The Future of Genealogical Societies

The future of genealogical societies has been a cause for concern, at least for the past few years. Memberships have been declining even though it appears that there has been an increased interest in family history research. This has prompted a lot of healthy debate on how genealogical societies can be rejuvenated. With ever increasing resources available on-line, both free and through subscriptions, it is often easier to remain in the comfort of one’s own home, conduct research and connect with others through social networking websites, blogs and email who share similar research interests.

The reality of genealogical research today is that on-line resources probably represent only about ten percent of all of the available material (at least by my estimate). This may start to change as efforts continue to digitize books and records but I think the monumental task of digitizing ‘everything’ is a long way from ever being completed. While on-line resources are great, and I personally subscribe to a number of them, they do not provide everything that is needed.

Genealogical societies then, need to look at how they can contribute real value to family historians because the current ‘competition’ isn’t going away and will only get tougher. In Ontario, Canada where I live, there has been debate ‘raging’ (maybe too strong a term) about increased membership fees and not enough value being offered for the money to join and/or renew membership with the Ontario Genealogical Society (OGS).

Membership in the OGS is required in order to subsequently be able to join local branches. Clearly, in my opinion, the OGS needs to offer more than a portal for branch membership and it seems, unfortunately that for some, perhaps many, this isn’t the case. John Reid, in his popular Anglo-Celtic Connections blog has offered a well stated argument for not renewing his membership. Unlike John, I have renewed my membership, although admittedly the fee increase caught my attention because once I started adding in the costs, albeit much lower, for each of the branches I wanted to also join, due to a variety of family connections, the cost really escalated. At some point, the cost of membership becomes prohibitive.

Am I getting the value I would like from the provincial society at $60 per year that I enjoy from the Toronto branch at $12 per year (based on 2010 individual membership fees)? Probably not. And I admit that I also don’t have any ‘quick fix’ solutions for the problem but I will share some suggestions.

First, outreach. Too frequently I sense that societies wait for new people to just start attending meetings rather than being drawn in through an effective outreach program. Simply maintaining a web presence that informs potential members of when the next meeting is going to be held or providing information about registration for an upcoming conference is not enough. Getting into the local mall with an information and display booth, offering a free class through the local library or adult leisure education program will draw far more attention.

Second, stop printing. A significant contributor to rising costs for societies that then results in higher membership fees is the printing of glossy magazines and newsletters, the receipt of which is included as a membership ‘benefit.’ The content of these periodicals is a tremendous resource for the beginner and expert alike. Let’s think about making them available electronically only. Modern family history research with its associated database software programs, email communications, and web search capabilities means that most family history researchers are pretty savvy with technology. Electronic postings are cheaper, accessible, and faster to get into the ‘hands’ of members, not to mention that they are friendlier for the environment.

Finally, enhance opportunities for collaboration. One thing I’ve noted with genealogists, we all love to share our information and we love to receive new information. ‘Networking’ and researching collaboratively with other researchers not only opens us to learn new tips and techniques but also to find solutions to research problems that we likely hold in common. There are numerous means to bring this about and those that don’t work well can be discarded in favour of those techniques that succeed.

Genealogy is all about people – not only our ancestors but also our genealogical colleagues. Perhaps its time to move beyond the way we’ve always done things to try something new and maybe, just maybe have a whole lot of fun in the process. Something to think about!

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