The Genealogical Society: Revise or Demise?

Vigil for the Genealogical SocietyGenealogy is emerging, growing, thriving. So why do we hear rumors of the impending death of the local genealogical society? Is it “revise or demise” for these once-vital pillars of family history research? And what is the GEG’s obligation to local organizations?


The health of genealogical societies

I am heading up a genealogy project that has put me in contact with many societies around Alabama. Most of them tell me they are in decline — some nearly gone. Fewer and fewer people come to meetings. No one volunteers any more, they tell me. I suspect this is true in many states.

Up until about a year ago, I had not been a joiner. And I have met several GEGs lately who all say they are not part of genealogical societies. I edit a historical magazine, and our staff recently surveyed our  readership about their interest in genealogy. Wonderfully, they want to learn about genealogy. But disturbingly, they have little interest in genealogical societies.

Does a local genealogical society have a value?

Absolutely. The local groups have something no state, regional, or national organization can replace: knowledge of and commitment to the locality. The local societies know where the treasures are buried.

For my local group, the Tuscaloosa Genealogical Society, it’s the court records that moldered for ages on the 7th floor of the local courthouse. For seven years now, the TGS has been preserving and digitizing these records. They have saved them.

The local areas that lose their genealogical societies will begin to lose their treasures. You need the passionate advocates.

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Why are genealogical societies losing members?

Societies are losing by attrition the generation that created them. And the new generation of genealogists are not joining to replenish the numbers.  Simply put, genealogists have changed significantly, while societies have not. Here’s what I see:

The new genealogists are all ages and ethnicities.

Most genealogy societies were created for the white, middle-class, over-65, retired crowd. They have served that group very well. But the new genealogist could be seven, twenty, or forty-five years old. She could be African American or Russian or Mexican. He feels out of place and underserved at a traditional genealogical society meeting.

The new genealogist is packing genealogy around a full-time job or school.

When I first took up genealogy in the 1980s, every genealogist I met was either retired or what we then called a “housewife.” They were the only ones with the freedom to travel to archives and other resources during weekday hours — the only time they were open.

Thanks to today’s on-line digitized resources, the new genealogist can do a lot of work from home. For the first time, genealogy is accessible to people with the time limits of career and school. But these people are really busy, and get nervous any time someone says “meeting” or “volunteer.”

The new genealogist has a thousand ways to use any given hour.

In the 1980s, cable TV was a new invention, with limited options. By the mid-1990s, the new Internet was dial-up discussion boards and AOL.com. It was a wonder, but was nothing compared to the educational and entertainment options we now have on TV and the Internet. The new genealogist does not remember what boredom feels like. He has options.

The new genealogist can learn genealogy from the world’s best experts without leaving home.

The society used to be the best place to go for genealogy education. There were no other options, except for those who happened to live in Salt Lake City, Fort Wayne, or another genealogy-rich town. The new genealogist can log on to Ancestry Academy and listen to a lecture by Mark Lowe, Pamela Sayre, Deborah Abbott — any of the greats. A genealogist can find an on-line tutorial for virtually anything she wants to learn.Ancestry Academy

The new genealogist has all the “society” a person can stand.

E-mail, social media, and cell phones with free long distance calls have made a small town of planet earth. The genealogy crowd of the 1970s had a yearning to mix and mingle with others of similar interests. Today’s genealogist craves solitude and is not attracted to the word “society.”

The new genealogist, likely as not, does not live where his ancestors did.

In the 1950s to the 1980s, when most of our societies were being forged, we were a less transient society. You were far more likely to be born, live, and die in the same town. Further, you were pretty likely to live in the town where your grandparents lived and died. The new genealogist often lives in a place his ancestors never visited.  He or she is not likely to be attracted to a local society, if they don’t perceive it to help with their own genealogical problems.

The new genealogist is willing to give back, from home.

While very busy, the new genealogist feels the same yearning his predecessors had to give back to the community. But he prefers to do what can be done from home, in pajamas, at 11: 00 pm. She is happy to contribute financially to worthy projects. Just don’t ask her for a whole Saturday to do a car wash or bake sale for a worthy cause. They are a new breed of philanthropist.

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Can a genealogical society serve the new genealogist?

The local society finds itself with the unenviable task of figuring out how to serve the old guard who want their traditions, while drawing in the new genealogist, who wants a very different type of organization. Here are some things the new genealogist will be drawn to:

Social media & e-mail

A society must employ e-mail and social media to integrate itself into the lives of a membership of new genealogists. They expect to hear from you regularly with valuable content — not just meeting announcements.

