Thursday, March 31, 2016

Civil Societies

There is something that puzzles me about local genealogical societies, so perhaps opening up this post to feedback from you, as a reader here at A Family Tapestry, may garner some useful input.

I'm a part of my local genealogical society. Everything I've ever experienced of that organization has demonstrated that it is made up of people who care—about preserving records useful for research, but more than that, about helping people begin their own journey of uncovering their family history. Like most organizations, we host monthly meetings which are open to the public, providing training on topics of interest in genealogical research. We host classes for beginners. We provide basic research services in the local area for a modest fee to those inquiring for help from a distance.

I thought all genealogical societies offered just about the same services. With the same civic interest in helping others in this field—you know, sharing a mutual love for this same pursuit.

Apparently, I am wrong.

Just as many people from around the world have done in sending inquiries to our society for look-up services, one of our members recently sent an email to the officers of a local genealogical society in another state. Writing to see if they provided any such look-up services—and for what fee—she briefly explained the gist of her research goal.

She was surprised at the response she received. No, amend that: she was aghast at the innuendos loaded into the reply.

Keep in mind, this was just an average everyday member of a local genealogical society, not a professional equipped with all the right buzzwords to pack into her query. She had just sent a simple email, assuming all societies would respond like ours would. Even if the response were to be different, a simple "No, we do not provide that service" would have sufficed.

Since this member happens to be a friend of mine, she showed me the exchange, wondering if somehow she was reading it all wrong. She wasn't.

On my part, the response seemed not only unprofessional, but overheated. If it were simply a matter of one poorly-worded note, I might have written it off as stumbling across someone else's bad day. But it wasn't just one letter; it was followed by an "Excuse me?" response with clarification of my friend's intent in posting the original question. That, in turn, escalated into insult hurling. I began to feel as if I had slipped into a time warp of 1990s-style flame wars.

Experiencing that exchange—if only vicariously—reminded me of some cautionary comments I've seen in the past few years concerning local genealogical societies. One source for such comments came from the early years of an online resource known as #genchat. That Twitter-based genealogical discussion group, meeting biweekly, is a group I highly recommend—you can view their "How It Works" explanation here, and check their schedule of discussion topics here—but it was here that I met other researchers who had had less than optimal experiences, trying to join local genealogical societies.

I used to think it was just being kind when visiting speakers to our group would beam when they observed, "Your group is so friendly." Now, I wonder if I should take that comment in a different light. Is it really a veiled way to comment that other groups aren't? I had no idea there was any such possibility. I'm still wondering where all those genealogy angels are hiding their wings.

I know there are those isolated horror stories out there—some readers here have even commented on such experiences—but I keep thinking those are rare instances of unthinking, momentary glitches by those who usually conduct themselves in a much more approachable way as representatives of a pursuit we all want to encourage others to take up. Right?


If you belong to a local genealogical society, what's your organization's standard for being receptive to research inquiries from outsiders? Do you have a protocol for encouraging newbies? For welcoming research requests? For providing support to those who would like to learn more about genealogy?

If you are not close to any local society—or have felt rebuffed by the group already established in your own hometown—what are some of the gestures that would make you feel more welcomed and encouraged in the pursuit of genealogy?

I know there are all sorts of national—and even international—resources for genealogical research now. We can—if we wish to go it alone in solitary confinement at our computer desks—do much of our own research from the comfort of our own homes. If we are just a tad bit more social than the genealogy moles in the instance above, if we want to learn more about how others go about it with their research quandaries, we can always get some face time by partaking of the kazillion online resources, such as podcasts, webinars, and other tutorials, to see how the rest of the world handles their research. Better yet, we can tune in to tear-jerking stories of how our favorite celebrities have discovered their own roots, or how average people with the weirdest family legends have discovered the truth about their Cherokee princesses, or how adoptees have finally made their way home. There are ample opportunities to "do genealogy" without ever having to talk to a real, live person.

But it's my contention that genealogical research—being, after all, about people—is a people-based pursuit. At some point, being with real, live people—face to face, in the same room at the same time—adds a dimension to genealogical endeavors that seems to have been eroded over time, the more we rely on these more modern, high tech conveniences.

Perhaps it's just that we've lost our touch when it comes to relating to other human beings. But surely, we can find our way back to those person-to-person experiences—a place where flame-war retorts would be something that we would never consider doing to another person's face.

But how to get back to that point? How do we re-introduce the human element into this most human of pursuits?

Any suggestions? 


  1. I can only think some of these societies get requests, have filled them in the past, and never got a thank you.

    1. That's a good point. A possibility, if a society didn't charge for its lookup services. Ours happens to charge (though a modest fee). In the case of this friend, she had offered to pay, and was inquiring as to their charges, if they offered the service at all.

  2. WELL. I used to look up things for people as they requested by email at the museum. There was some discussion about the idea of charging for the Look Ups. I felt is was just better to share what and when we could and encourage membership instead. Not sure what they are doing now, probably nothing as they have no one even checking the email in the winter months. They are not progressive looking.
    Now to totally tick a person off. Ottertail County Historical Society with whom I donated postcards to their collection has now went on Find A Grave and said "If you would like more information about this person contact the Ottertail County Historical Society." They have hijacked FAG if you ask me. So I called them up and asked them...oh no they charge so much an hour and document for research. The bums anyways.
    I think they should all share what info they have freely and without charging. Just my opinion. :(

    1. That's unfortunate that they are taking advantage of the platform at Find A Grave. That does seem somewhat incongruous...after all, the Find A Grave site is all about sharing for free.


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