Do We Still Need Genealogy Societies?

In today’s world of social media, where everyone is sharing seemingly everything, do we still need genealogy societies? That’s the question I posed to Josh Taylor, host of Genealogy Roadshow, president of the Federation of Genealogical Societies, and new president of the New York Genealogical & Biographical SocietyContinue reading

Societies and the Non-Genealogist Genealogist

Over the weekend shared the results of a recent survey on family history. The survey found that more people than ever are interested in learning about their family history but they (on average) know even less about their genealogy. This week, five of the genealogy community’s top thinkers will share their reactions. Today 1000memories features Amy Crow.

The recent 1000memories survey showed that there is an increasing disconnect between the percentage of people who are interested in their family history and the percentage who can name more than one great-grandparent. There are likely a number of causes for this. Perhaps a greater percentage of people are interested but have not yet actually started any research. Perhaps a greater percentage of people have hit brick walls very early in the process. But could there be another, more basic, reason?

Could it be that more people do not equate family history with genealogy?

There has been debate for some time as to whether “genealogy” and “family history” are synonymous. In one camp are those who contend they are different: genealogy is the “begats,” while family history is the “stuff” wrapped around it. The other camp says that they are two sides of the same coin and can be used interchangeably.

Regardless of the semantics, not everyone who is interested in their family story identifies themselves as genealogists. A colleague of mine recently showed me some old family photos that she was very excited to have found. I told her she needed to record the stories behind the photo – why the family was gathered, whose house they were in. She said that, yes, she should and would, and then quickly added, “But I’m not a genealogist.”

My colleague is what I call a “non-genealogist genealogist.” She is a woman with a clear interest in her family’s history and wanting to preserve it, but who did not consider herself a genealogist. She recognized the importance of the family photos and looked for ways to preserve them. Isn’t that something a genealogist would do? Does the fact that she doesn’t self-identify as a genealogist change the contribution that she makes to her family’s heritage?

If fewer people who are interested in their family’s history and heritage identify themselves as genealogists, it could have a tremendous impact on genealogical societies. If a society is focused only on those who are actively researching, it is missing out on a sizable audience.

A lot has been written and said in recent years about genealogical societies needing to change if they are to survive. Meetings on Tuesdays at 2:30pm generally work only for the retired. Websites that were last updated two years ago make the society look dead to anyone who finds them via a Google search. Focusing on local members often comes at the expense of distance members. Updating these aspects are fairly straightforward. But just as all of these can turn off potential members, so can a society’s attitude.

Are genealogical societies too focused on the begats? Is everything they offer geared toward the professional or serious hobbyist? Does everything revolve around records, sources, and methodology? How inviting and meaningful are societies to people like my colleague who are interested in their heritage, but don’t consider themselves genealogists?

Beginning genealogy classes are not the answer by themselves. Those reach people who either identify themselves as genealogists or, at least, soon-to-be genealogists. Attendees are already interested in learning how to identify the members of previous generations. It is crucial to reach these people, but there are others who would benefit from what a genealogical society has to offer.

Leaders in the community have urged genealogical societies to embrace technology in order to reach new members and keep current ones. Some societies have done a great job with databases, interactive websites, and electronic newsletters. Where many societies are missing an opportunity to leverage technology is in their public programs.

Public programs can be a great way to expose people to the society. Many programs are well-suited to be beneficial to the “non-genealogist genealogist.” Technology programs, for example, can be marketed to a wide audience. Instead of offering “Using Your Scanner for Genealogical Research,” why not offer “Using Your Scanner to Preserve Family Photos and Documents”? Same program, different title (and one that would appeal to anyone who wants to preserve family photos). Similarly, programs on topics such as digital scrapbooking, photo restoration, and journalling can all be marketed to more than just genealogists.

