California is now officially "open"—at least, according to official governmental wording, releasing those compliant enough to have gotten their vaccine from bundling up in those unyielding face masks. And just in time: concurrently, we are now enjoying the sudden arrival of summer—yes, a tad bit early—with hundred-plus degree weather.
This makes me so thankful that our local genealogical society's board opted not to jump ahead of the governor's official announcement by planning a face-to-face meeting before the official word was out. Poor form. Besides, we'd otherwise be hosting a potluck in the park for any of our members willing to brave the sweltering heat along with any lingering coronavirus germs lurking in the shadows.
Our society takes a summer break from our monthly meeting schedule. The idea was originally supposed to be because any researcher still in the game would, of course, rather be out wandering cemeteries during the summer months, looking for headstones—or, in the respite of governmental air conditioning, retrieving those coveted copies of vital records for that erstwhile mystery ancestor.
Perhaps that summer break idea is still a good one—despite the fact that last year, hunkered down in the midst of pandemic isolation, our board added one additional monthly event, strictly for an online activity. At least this year, it will allow all of us the opportunity to watch what happens when people return to normal. Meeting face to face, indoors, with others who might be sharing the same health risks, will be what the whole world will be doing. We will watch from a distance, with an eye to seeing whether the shift in this new normal escalates case numbers, or whether precautions now in place will mitigate the risk.
By the time we return to our meeting schedule, this fall at our genealogical society, we will have the advantage of hindsight earned at others' expense. Even if the world endures this new phase swimmingly, though, we at local genealogical societies will have one other hurdle to contend with: members have discovered the relative ease of meeting at home via teleconferencing. No fussing over outfits to choose, or traffic to jostle, or even the concerns some have with driving after dark: those pluses on the side of online meetings are a strong selling point for converting to all-virtual.
On the flip side, not only would return to in-person meetings mean assuming the post-pandemic risk of lesser—but still present—infection, but a call to consider two other groups impacted by this back-to-normal scenario.
One group that will need to be considered—at least in our group's case, and perhaps in the case of other societies, as well—is the set of new members we've acquired in the past year from out of town. In a normal, pre-pandemic year, we wouldn't have had to consider this element, but once we began offering online meetings, people from anywhere were welcome to join our meetings, simply because they can. The world is now our new membership field, and anyone sharing our organization's goals can connect with us online. We can't just unplug them and forget their existence; they've already sprung for membership and are just as much members as our local dues-paying members.
The second group which we need to consider is that important set of speakers willing to present to local genealogical societies. In the past, these were limited by our group's budget, but our choices were also restricted to those speakers willing to travel to our city to meet with us.
Now? We can contract with qualified speakers from any place where there is an Internet connection. Our society no longer is restricted to finding speakers in town. We have had several speakers who live far beyond reasonable drive time. I've heard of one group near us who hosted a speaker from Australia. Even though we're beyond the pandemic, there may be some speakers who won't want to return to in-person presentations.
With all these newfound freedoms, running a successful society meeting has taken on a burst of ingenuity. It's hard to step back to the old "normal" after a year of successful experiments. Some society board members I've discussed this with admit they will try to bridge these two worlds—pre- and post-pandemic—by going "hybrid."
While the term "hybrid" for a meeting concept may still be foreign to some, that lingo may be picked up by more people within the next few months, as we revert to "normal." Generally speaking, the term is applied here to meetings which simultaneously are offered in both venues: face-to-face and online. It sounds like a relatively easy process: just have a laptop or camera available to catch the speaker's face and presentation slides for those watching from home. But from those who have had to play to two different audiences at the same time, the comments I hear are that "hybrid" events have their own set of challenges.
Anyone who has honed the skills necessary for playing to a live audience instinctively watches for certain nonverbal cues from the audience. Actors on stage, for instance, have that sixth sense—and teachers standing up in front of classrooms need that same set of skills.
On the opposite end of that spectrum would be those who need to communicate with an audience, yet necessarily need to be separated from that very set of people they need to reach. Radio announcers come to mind here, an experience with which I'm personally well acquainted.
Taking a speaker who has honed the one set of skills, and removing that speaker from the accustomed audience to present in the opposite sphere chips away at that speaker's ability to be tops in effectiveness. Granted, some speakers have learned to develop both skill sets, but not many. And yet, when a society decides to design a hybrid form for their future meetings, they are expecting all their speakers to have the skill and energy to draw out the best in both audience sets—requiring the employment of two very different presentation skill sets.
As for what we will do in our own society, come next fall, for the "hybrid" dilemma, we're not yet sure. We have several members who are more than ready to return to yesterday's status quo for in-person meetings. But we equally have others who are satisfied with the new normal, too. And our newfound, out-of-town members have no choice but to watch online—or not at all.
The choice of how to move forward for genealogical societies may seem, on the surface, to be an easy decision, once everyone is ready to return to their previous mode of meeting. But underneath the surface, there may be technicalities and tensions we haven't—at least until this point—explored in any detail. This may be a choice which deserves more consideration than we'd thought it would require.