Genealogical Societies and I

This afternoon,  one of my genea-buddies posted a blog post about the benefits of joining a genealogy society.  She notes that membership of gen societies are down and ponders how more genealogists can be recruited to join & she offers great examples of how mutually beneficial the relationship can be.

As I read her post, a lot of thoughts came to mind because this is a topic that I’ve been thinking about the past couple of years myself.   I have often been personally frustrated with the gen societies I’ve interacted with for various reasons.  Not that I don’t see the benefit, but I need to see more in light of what works for me.  As of today, I am a member of only one gen society.  Here are sample reasons why they have not worked out well for me…

a) Payment – this may seem a trivial point for most, but if I have to pull out my checkbook to pay for something, it’s not likely I’m going to do it.  I do not like the hassle of having to write a check, mail it and wait for my membership to be processed.  Signing up to accept money by services such as PayPal is easy enough to do and IMHO, not enough gen societies take advantage of online payments.  I was ecstatic when I learned that the North Carolina Genealogical Society accepted online payments and that made it very convenient for me to join – my membership was processed within a few days.

b) Community – I have joined four societies over the past few years. I appreciate the talent and expertise of people in the society, but I’ve found it difficult to get to know of each members’ expertise.  I have not felt as strong a sense of community as I think could be made possible.  Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by my extensive social networking experiences and the fabulous geneablogger community! I find that what I crave are the online conversations among members.  Here are examples:

Society A – I’ve been a member of this society the longest so I do feel I have a better awareness of who belongs to the group, but there is no member list made available anywhere.  I know a couple of the officers and a couple of other researchers who do not live in that area, but other than that, I can’t tell you any more about who is in the society besides the names I see in the newsletter.

Society B – I’m no longer a paying member of this society, but when I joined, I did learn there was an email list, which I thought was great! However, when I asked for the email list I was told I was not allowed to have access to it for member protection.  Well, how I am I supposed to get to know who the other members are, especially when I live in another state? What is the point of being a gen society member if you don’t want it known that you are a member? Again, I know a couple of the officers, but beyond that, I don’t know who the members are or how many members there are.  The newsletter of this society is quite well-done I must say and has won awards, but that in and of itself was not enough for me to sustain membership.  I do still contribute information to the newsletter though.

Society C – this society is local to me and I was a member for one year.  Though this society is local, I was not able to go to any of the meetings due to my own personal schedule.  They offer good programming at the meetings and there are some I’d like to go to this year now that my schedule is opening up, but again, I don’t know who the members are, nor how many there are.  That could change if I could attend meetings, but I’d like to see an online community too.

Society D – this is a larger society that I joined but when I asked at the beginning how people get to know each other, the response was through meetings & volunteering and through the newsletter.  Well, again, I don’t live in the state, so I can’t go to the meetings.  There is no strong online community presence, & no email list for members.  They do have a Facebook page, but it is not used much.  And honestly, I don’t find Facebook to be the best avenue for a “group” presence.  Messages, discussions, & wall posts for any particular group get lost among all your friends’ activity.  The newsletter and journals are well done but I would like to interact more with the membership.  I do plan to write an article for the next newsletter so maybe that will help.  I eventually wish to contribute to the journal.  This society blogs infrequently, but you can’t post comments on the posts.  This is a missed opportunity; especially for non-members checking the site who may be potential new members.

Society E – this is a society to which I’ve never been a paid member, but I like what I see of their online presence.  They have a blog to which I’ve contributed content to many times.  I have met a couple of the members and they too have good programming.  They work extremely well in tandem with the local genealogy library and do great things.  I don’t live in the area but this is the society I’m most likely to join next.   If they offered online payment to join, I’d sign up tomorrow. 🙂

With each of these societies though, if they blogged to  summarize what occurs at the meetings, as Randy does for the Chula Vista Genealogical Society, I’d feel at least like I had a clue.  If the member roster were made more accessible and I had a way to see online profiles of members and interact with them, I’d feel more like I belonged.   I of course understand that not everyone wants to have an online presence, but I would like to see more online interactivity; more of an online community established for members.   Facebook, GenealogyWise, BuddyPress — so many options exist and you can make a community private if people are concerned about their postings being public.

I’ve posted before my desires to see more video-conferencing technology enabled for those that aren’t able to attend here and here.  The combined expertise and know-how of the members of these groups are probably massive, but if I tonight had a research question and needed help, there is only one of the 5 mentioned above that I would feel like I had a good & fast way (sending it in to the newsletter is not suffice for me) to solicit input from the group members.  And, even in that case, it would have to be sent out for me; I’d not be able to send it out myself.  This really is not acceptable IMHO.  At the minimum a society could publicize the use of the Ancestry/Rootsweb county email groups?  Make a badge/widget for display on those members’ sites that do have an online presence to help with promotion.

c) Publishing — I’m not a fan of the current publishing model of most genealogical societies.

– Newsletters and journals should be done electronically – it would save money on publishing costs; or at the minimum, only send the print version to those who specifically request it.  Print versions could also be sent to libraries (I’m a librarian – so yes, we need preservation copies and for indexing in PERSI).  But, e-publishing needs to happen more consistently.