Group benefits

Use the bargaining power of your organization to negotiate deals for your membership. Can you wrangle a discounted access to Ancestry Academy? Can you get them a reduced rate on a hotel near the state archives? The possibilities are limitless, but this is a valuable avenue to explore.

On-line meetings

Consider livestreaming your meetings, so that people who have just returned home from work can attend without dressing and driving back to town. And make the meeting worth the effort.

Home volunteerism

Find a way to make your group’s philanthropic work accessible from home. FamilySearch’s brilliant Indexing project offers the best example of how this can be done.Family Search Indexing

How does a society begin to revise?

I realize that the things I’ve just told a society to do are complicated. They take time and talent and skills. How in the world can these things be done?

  • Recruit the talent you need into the organization
  • Partner with other organizations in your region
  • Partner with local businesses or organizations
  • Take it one change at a time
  • Commit to it and make it very public that you’re committed to it

A GEG call to action

GEGs give back.  You will be the ones who revise the local societies to prevent their demise.  Your charge:

  • If you are not a member of your local genealogical society, join today, show up at the next meeting, and get ready to make a difference.
  • If you are a member of a local group, ask yourself if your organization is healthy. If so, invite friends. If not, revise it and invite friends.

We are the solution.


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15 thoughts on “The Genealogical Society: Revise or Demise?”

  1. I have been doing genealogy for 25+ years and would not consider joining a genealogy society. Most of the local societies near me are so behind-the-times they don’t even have adequate webpages. The info there is out of date by a year or more, and they certainly don’t have any active social media presence. Several can’t even answer an email inquiry. It is a sad sad state of affairs – I am active in my own search and would LOVE to be used as a resource to help others, for library research or for local resources, but there isn’t a discussion board, forum, website or anywhere else to post my activities and interests. I don’t know what resources my local society has nor would I ever think about using them. The webpages that do exist sometimes contain pictures of a social group that doesn’t look like me or have my interests in mind… They look like they serve themselves as a coffee klatch or social club. I have become a find a grave helper instead…

    1. I understand, Elizabeth. I’m hearing it from all over. And as I mentioned to Wayne, I wonder if competing organizations will begin to surface. It will likely be the death of the old groups, if it happens. Hence, the “revise or demise” conundrum. Thanks so much for piping in.

  2. I was a member of the Southern Illinois Genealogical society for a few years, during which time we had an active member from Southeastern Illinois and we had some coverage of the oldest county in Illinois, Gallatin, where Shawneetown is the county seat. My ggg-grandfather was appointed as Land Registrar for the entire southern part of Illinois. All the years I was a member not one article about this family. Nothing in the local publication, nothing. John Badollet, his father-in-law was appointed by Thomas Jefferson as Land Agent at Vincennes, IN and remained in that capacity from about 1802 until his old age and retirement in about 1835, at which his son followed in his footsteps. Since all of the coverage was on the French settlement in western part of Southern Ill. I finally dropped my membership. There was very little value to me.

    1. I understand, Jon. If the purpose of joining the society is to find information about your specific family, it’s luck of the draw. And since my ancestors never lived in the town where I now live, there would be no purpose in joining here, if I was looking for that.

      When I finally joined and became active, I discovered that my local group’s meeting programs tend to be on the how-to of genealogy. Very helpful. And they are in the process of a major digitization project of local records that will enable large numbers of people to find their ancestors (if they lived in the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, vicinity). I hope, if I help the local group to make Tuscaloosa information widely available, that someone will be doing the same for me over in Heard County, Georgia, where my ancestors lived.

      I am a remote member of that society, too, though my only connection is through their newsletter. I hope they are preserving and digitizing the records I’m going to want. I guess I’m saying, I’d like us to begin to formulate our societies with a pay-it-forward ethic. Work to preserve the records near at hand, even if they don’t help you, in exchange for the hope that a person living where your ancestors lived will do the same.

      That’s what I encourage the new (revised) societies to become, activists in the preservation and digitization of local materials and knowledge before it’s too late. If people are just joining to get the journals (which are also shrinking drastically), I fear a society’s days are numbered, because they’ll never give enough people satisfying data. As you learned.

      Thanks, Jon!

      1. Wow, Jon. A very strange moment of serendipity. I just this minute opened the July newsletter from the Heard County Historical Society, and the luck of the draw is mine today. A feature titled “What’s in a Name” by Cheryl Gore Pollard has a couple of paragraphs where she describes my grandfather’s cousin Awbrey Cox and family, who she actually remembers. She has detail I didn’t have in my tree and tells me how his town of Roosterville got its odd name. Once in a while, we score.