This is not to say that genealogical societies should abandon the begats. After all, the ultimate question in genealogy is “Who were the parents?” But if they are to survive, genealogical societies need to recognize that not everyone is ready to ask that question and begin looking for the answer. Further, they need to recognize that just because someone isn’t asking that particular question doesn’t mean that they are not interested in family history. Welcoming the “non-genealogist genealogist” is another way that genealogical societies can survive, and even thrive, well into the future.

Do you want to participate in the conversation? 1000memories invites and encourages you to blog and/or tweet about it. Please send the link to or tweet what you think and use the hash tag #familyhistorymonth. Next Saturday, 1000memories will publish a summary of all the perspectives and ideas shared.


When she’s not busy trying to convince people that they really are genealogists, Amy Johnson Crow is a busy website and database developer, researcher, and writer. She has held numerous volunteer positions in genealogical societies and firmly believes that societies can adapt and thrive. Amy recently earned her Masters degree in Library and Information Science, concentrating on digital libraries and digital preservation. Her blog at combines her enthusiasm for genealogy and technology. She can be reached at or on Twitter at @amycrow.

Bringing Genealogy Societies into the 21st Century: Recap

Federation of Genealogical Societies logoI just finished listening to the very first episode of “My Society,” a free weekly Internet radio show sponsored by the Federation of Genealogical Societies. This week’s episode featured Curt Witcher, speaking on the topic of “Bringing Genealogical Societies into the 21st Century.” This fits very well with his keynote presentation at RootsTech: “The Changing Face of Genealogy.”

You can listen to the archived version for free at

The recurring theme through the episode was “high tech, high touch.” If societies want to be successful, they need to find ways to touch more people with their mission-centric activities. Technology for technology’s sake isn’t the answer, according to Curt. Taking what you’re good at and what is tied to your mission — whether it’s queries or publications, etc. — and using technology to touch more people with it is what will drive success.

Societies need to remember two things, according to Curt. When people engage in an activity, they want two things:

  1. They want to be successful.
  2. They want to enjoy themselves. (Yes, people want to have fun with genealogy!)

The Indiana Genealogical Society was given as an example. They publish news items and queries on their blog. They started a digitization program with a probate court; this project brought in over $2,400 in donations and grants. (What society wouldn’t like to have a project that brings in money?!) Their “biggest” success, in terms of bringing in new members, has been their “2 for 92” program — where they set a goal of having on the IGS website at least 2 databases for each of Indiana’s 92 counties. They’ve met this goal and have 565 databases on their website! As Curt said, your society has to have a meaningful presence 24/7. It allows members to be successful and to enjoy themselves. With that much data, the Indiana Genealogical Society certainly does that!

One of the phrases used by both Curt and by Thomas MacEntee, the host of My Society, was “If you’ve always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” (Which Curt added the follow-up: “And how is that working for you?”) “Always” and “never” should be red flags for things that need to be explored. Clearly, societies cannot keep doing things the same way they always have. This isn’t to say that everything needs to be dumped. (“We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, certainly, but the bathwater does need to be changed” was how Curt put it.)

So how do we get our societies to change? First, you need new talent. Relying on the same core volunteers for everything only burns them out. Curt recommended looking beyond your society. Tap into other networks, whether it is your church, local convention and visitors bureau, local schools, etc.

One point that struck a chord with me was his observation, “We can’t allow perfection to be the obstacle of progress.” It will never be perfect. As soon as we embrace that fact, we can move on and have progress. Yes, things will need to be changed, but that’s ok. Along with that thought was one of my favorite quotes: “It will be ok in the end. If it’s not ok, it’s not the end.”

I think Curt and Thomas did an excellent job getting “My Society” off to a strong start.

My Society airs on Saturdays at 2:00 Eastern/1:00 Central.

(Disclosure: I am the webmaster for the Federation of Genealogical Societies. This post was written on my own time; I will receive no compensation for this post, nor was I asked to write it.)

