Thursday, September 26, 2019

On Becoming Useful

There is no doubt that the genealogical society of the 2020s will be vastly different than that of the 1960s—if, that is, we still find value in collectively pursuing our family history passion.

I've certainly been giving that situation much thought in the past weeks, especially upon receiving the news of the merger of an organization dedicated to the service of genealogical societies with another organization, founded with the individual genealogist in mind. I am concerned that those local societies still remaining in the next decade will be treated, in that merger, much like the proverbial red-headed step-child.

At the same time, several instances in my local area popped up in such a way, over these same past few weeks, to point me to examples of how local genealogical societies could still shine. There are many opportunities for an upgraded and modernized society to remain pertinent to the changing world of genealogy today. Here are a few of those examples.

First, as you've probably noticed, I make a practice of rescuing abandoned family photographs and attempting to return them to family. This takes quite a bit of research to connect the names affixed to the back of a hundred-year-old cabinet card with someone in the twenty-first century who cares enough about their ancestors to want to receive their photograph.

Among those pictures which I have yet to connect with family is a baby picture linked to an extended family which has lived, for at least one hundred years, in the same county as I do. I managed to determine one connection to that family—a woman who owns a gift shop in the city where I live. Only problem is: every time I've tried to make contact, I miss her.

It just so happens that a newsletter article recently caught my eye: this shopkeeper will soon be celebrating her store's thirtieth anniversary. What better time than that to gift her with this hundred-year-old memento? And bring out the point of anniversaries and other mile-markers that recognize the longevity of families and their daily activities—an excellent task for a genealogical society in giving back to the community while drawing attention to the very services we do best.

Another recent serendipity came to me, thanks to one of our society's board members. While this board member does not live in our area, she has been a dedicated part of our board. She is also widely traveled and deeply cares about history. Apparently, she is a subscriber to a private emailed newsletter on history in the Sierras. This newsletter happened to run a story about the graffiti left on a rock near the Emigrant Trail, in which the author traced some of the names left on that rock from the 1850s Gold Rush era. One of those names belonged to the progenitor of a significant family which, by 1852, had settled in our city. It just so happens that this is the same family which, while I was doing my own family research, had discovered was a very distant cousin in my Broyles line—and since one member of that family is a business associate of my husband, he passed along the word that we are cousins. Wouldn't it be great to take that a step forward and honor that family's history with a First Families certificate? After all, our society has such a program. It would help call attention to the history we all have, just by learning more about our ancestors.

I know of inventive projects other societies have taken on. One southern California society designed a special, local version of the television program, "Who Do You Think You Are?" In this case, the county society featured local celebrities in a special dinner event. I remember such a program also being incorporated into the schedule of the Fort Wayne FGS conference a couple years ago, and noticed how tangible the response was among the local celebrities as they experienced learning about their own roots.

When we reach out and pursue such community-related projects, we bring our societies to the forefront. I can't help but wonder, if more people knew about what we do as societies, whether more would be interested to support our projects and, ultimately, be willing to join us as part of our membership.


  1. Our local genealogy group has been sponsoring and manning a booth at our county fair (a very popular event in our rural area). We sell raffle tickets for your very own "Who Do You Think You Are" package. Members research your family and present you with a spiral bound family history. We also take advantage of the free wireless at the fairgrounds and assist the public in looking up family history on the internet.

    1. Thank you for sharing that, Miss Merry. This is the kind of idea-sharing that I think is so beneficial for genealogical societies. Learning about what genealogical societies are doing can inspire idea generation in other groups, and promote adaptation of projects so that they fit one's own group's parameters. I am already thinking of how we could adapt your society's idea to our local situation! Creative ideas certainly can beget more creative ideas.


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