  3. I was the editor of newsletter for the genealogy society I belonged to. I am sorry to say this, but Jon would have been dissappointed with our newsletter too. I could only put in information that I had, could find or someone submitted. I knew about my family and a bit about the townships I had lived in. If someone like Jon didn’t submit a short story (like he told in his comment above) he wouldn’t have found anything about his family in our newsletter either. The newsletter editor is a. Volunteer position, He Or she is a member of the society willing to gather information and get it into the newsletter. The editor is not the area historian and will, very likely, have never heard of those pioneer residents from other townships in the county. Forgive the editor and submit for publication what you know about your ancestors. Make someone else’s day when they receive their next newsletter.

    1. A great point, Rebecca. I am the editor of a magazine called Alabama Heritage. We depend on freelance writers, and if none of them are interested in writing about a particular portion of the state, that portion is underrepresented in our magazine — no matter how hard we work to remedy it. I salute the volunteer editors! What would we have without you?

  4. You are right: I was short sighted with my comment about our SIGS. But to me it was not fulfilling. I know many members are being rewarded very well.
    Please excuse the comment.,

    1. Not at all, Jon. I think most of us have joined societies in the past in hopes that their publications will give us some information on our ancestors that we have not found. That kept societies alive once, but it’s not working any more. Our populations are too dense. My hope is that our societies will create new reasons to draw us — and that we will help them to do it. Thanks so much for your comment!

  5. Hello

    One of the things you forgot to really mention is funding of projects. I think a lot of groups work on a shoestring budget. From 45 years of experience I know that doing a simple request for a family search depending on the surname involved can take years. Also spelling of surnames can really get easily screwed up. it seems that very few people want to pay for getting research done from knowledgeable people in the area of some expertise.

    Research of any kind takes time in this instant gratification world of I have to have it yesterday. That seldom works with genealogy.
    The biggest reason for lack of interest in genealogy societies or any other group is the overwhelming distraction that easily catch people to go in another direction.

    With the internet it seems on the surface very easy to get BMD’s, nevertheless the difficulty is putting the info together without the knowledge of the person to do so when it especially comes to dealing with similar and mis spelt names

    On the whole in believe this is a very complicated issue.

    1. Excellent insights, Alex — and from long experience. You do bring up another fundamental problem we face — something that perhaps needs its own blog post: why do we feel entitled to genealogical materials and services for free? We have been delightfully spoiled, of course, by the phenomenal work done by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as a gift to us. May it always be so. But we should expect to invest in genealogy the same way we invest in other passions, hobbies, and avocations. We should expect to recompense those who are providing materials and services, either in money, a return of services, contributions, tax dollars, or paying it forward by doing the same for others. Genealogy is worth paying for — more than golf, more than fishing, more than gardening, and way more than cable TV. Thanks so much for reminding us of that elephant in the room!

  6. One of the sobering things about some genealogical societies is that they have too many members who are stuck in the past, doing the same things over and over that never attracted new members to join them. They want a printed copy of their newsletter or journal rather than read it online, the way many younger people prefer. When people with imagination and new ideas try to promote innovative programs or changes they are slapped down by a very vocal minority who always seem to get their way.

    Our local President, in his latest message to members stated, “we … need the Believers, the dreamers who think outside of the box, who challenge our complacency, who see opportunities where others see misfortune. People who do not like change will not stay with an organization which does not provide them the security of the familiar. But people who thrive on change, those who are change agents, will not stay with an organization that does not support challenge and progression.”

    If I sound a bit bitter, it’s because I was one of those “dreamers” who was not, in the end, supported. Societies lose out when they do not embrace the new methods, technologies and ideas which are part of the younger generation’s repertoire. I am far from young but I recognize groups have to be relevant if they want to attract new members or more community support.

    1. Thanks, Wayne. When I wrote the post, I wondered if what I was seeing was an Alabama problem. I suspected it was widespread, and the more I hear from you guys, the more that is confirmed. I do find myself wondering if the unsupported dreamers are going to start building competing organizations — and what would they look like.

  7. Your articles are right on to the discussion we had at our board meeting yesterday. What to do? How to grow our genealogy society? We are in a rural area, small town with few resources. A small group is willing to serve one another, but growth has stopped.

    1. We’re hearing it from all over, April. And I find myself thinking that the numbers might not be as important as asking ourselves what we are here to do. We can find genealogical training and friends (the old reasons to join) online. We don’t have to leave home for that any more unless we just want to. But what happens if our societies die? Who will take care of a particular locality’s records and historic buildings and stories? Even if there are smaller numbers doing it, we need every locale to have its “keepers of the flame.” Finding a way to let volunteers assist in preserving, digitizing, and indexing local records — from home — could bring new life into our societies. A new best reason to be. That’s my hope.

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