My genealogy friend, Susan Petersen of Lincoln, Nebraska, writes the blog Long Lost Relatives. The end of April Susan blogged about genealogy societies in An open letter to genealogy societies. To briefly point our her frustrations which apply to many local and states societies within many states, they are: hoarding money, journals and newsletters not available electronically, repetitive conferences, web sites not being updated, regenerating of board members and officers for years and years, lack of innovation and development of new techniques.
Her points are well taken. Continually I hear people mention or write about a genealogy society that is struggling to exist or on the brink of extinction. They often ask, "Why is this happenings?" There are probably many reasons, many of which are addressed by Susan in her April 2015 blog. Of course, the few left within the society will point their finger at Internet. Who needs a society when you have Internet?
Welcome! If a society is not making their members feel welcome, there is no reason for members to join. Members can be people who attend meetings during the year or people who live a distance away and want to support the society. This goes hand in hand with the regenerating of board members. Over and over, board members are juggled around year after year. Yes, they are usually very willing workers, but what happens when somebody from the outside world want to become a board member? Most likely they are turned down because the board has turned into an elite group. The same board will ask for volunteers. When somebody volunteers, most likely they are never contacted and at the very least not felt welcome. Out of the mouths of those same board members, you will hear "We can never find officers." This placates their need for juggling officers!
What experience do people need to become a genealogy society board member? Is this information spelled out somewhere? At the time of the organization of a genealogical society and formation of the board, all of the board members were board-beginners. Clues to what is considered appropriate for board members can be found in the society's by-laws, mission statement and/or standing rules. If you have joined a society, regardless of the membership fee, you have invested in that society and you are entitled to know the inner-workings of the society.
A by-law is a rule or law established by the organization to regulate itself. They are important or the genealogy society become an "anything goes as we want it to go" society. By-laws are so important that the Federation of Genealogical Societies and the National Genealogical Society have theirs posted on their websites. Many societies, large, small, local or state post theirs on their web sites. They take this seriously! As a member you should also!
Each state and local genealogical society has their own wording for by-laws, but basically they are a base for regulating the membership criteria, their non-profit status, purpose, meetings, officers, board of directors, committees and more. Unfortunately many society board members become complacent when it comes to adhering to the by-laws. When their membership goes downhill and there is a total lack of enthusiasm, it is time for somebody to ask who is running the show. Is one person on the board exerting their authority? Are board members adhering to the by-laws? Do they even read the by-laws?
The standing rules of a genealogy society normally will contain more explicit information pertaining to the duties and responsibilities of officers, trustees and committees. Is there an overlap in responsibilities on your society's board? Maybe you need to add a committee of people to oversee special duties and functions. Is one person on the board assuming too much responsibility for the affairs of the society?
Most genealogy societies have a mission statement that contains their purpose in a few words or one or two sentences. The Southern California Genealogical Society and Family Research Library's mission statement is, "The Southern California Genealogical Society exists to foster interest in family history and genealogy, preserve genealogical materials, and provide instruction in accepted and effective research techniques." At least once a year, every society's board members need to re-read the mission statement and ask if they are fulfilling that statement. Why would you want to join a society that has no guidance or goals?
Why does a genealogical society need a web site, Facebook page or blog? Answer: to be in touch with their members and prospective members. What about those few who still do not care to own a computer? Are they not significant? Reach out to everybody, even though you cringe at the prospect that a member is not computer savvy. We have come a long ways in the genealogy world, but we need to embrace all genealogists of various levels of expertise and experience. Is your web site up to date? There is nothing more frustrating than paying membership dues and either not receiving publications that are specifically noted in membership benefits and/or consistently viewing a stagnant web page. If you are to receive four publications a years, whether in paper or electronically, you are entitled to those publications.
Time! We all need more time. I have heard this continually within genealogical societies. It is difficult to expect volunteers, whether officers, committee people or members, to contribute on a timely schedule. However, by working together, it can and should be done. Working together is the key! If your society has specific projects, set a time frame for them and adhere to it. Fulfill your goals.
Maybe your genealogical society has sparse bank accounts, but most have funds that are adequate enough for projects and some type of conference or meetings. Cutting corners in genealogical education is NOT an option. People who attend conferences, whether members of not, will be paying for the conference, spending transportation money, as well as money for food and lodging. Is your conference worthwhile enough to attract members and non-members? Keep in mind that non-members may become members if they are made welcome and if they learn and enjoy the conference. Are webinars and online videos killing the conferences? Genealogical societies need to readjust their attitude toward conferences. Ask yourself why people are not attending. Can you appeal to smaller groups more frequently and still educate them? People want something, free or purchased, when they attend a conference. Because of expenses, vendors are not attending conferences except for the "big three." Look at the genealogical population in your area and decide what will work best. Think outside the box. Do not be afraid to do something different.
When I began doing genealogical research approximately 50 years ago, the only way to obtain information was to write to a library or courthouse. Of course, you could always drive there. We did not make phone calls and there was no e-mail and no fax machines. Many courthouses did not have photocopy machines. When I was about 17 years old, my mother hired a professional genealogist to mentor me. This was the greatest gift my mother ever gave me. The mentor did not tell me exactly what to do, but had me resolve, with her guidance, my research problems, evaluate the evidence and determine the steps of the research process. In 1960 this was the beginning of genealogy in my life. I have never ceased to learn, study, receive education and have ceaselessly attempted to share my knowledge with others. At age 71, I am still contributing and learning. I welcome and embrace the younger generation of genealogists. They are the ones, like I was in 1960, who will carry on the research. However, this can also be two-sided. Does the younger generation embrace the older genealogists? Sad so say, many do not. Just because you have achieved a certain level of research ability by age 35 and hold positions on genealogical society boards, does not mean that you can ignore and discount genealogists who have years and years of knowledge to share. Is your society appealing to every age, race and nationality? About 20 years ago I was shunned from a genealogical society because I am a professional genealogist We both lost in this case. I was looking forward to learning more about doing research in that area and I would have willingly share my expertise with them.
Turn your society into a win-win group. To do this, look at every aspect of the society, beginning with the mission statement, by-laws and standing rules. Do some soul-searching to determine your role in the society and how you are going to make significant improvements. Have you considered what would happen if the library opened its doors and nobody walked through those doors? What happens if your society ceases to exist simply because lack of enthusiasm, structure and consideration.