Saturday, August 24, 2019
Sign? Or Symptom?
This Week's "Wedding" Announcement
It just about killed me that I couldn't attend this week's FGS conference in Washington, D.C., but after hearing the news which broke this past Wednesday, I really wish I could have been part of things. While there have been positive reactions to this "wedding" announcement—at least from what I could see on social media—I can't help but feel like I'm merely being polite while suppressing a deep, inner, "oh oh" as I read through initial comments. I'm not sure whether this is a sign of the future, or a symptom revealing past problems, amplified.
I'm concerned for the underlying analytics bringing together two disparate groups. This may not turn out to be a match made in...well, wherever genealogical mergers are made.
You can find the press release officially announcing the merger plans between the National Genealogical Society and the Federation of Genealogical Societies posted on each organization's website. NGS leaders characterized the move as "improving support of both individual members and societies in the pursuit of genealogical excellence" and FGS leaders promised the merger would "allow for improved and expanded services to help support societies."
All that word smithing is confetti-worthy, ushering in a new age full of the glow of savvy advancement. What's behind the need for such a move is what gets me wondering. To be blunt, I'm concerned that genealogical societies may gain even more of the aura of the red-headed step-child if the mission of FGS does not homogenize quite as un-lumpily as hoped. While both groups are all for excellence in genealogy, the focus of NGS has always been on the individual; FGS, in contrast, is a collective comprised of member organizations.
Genealogy as a pursuit has long been beholden to collective action and accomplishment. The boots-on-the-ground that FGS sometimes mentions are their member organizations, which work face-to-face with everyone from first-time-inquirers into their family history to brick-wall-smashers celebrating the many conquests under their belt. Societies are the ones who entice newbies to start their journey, who hold steady the faltering researching hands of the frustrated, mid-journey, and bid us all progress upward in our expertise and research accomplishment. They need understanding in how to set up, develop, and perpetuate the infrastructure necessary to provide such services.
Yes, people can learn to gain those individual research skills in the new, self-serve mode of online genealogy—at the cost of impoverishing ourselves of the richness of interpersonal encouragement. But we need to understand what we're walking away from. The history of family history is rich with collaborative effort, the nurturing, encouraging, supportive efforts bringing many of us into the fold in the first place. There are all sorts of hobbies—and even occupations—which people can learn on their own, but the ones gained via a supportive and confidence-building network "stick" like no other.
That network of networks, in turn, needs our support. There is a reason why FGS came into existence. According to its own mission statement, their purpose, in part, has been to provide resources enabling genealogical organizations to succeed in pursuing their mission.
As the news of the NGS-FGS merger spread, leading genealogy bloggers voiced their assessment. The Legal Genealogist Judy Russell observed that "to the extent that the merger reduces duplicated efforts, it should be a very good thing overall for the genealogical community" but that since the aspect of services to societies differs in each of the partnering organizations, that will be the key concern as the boards work on the exact details of the merger.
Bottom line for connection-conscious Amy Johnson Crow is that "there simply must be a venue for society volunteers to learn how to be better managers...of the valuable societies that they are involved with." She likens the complementary but different missions of the two parties to "enjoying reading versus operating a bookstore." Tacking on a few token sessions in a conference or a few articles in NGS publications "won't cut it in terms of what societies need."
Or is this merger a sign of deeper distress? Here in California, we've already seen the "re-invention" of another popular conference in the SCGS announcement to skip their annual Jamboree next year; faltering numbers may be at the root, some speculate. On a larger scale, business analysts are eyeing mega-provider Ancestry.com's risk of ongoing flat revenue—for instance, in this chart-driven and number-crunching article, or its synopsis here (thanks to Randy Seaver's post at Genea-Musings)—which causes me to wonder why all this talk, at any level in the genealogy world, about re-inventing? This is a sure tip that genealogy as business-as-usual may be a thing of the far-gone past. Is this the floundering foundation upon which the FGS-NGS marriage stands?
As president of a local society, I keenly feel the need for our board to dive deeper into aspects of strategic planning, financial management, even team-building, to build an organization responsive enough to meet future as well as current demands. A national resource like FGS is even more needed now by local societies than it ever was before. While agreed, genealogical conferences featuring how-to sessions for individual genealogists can be blended between the two societies, there is no other national-level entity meeting the specific organizational development needs of genealogical societies—other than the FGS. Simply tacking on that element to the nuptial agreement as a cosmetic enhancement will not do local genealogical associations a beneficial service.