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 Going into your first meeting and saying “Hey, everything you guys are doing is out-of-date” probably isn’t the best method for affecting change.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!

Posted: January 25, 2008.

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  • After reading your article Amy, I sort of feel like I dropped the ball. But thankfully you picked it up! You’re absolutely right that offering to be a part of the solution will likely accomplish even more than just writing a letter. There is much that can be gained by joining a gen-so! Thank you for encouraging people to get involved 🙂

  • Thanks, everyone! I wasn’t sure about posting that one. It was my first “editorial” — somehow, I don’t think it will be my last 🙂

    lidian — I’m going to plead “newbie ignorance.” What’s a meme?