Societies and Technology at FGS 2011

Federation of Genealogical Societies logoSince the recent RootsTech conference, a lot has been said about genealogical societies and their use (or non-use) of technology. Joan Miller has recapped Curt Witcher’s presentation at the Federation of Genealogical Societies luncheon on her blog. (Basically, societies must embrace technology or they’ve sealed their fate.)

The upcoming FGS conference in Springfield, Illinois (7-10 September) features a entire day devoted to society management topics. Several of this year’s society offerings address technology:

  • “21st Century Marketing Techniques for Genealogists/Genealogical Societies” ~ Thomas MacEntee
  • “Building an Effective Society Web Site” ~ Amy Johnson Crow
  • “Internet Collaborative Tools for Genealogical Societies” ~ Jane G. Halderman
  • “How to Manage a Large Genealogy Database Project” ~ Laura G. Prescott
  • “Engaging a New Generation of Genealogists” ~ D. Joshua Taylor
  • “Finally, a Society Website Anyone Can Manage” ~ Robert Raymond
  • “Printed vs. Online Publishing for Societies” ~ Donna M. Moughty
  • “Energize Your Society with an Indexing Project” ~ Jake Gehring

Join us in Springfield, Illinois for a great conference!

(Disclaimer: I am the FGS Webmaster and am a speaker at the 2011 FGS conference.)

Indeed, what if…

I recently read Jasia’s post on Creative Gene regarding genealogical societies. In it, she makes some excellent points about genealogical societies, specifically that some people don’t feel they get their money’s worth for membership. Reasons include meetings that don’t fill the members’ needs, publications that don’t hold enough information, and websites that don’t offer anything of value to members (and, by extention, to potential members.) She posed the question, “What if everyone includes a letter to the society when they send in their dues?” (or when they don’t renew, tell the society why.)

As a long-time volunteer for several different genealogical societies (local, state and national), I say, “Indeed, what if everyone would give the societies some feedback!”

I’ve overheard it at libraries, courthouses and even at genealogical conferences: “I won’t join my (local, state, national) society. They don’t [fill in the reason here.]” How often I wonder if they’ve ever told the society that.

It’s like I tell people who don’t vote: if you don’t vote, you’ve forfeited your right to complain about those elected. If you don’t tell the society what it is that you don’t like, how can you expect them to change? Folks, nothing will change if nothing is said.

I take the challenge for feedback one step further: offer to be part of the solution.

Societies are run almost exclusively be volunteers. What happens in many societies is that the same few people end up having to do everything — newsletters, websites, books, library, lineage societies, etc, etc. They may very well want to do some of the things you want them to do, but they simply lack the people to do it.

I can hear some of you saying, “Yeah, Amy, but my local society doesn’t want volunteers. They’re hostile to newcomers.” This is sadly the case sometimes. Maybe your local society doesn’t want newcomers, but I bet there’s another society that would welcome your talents. Perhaps a society in a county where your ancestors are from or your state society. More and more societies are finding creative ways to involve long-distance volunteers.

Remember, too, that change is scary for some people. Doing something different takes them out of their comfort zone. Going into your first meeting and saying “Hey, everything you guys are doing is out-of-date” probably isn’t the best method for affecting change.  In fact, making suggestions at your first meeting might be put-offish to some people. (Right or wrong, some people don’t want advice from strangers.) Get to know some of the “regulars,” then as time goes on, gently make your case for why having all their meetings at 10:00 Wednesday morning might not be the best idea or why not updating their website in 4 years is actually harming their society.

I don’t intend this post to sound like an apology for genealogical societies. I’ve seen my share of behavior and attitude from volunteers that leaves me shaking my head. But I’ve also seen my share of behavior and attitude from those who are adamant “society non-joiners.” Trust me, there’s enough blame to go around as to why some societies aren’t thriving.

I truly hate to see people with an “us vs. them” attitude, whether it is a society volunteer or a genealogist who has never been part of a society. Everyone has something to contribute to the greater cause of genealogy. There’s enough work to go around for everyone to be involved!