of our local board members once observed: genealogical societies are where we fanatics can gather together to tell each other about our latest research conquests without every eye in our audience beginning to roll. When we’re with people who understand, it makes all the difference. After all, every story needs an audience. And boy, are we the ones who find the stories.

Have those stories lost their pertinence? After all, who cares about grand-uncle Harry? Nobody even knows what “grand-uncle” means, anymore.

Or is it just that we’ve lost our ability to connect—not with our past, but with our present? That we are no longer able to encourage each other in the processes of our pursuit, here and now, among our peers experiencing the same research issues we stumble upon.

I’m wondering if there is any aspect to the “chemistry” that happens when people with this mutual interest in genealogy come together as a group. I’m one of those people who has just got to have faith in the process—that people excited about an exciting pursuit will resonate with excitement when they achieve their pursuit’s goals. And that excitement will attract more excitement—and more to get excited about.

If that explanation sounds redundant to you, I want it to appear as the obvious statement it is. How can we not generate some excitement about our mutually-chosen passion? Yeah, some people in some genealogical societies might not like some aspects of their organization. But you’ve got to find what works for the people in your group—what inspires them, what draws them back for more.

Our local society had entered a slump, years ago. Perhaps some thought it was a signal that we had come to the beginning of our end. A wise number-cruncher observed, from our group’s statistics, that our membership and meeting attendance began its downward spiral at the advent of online genealogy powerhouses. Why join a society, when you could pay a company to deliver all the research documents you needed, right to your own door?

The assumption underlying that conclusion, of course, was that people joined genealogical societies because they wanted a local source to help them access the material that improved their research results. While that may, indeed, be a worthy goal for such organizations, that is not the only reason researchers seek out fellow researchers. But even that doesn’t touch the crux of the matter.

Everyone knows that genealogical societies are two-headed monsters. We join together with lofty organizational goals such as “preserve local records of genealogical value”—and that does become a service of benefit to our home community. Yet, what is the focus of our members’ own genealogical research? Usually, every place but the one we currently call home. The uneasy truce between these diametrically opposed goals is to fill our events with generic educational programs that can cross-apply to anyone researching anything almost anywhere.

And when we water something down that far, anything can lose its zing. Even something we are as passionate about as genealogy.

While we admittedly can champion our enthusiasm about genealogy, the goal must not only be to generate excitement about our content. We also need to make peace with our process—how we build the organization that best delivers that content to our constituency. That there are people out there who want to share what they’re discovering during their genealogical pursuits, there is no question. How to build the infrastructure to accommodate that process may very well be the bigger question.  


  1. That's a very interesting insight. I have lunch once a fortnight with a friend who also does family history and we both say we enjoy telling each other our stories so much because our families are not interested and it is great to share our findings with a like minded soul. Maybe I should extend this to the WW1 society I am a member of ... change our meetings from just planning our next project to include a segment for researchers to share interesting findings. Maybe people would be keener to turn up and would turn up more often?

    1. It's certainly worth a try, although the key is not specifically to add just the element of story-telling to your meetings--which, admittedly, does insert a spark to otherwise dry business meetings--but to zero in on what, specifically, reflects the "chemistry" of your own group. It may take some observation, or discussion, or other form of examination to determine what, exactly, makes the members of your group "click." That interpersonal element which brings the group alive is what you are seeking to add to your gatherings.

  2. Historical events are always much more interesting when you know one or more of your ancestors was involved.

    I think the only time my family listens to my "family tree findings" is when they are associated with some "big event"... It is a shame really - even the ones that led "boring lives" weren't boring people.

    1. Iggy, I guess everyone has that hunger for their 15 minutes of fame--even if they have to live it vicariously!

  3. Some people are curious and have a curiosity and others do not. The Genealogical Society in Hubbard County was absorbed by the Historical Museum long ago...I think it was drenched records in a building that did them in. I often wonder what was in those destroyed records.
    I am out of the loop now. Gene has resigned his Historical Museum Board position due to his health.
    I just do not have the energy to deal with those people either...

    1. That's so sad, Far Side. I know both of you have contributed so much to that museum over the years. See? Even "institutional knowledge" comes right back to the issue of people. I really think it is people that's the key. And, of course, every group's different--and every group morphs over time. Perhaps you are right: maybe focusing too long on that drenched records project did do them in. Such a delicate balance to the community cohesion in groups.

  4. Great post Jacqi, you are absolutely right about being with people who understand.

    1. I like that phrase I've heard about people's eyes "lighting up" when they are enthused about something. We see a lot of that, looking around our meeting room during the informal social time before the meeting starts. Watch the discussions and see what makes people's eyes light up. That's what really draws them in.


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