Sunday, March 31, 2019

That Perennial Question . . .

Are societies devoted to family history old fashioned?

As much as I love point-and-click genealogy, I still love getting together with like-minded fan(atic)s to talk about stuff that means a lot to us. That's why I've always been supportive of local genealogical societies. But lately—and I've been reminded of this, even as I posted about my favorite genealogical conference yesterday—people insist the trend is heading away from gathering as a group with a purpose. That's old fashioned, I hear; nobody wants to take the time to get together to do something that can be done alone in the comfort of one's own home.

Aside from the point that, if it weren't for a team with a vision putting together the programs and infrastructure that enables those lone genealogists to conquer family history brick walls in their pajamas, there are still reasons we need to get together for genealogy.

For one, it gets lonely. What ever happened to that concept that humankind represents social beings? Our most recent research conquest only becomes more exciting when we are able to share the news with someone else—someone, admittedly, who cares, but at least someone who can talk back, cheer, clap, slap us on the back, do the happy dance. Whatever it takes, we need feedback, and when it calls for a cheer-worthy response, the echo chamber of our empty office or bedroom falls short of the victory we want to celebrate.

Besides, it helps to crowdsource our research dilemmas. Yes, we can post those questions online and wait for some stranger in cyberspace to respond. But let me tell you a secret: some of the queries I've posted on genealogical forums in the 1990s have yet to be answered. How much time can you spare for that waiting game? If I bring that question to a society special interest group, I'm meeting with real live people, face to face, who can talk me through the issue. Even if no one has a direct answer, someone is sure to help me think through the problem more clearly. Face to face is an immediate feedback loop that online forums only weakly replicate.

Even education, the strong suit of online webinars, pales when compared to events where people are in attendance. Perhaps it's a habit borne of growing up with television, but when I'm listening to an online class and something comes up in the next room—my next cup of coffee is calling my name, for instance—I find myself getting up, wandering away...and then forgetting about the class which is still spewing out verbiage, whether I'm listening or not. Not the personal touch I'm hoping for.

More than that, people perform better when attentive faces are beaming up at them. Take it from me: I've worked in radio broadcasting as well as participated in amateur stage productions. I'd much rather talk to a live audience than to a microphone in a closet; those people in the audience pull it right out of me. I know I do a better job when I'm teaching my classes because I can see my students' faces. I know when I've hit home and when I've lost them, just by the visual feedback. Instructors—and students—get a second-class performance when it is canned and served up online.

Besides, learning involves asking questions. Though online venues try to replicate that Q&A experience of live events, there is really only so much that the tech side can accommodate with limited time and access. Some questions might be answered, but if it isn't your question, does it really matter? To you?

The idea behind genealogical societies—or any organization—is that a group of people with a common concern join together to gain more access to the benefits they might not otherwise be able to receive on their own. So, we pool our finances (the modest dues of most organizations) to pay for quality speakers to come meet us in person and share their expertise. We set up systems and infrastructure to address the genealogical goals we have in our locale. Some might want a research library, while other groups might want research road trips. Working together, we can achieve goals specific to what works in our own region.

There is, however, nothing more important—at least to me—than to be able to be social about my genealogical research progress. It means so much to be able to tell another understanding member about the latest discovery I've made, or to hear how another member solved a research problem. I get that—and so do a lot of others who have been part of the resurgence of local societies. While we may not gather to print up index books to sell—the bread and butter of those really old fashioned genealogical societies—we may, instead, wish to work towards gathering to set up a computer lab so we can all work together on indexing digitized records, or learn how to use a new genetic genealogy "toy" like DNA Painter or the Leeds Method.

I know there is a wide divergence of opinions on the place of the local genealogical society in twenty first century life, but I'm not sure the issue is whether to still have them. Perhaps the issue is more a case of how to organize our organizations so that they reflect the needs—and resources—of our times.


  1. I totally enjoy and benefit from face to face meetings. I am a member of a casual group who meets at a local library the first Tuesday of the month for chatting and use of the library computers and printers. Ohio libraries offer a free library version of Ancestry as well as other programs for client use. I also belong to our county chapter of the state genealogy association which meets the last Monday of the month. This group sponsors wonderful speakers and I have learned so much. March was a DNA specialist, April's banquet will feature an historian's program about soldiers in WW1. Two local members of the DAR will feature their new book about Revolutionary War veterans buried in the state and June's meeting welcomes a professional genealogist who will talk about searching for missing Prussian ancestors. There are also members of the research committee available before the meeting to help with questions. I can't wait until next year when the State Conference will be within driving distance.

    1. Sounds like yours is an active group, Miss Merry. How wonderful that the state conference will be close enough to attend next year! That is always a treat.


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