The Golden Rule of Genealogy Volunteerism

Golden Rule VolunteerismThe Golden Rule — the law of reciprocity — offers a great maxim to apply to our world of genealogy. Most of us live far from the places our ancestors lived. We depend on others to make the local records safe, organized, and available — preferably in digital online form. The Golden Rule suggests we first do for others what we hope they’ll do for us. How many of us are doing that?


I have lived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for the past fifteen years. I only joined the local genealogy group a year and a half ago. Why did I wait so long? Because my people never lived here.  It seemed like a valid excuse at the time.

I was misunderstanding a couple of important things. First, my local genealogy group provides family history education in generalmore so than on Tuscaloosa County specifically. I can learn things here of value to me. I can teach things here of value to others.

7th Floor Records Project -- county record books before rescueSecond, the local group has been working for many years to digitize and index hundreds of volumes of Tuscaloosa County records. They call it the 7th Floor Records Project, in recognition of the floor of the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse where the old record books were mouldering toward dust before they rescued them. As of now, they have filmed 240 of 514 books, and indexed 70 of them. They are doing something truly laudable with my membership dues.

Meanwhile, I hoped there were people in Heard County, Georgia, preserving and digitizing the records I need. My people did live there.

It’s a matter of reciprocity — the Golden Rule — as we decide where we will put our money and time. If you do not live where your ancestors lived, you exercise hope that someone who does live there will protect the records and, heaven-help-us, digitize and put them online.

If I want them doing that for me, surely it makes sense that I should do the same for those who need help from where I’m planted. Up until today, I’ve been supporting Tuscaloosa’s project by my membership dues.

This past Thursday night, I learned to my delight that the 7th Floor Records Project is now online, and there is a way for me to volunteer remotely. For me, that opens a door that is closed by the traditional methods of volunteerism. I work ten or more hours a day and just about as many on weekends. Lately I’m traveling out of town frequently. But I can spare an hour here or there for indexing or transcribing, if I can do it while enjoying precious time at home with my family, or I can volunteer from a hotel room when I’m away.

I want to volunteer, and I am hearing from you that you want to, also. From genealogy groups, I’m hearing that they can’t recruit volunteers, except for the same little overworked core who does everything else. I think the disconnect is happening at two levels.

First, if a group wants maximum participation, the volunteer opportunities have got to allow for remote involvement. This allows full-time employed people and home-bound people to help. The second disconnect lies in the idea that we only join groups where our ancestors lived. The potential success of local groups is choked by that wrongheaded idea.

So today, I will email my local group and volunteer for remote indexing. I’ll exercise the Golden Rule and hope that someone in Heard County, Georgia, is doing the same.

Ransom T. Payne court plea 1830_Golden Rule Volunteerism
Click to enlarge

But here’s a rich bonus. Thursday night, when our super-volunteer John Boyd demonstrated the online treasures my local group has preserved and made available (and I say “my group” with immense pride), something wondrous happened.  John, by the way, does not have ancestors in Tuscaloosa, but works tirelessly for those who do. John rested upon a record as an example, and it was for one of my ancestors. In Tuscaloosa! I’ve since looked at the master index, and it was not an isolated incident. My Payne ancestors did business (and got in debt) in Tuscaloosa, then the state capital. I will be all the richer in my knowledge of them because this local genealogy group exercises the Golden Rule.

Let’s all exercise the Golden Rule — blossom where we’re planted, volunteer, and enrich each other.


If you are reading this prior to end of day May 15, 2017, and have not yet taken my survey about the future of our genealogical societies, please add your voice to the more than 500 who have already responded. It will take about five minutes of your time, and you will not be asked for your email address.  Also, please share it in your genealogy circles. You do not need to be a society member to participate in the survey. Thank you!

Genealogical Society Participation Questionnaire


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