–  Only one of the gen societies I reference above publish electronically — and in that case, I just a couple of days ago received the journal in the mail when I’d much rather have just received it electronically.   Genealogy societies often do stellar jobs at publishing data and making it more accessible, but again – move towards e-publishing rather than mass book production.

d)  Services — ever since I first learned of the Genlighten service, I immediately thought of how genealogy societies could leverage it.  Join Genlighten and promote your ability to offer lookups of local county & state resources and earn income for it!  I recognize that many libraries do this as well, but again for me personally, I can’t order an obit online (remember my *issue* with writing checks?) from most of the libraries I’ve ever interacted with.  If a gen society connected with Genlighten, I know that I could order the obit and get it in my email and I’d love it! Yes, I can order vital records for less than a $1 from most of the counties in NC, but if the gen society were willing to photocopy the record from the courthouse and send it to me electronically, I’d gladly pay more for it rather than deal with the hassle of sending a written request to the courthouse and then wait a week or more to receive it in the mail if I knew I could get it electronically in a few days.  Best of all, I can pay w/ my credit card online.   Or, index the local newspaper, put the index online (maybe on a USGenWeb county site?), and then charge for the full-text of the obit.  Again, with something like Genlighten, I could make requests online.  It’s a win-win situation.

Okay, I’ve rambled quite a bit, but I honestly am not as willing to pay the annual fee for a gen society if I can’t get or be involved in these kinds of efforts.  You could argue that I should be more involved and try to change it and that is exactly what I plan to do.  I’ve been limited the past two years because I am in a degree program, but that is coming to an end and I’m strategizing on how to make more of a difference.  I am planning to attend FGS this August, so maybe I’ll see more of these types of issues discussed there.  I know I may be the atypical demographic for a gen society, but others have expressed similar thoughts (e.g. Elyse, Dick Eastman – here, here and here).

There are several societies who do some of these and do it well, so I don’t mean to indicate no one is;  I simply crave more.  🙂  I’m not trying to be harsh, but I’m trying to offer my perspective.  As mentioned by Miriam in comment to Elyse’s blog post I just mentioned, I may have to start offering to trade my skills for free membership!

This is actually a blog post I’ve been wanting to write for a long time now, so I thank Brenda for the prompt. 🙂   In the words of Madonna in Evita “Have I said too much? There’s nothing more I can think of to say to you.” (shout out to the recent Glee Madonna episode!)

Anyone have thoughts to share?

Comments (8)

  1. Mavis


    Excellent points! Through the years of research I’ve only joined to societies (recently joined second one). We shall see how it goes.

  2. Brenda Joyce Jerome, CG

    Well done, Taneya. There is much to agree with here.

  3. Ginger Smith

    Hi Taneya,

    1) I have already mentioned to my society about my desire to video conference our meetings. I just need help…My society has a lot of IT people in it, so I don’t see how this can’t happen…

    2) I have started writing summaries on our blog of our meetings as well…thanks to you for helping to set up our blog and thanks to Randy at Geneamusings

    3) The close knit-ness of the society is all in what its members make it. Our society is probably half out of staters and we are very close. Our society’s board is very member-centric in that they keep the members involved in all decision making processes. I found that quite frustrating at first, but now I see that it is what makes it such a cohesive group. Our society has a rootsweb mailing list that is closed to members (or as I recently found out – old, expired members too) only – which is uncommon – and also, we do NOT post queries to our mailing list (I’m not sure why?) which is also uncommon but we use our blog for that now, so it’s not an issue.
    Ok you get the idea, thanks for the post.

  4. Ginger Smith

    Um.. I meant thanks to Randy at the Chula Vista Gen Cafe

  5. Greta Koehl

    Excellent observations. I am lucky to have an outstanding local genealogy society. The second one that I joined (far away) is very generous in offering various lookup services; they only request that you make a small donation (you decide how much) to the library. BTW, hope to see you at FGS this summer!

  6. taneya (Post author)

    thanks for the comments everyone. Ginger, yes, I think it’s great the DOGS has a open member mailing list – that definitely helps create a sense of community. Greta – glad to hear you have a great experience and yes, I do hope we can meet at FGS.

  7. Dean Richardson

    I really appreciate your kind mention of Genlighten, Taneya. One of the original reasons we built the site was to let genealogy societies offer their research services online without needing to build their own e-commerce platforms.

    Your suggestions for how societies can build a more frictionless and collaborative community using digital tools ring true based on my experiences. I hope your ideas will be widely distributed and embraced.

  8. Renate

    Hey Taneya,
    Thanks for this post. Having just recently become a member of my first Gen-Society, I don’t have much to offer, but I found your comments enlightening. One thing I’ll add is that, for me, it was frustrating that this particular society doesn’t a rolling admission for memberships. Having eagerly applied in October for my membership, it was frustrating to have to wait until January for my membership to activate. My only other option would have been to have paid the full-year cost for 2 and 1/2 months, and then to have turned around and paid it again for the following full year. Perhaps there is a reason that I’m unaware of, but since this society does have some online data which I could have had immediate access to, the wait was almost unbearable!


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