Tuesday, September 24, 2019


There was a time when the pursuit of family history research was community-driven: I help you find your family who passed through California, knowing full well that someone else will be willing to help me by looking for the document which shows my great-grandfather's passing in New York. We traded. We paid it forward. We crowdsourced our research solutions.


Along came the advent of online resources, when digitized records could be accessed remotely by anyone who had a computer and a connection to the Internet. When that collection of documents reached a critical mass—both in the number of digitized records that could be found online and in the number of people clamoring to use this new style of genealogical research—the imperative to find some kind soul to do a volunteer lookup faded away. Collective efforts such as those put forth by genealogical societies, where countless volunteer hours were devoted to indexing and otherwise preparing books to help the lookup process, became redundant. Who needs to purchase a local society's book on the transcriptions of headstones, or the compiled index of bride's names from the county's marriage licenses, when the actual document can be pulled up, right on a subscriber's own computer screen?

Budding business concerns like Ancestry.com became a game changer in the family history community. Even FamilySearch.org, in taking that first step to provide an online transcription of the 1880 census, radically altered the process for securing documentation of research assertions.

The corollary to that, of course, was the diminishing need for avocational genealogists to rely on each other to accomplish their research goals—and thus the decreasing desire to join together in groups to work on their family history. In the wake of that sea change was the altering of the local genealogical society, as well.

In sharp contrast to that online dynamic has been the typical mode of operation of such societies. In that previous era of people-helping-people, everything was done either for free or for very little cost. Membership fees were small, as were the charges for the amateur publications providing vital access to records before the computer age. Pay-it-forward was the mantra of many a researcher willing to help out in exchange for future good will.

And the management of those nonprofit societies? It was likely as volunteer-driven as the friend-helping-friend services of that time. People who helped other researchers with their genealogy were now helping run associations for genealogists. Elected officers for genealogical society boards were often those who most loved the realm of genealogy—not necessarily candidates with professional credentials in accounting, or legal processes, or public relations.

Out of that bygone era came a book—The Peter Principle—which took a look at what went awry in employee promotions in business settings. While the main premise was that, in a hierarchy, employees tended to rise to their "level of incompetence," there was a second principle in operation. That principle was that employers, when considering staff promotions, often selected their star employees for those higher positions.

That, of course, is not unlike selecting the most talented genealogist for a position on the board of a genealogical society. Those folks are, after all, the ones most likely to care deeply for the organization. However, those promoted candidates can sometimes turn out to find themselves in a bind not unlike that in the business world where the Peter Principle rears its head.

The question is, of course, whether that dynamic can be changed. Is it possible to equip boards of small nonprofit organizations such as local genealogical societies to be more effective as a business operation? Can we find a way to equip these small groups of volunteer directors with the business know-how to support a thriving association in the changing world of genealogy?

That is the wayfinding I'm pondering. "The task ahead," as Seth Godin noted in his blog post recently, "is not quite the same" as what we've done before. People are not joining genealogical societies for the same reasons as those who joined in the 1980s—or even in 2010. People don't even have the same expectations for collective action in general as they did in previous decades. The tools we now use have changed many of our expectations—as well as our approaches. In many ways, before we can even ask the question, "How can we upgrade genealogical society boards?" we need to tackle the question, "Will society boards even survive the many changes in the world of family history in the next decade and beyond?"

Those are the types of questions I ponder as I take stock of the possibilities for re-inventing society boards. Examining those answers—and inspecting even the preliminary questions to ask—becomes my task of wayfinding for the future of collective effort in the pursuit of family history.


  1. Thought provoking post! I remember those old days well. I hadn’t stopped to think how that 1881 census was indeed a game changer. Of course many societies are now benefiting because their indexes are being bought by the likes of Ancestry. There’s still a benefit to the knowledge of the local area held by those who re most familiar with it...the challenge is getting that message out there.

    1. Absolutely! We are actually witnessing a stream of game changers in the world of genealogy, and there will be many more to come. Yet you have zeroed in on a vital point, Pauline: while local researchers and groups have the edge on local information, the key is examining how we can better get our message out there. I'm advocating for those local societies to learn how to specialize in such critical outreach areas as public relations. We locals can help--but only if people learn how to find us.


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