Wednesday, September 13, 2023

A Pause in the Interim


While I am casting about for a new topic to research in the short period leading up to writing next month's goal, I had a thought I'd like to share. Perhaps, in this interim, you might have some thoughts on the same situation—in which case, I'd love to hear them.

I often reflect on the state of local genealogical societies, especially considering what is to become of these small but vital groups. It may seem that "big box" commercial entities have become the be-all, end-all which are swallowing up these small organizations. After all, there is so much that can be obtained online to support building that family tree. Why need a local group? Where can such a small group fill in the gaps?

Of course, if you've been reading here at A Family Tapestry for any amount of time, you know I'm a strong supporter of local genealogical groups. Perhaps it took coming through a devastating pandemic to open my eyes to exactly why local groups are needed, but to me it is crystal clear that we in local organizations provide the human element. We are the ones filling in the gaps where people want feedback—someone else to rejoice with us in our research victories, cry at our losses, come alongside us when we are all tackling a new research challenge.

There is, however, a glitch in all this celebration of local societies. And I can best describe that with a story. 

In our local group, which only weathered the pandemic through the help of online meeting technology—hello, Zoom!—we have nonetheless had other organizational problems. Not the least of these has been the difficulty finding anyone willing to step up and volunteer to be part of leadership on our board of directors.

As we have turned our attention back to in-person meetings in the last several months—a move warmly received by our membership—we tried a new type of meeting. This one, called simply "Coffee and Conversation," is a monthly chance to get together and just talk genealogy. No agenda. Membership-driven topics of discussion. Free flow of sharing ideas, resources, and crowdsourced problem-solving. An hour that lets our members shine without pressure of preparing presentations.

This past month, the topic turned to finding old high school yearbooks. One member mentioned that he had found a copy of his school's yearbook for his year of graduation, which inspired him to put his research skills to work discovering what had became of all his former teachers.

"What year?" someone in the crowd asked. "Fifty nine" was the reply.

Another member fist-bumped the man who graduated in fifty nine. Another one said he beat them both by two years. "Fifty seven!" Meanwhile, the woman sitting next to me said, almost to herself, "Fifty five."

It was interesting to listen to the group share their remembrances of the "good old days"—especially when it came to local history—but one thought was not lost on me. These are members of a group meeting in 2023—a group which is having trouble finding candidates to run for officers in our board for the year 2024. 

Yes, I did the math. And the numbers opened my mind. Our members have been there, "done that," for decades. They've served on the hospitality committee, or as newsletter editor, or even as president. Again and again, in many cases. And next year, they are not the ones we need to look to when it comes to filling the positions which will lead our organization into the future.

The people we need for those spots are the ones who weren't even born in 1955, let alone graduated high school then.

The question, then, is how to find them. I'm not totally sold on some suggestions which have been floated by other bloggers. Making the exterior of anything shiny has never been the answer to truly keeping a house in order. Finding college student volunteers to serve in exchange for class credit, or high school students writing essays for a scholarship competition may be commendable outreaches, but those are not where we will find committed, long-term members willing to volunteer over the long run.

My hunch is to go back to basics and remember what it was that got us started as members of our own local association. In my case, it was the invitation of a genealogy friend which got me to my first meeting. A connection with a friend and a sharing of a mutual interest. The people element combined with the purpose equation.

Another thought is to think of when we first turned our thoughts to belonging with a group of like-minded people. For many of the members in our group, it was when they gave their first serious thought at retiring from a full-time occupation: then what? Some people make golfing their new full-time job. Others embark on a journey to discover new hobbies they hope they'll learn to love. But retirement is often the spark that gets some people saying, "I always wanted to look into my family history, and now I have the time to do it." I know that is what the students in my beginning genealogy classes tell me.

If you graduated high school in fifty-anything and are still working hard as a volunteer with your local genealogical society, that is great! I hope you will be able to keep up your service for many years to come. But if you were a graduate of the seventies, or the eighties, or even more recent than that, I hope you are ready to step up and try your hand at making your local genealogical society everything that it can be.

And when you do, bring your friends with you. Almost everything is more fun when you do it with your friends. I know genealogy is.

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