Sunday, February 27, 2011

In Defense of Genealogical Societies

Or, to be more precise, in defense of my local genealogical society. Which is to say, I would like to write about what my genealogical society is doing right.

Several bloggers have recently posted their reasons for quitting or not joining their local genealogical societies. This may a symptom of the downward trend in overall genealogical society membership, one which is especially noticeable for societies that are not welcoming, especially to younger people and “noobs,” or do not do programming that reflects advances in technology, online resources, and social networking that can be used to advance our research.

At the same time, however, we see some genealogical societies with active programming and involvement and a very visible online presence to promote their activities; several of the blogs I follow are for genealogical societies, for example. Two that are probably familiar to readers are the Southern California Genealogical Society and the Illinois State Genealogical Society, and readers can probably name at least several more.

I would include my local society, the Fairfax Genealogical Society (FxGS), in this group.

What does FxGS do to attract and keep members?

It starts at the beginning of our monthly meetings, which take place on the fourth Thursday of September through through May, except for December. The Society President’s welcoming remarks include asking that people who are attending for the first time stand up, introduce themselves, and indicate the geographical areas (states or countries) where their research is focused. They are welcomed and given information on the Special Interest Groups (SIGs) that would be relevant to their research.  If the SIG leaders are present, they are asked to stand up so that the new attendees can get in touch with them after the meeting.

There are quite a few SIGs: Beginners, BCG, Carolinas and Georgia, Methodology, Family History Writing, German, Irish, Mid-Atlantic, Midwestern, New England, New York, NGS Home Study Course, Old Dominion, Pennsylvania, Speakers, Surnames Projects and Genetic Genealogy, and Technology. Some of these SIGs are currently in need of leaders, it is true, but usually if there is enough interest someone will step up. I attended one of the SIG meetings held in the local Family History Center, and it was quite lively! We sat at computer monitors while the SIG leader introduced us to some new databases and provided tips on successfully navigating the databases. Afterward several people shared brickwall problems and we all brainstormed possible solutions.

On the Saturdays following the monthly meetings there is a two-hour education class which may take the form of a lecture or workshop. Each year there are usually beginning and advanced brickwall workshops.

In March the FxGS holds a Spring Conference (Friday night and Saturday) and in October there is a Fall Fair (Saturday). Vendors are present at both events, and the conference includes four tracks (one is always a beginner-level track) with speakers, workshops, and consultations.

The Society also organizes field trips; destinations have included the Library of Congress, DAR, NARA, Library of Virginia, and Pennsylvania research facilities as well as introductory sessions at the local Family History Center. In the past members have traveled as a group on Salt Lake City tours, and the Society often has a table at FGS and NGS events as well as other genealogical society events.

FxGS is involved at both the institutional and member level in a number of volunteer projects: tombstone transcription, 1812 Pension Files, Colonial Census Substitute, and Family Search indexing, to name a few. The Society solicits and delivers donations to a number of genealogical causes, including the Virginia Room of the Fairfax County Public Library, and cooperates with other local societies, such as the Mount Vernon Genealogical Society, to keep track of and publicize all local history and genealogy events.

FxGS has a website, blog (hi, Myrt!), a Facebook presence, and a newsletter that can be received in electronic and/or paper form. Members receive regular e-mail notification, including downloadable syllabi, for upcoming meetings and events. The website has maps and instructions that are also aimed at helping out-of-towners find their way to events.

All of these things would be nice but not enough to retain members were it not for the friendly and welcoming attitude of FxGS members. The Society has a large number of professionals as well as highly skilled and devoted amateurs. Yet they welcome newcomers and novices and have dedicated programming for the beginner level. When I take the initiative to introduce myself, I always get a friendly reply and usually end up in a good conversation on subjects such as research trips, brick walls, and interests.

No society, of course, is perfect. As I mentioned, not all leadership spots are always filled. The Society does have the usual skewing toward the gray end of the age spectrum, and people retire, move away, and unfortunately become physically no longer able to maintain their previous level of activity. Nevertheless, there are some relatively young people in some of the leadership spots and people “pinch hit” when they can.

Smaller local genealogical societies may not be able to emulate the larger ones such as FxGS in every aspect, but could perhaps do a few of these things (especially the welcoming part!) and might think of joining up with other local societies for some of the online alternatives that have been proposed recently, such as webinars and combined online resources. Denise Olson at Moultrie Creek Gazette has written about this in “Is It Time for a Virtual Genealogy Society?”

I continue to believe that genealogical societies can be one of the primary vehicles for continuing genealogical education and hope that by adapting, looking for new approaches, and combining resources, they will be able to survive.


  1. I totally agree. And there is also something to be said about the social aspects of the societies. Our hobby can often be very singular and connecting with other genealogists through societies help to break up that monotony.

  2. Our society has been having a coffee and cookie and gab session before each meeting where we can meet with others and welcome them to our meetings. We do introduce new members and guests and ask where and who they are researching at the meetings

  3. Great perspective. One of the things I love about my local genealogical society is the opportunity to interact with others face to face. At the last meeting I attended, one of our winter visitors from Montana gave me a lead on some information. You never know where those research opportunities will pop up!

  4. Heather - Agree completely on the social aspect. It's so much fun to strike up a conversation with the people seated around me before a meeting - the conversations can get quite animated!

    Charles - That's a great way to start a meeting. It really breaks the ice and gives people a chance to contact others who many be doing research in the same areas.

    Michelle - Yup, I have definitely been helped by people who, upon hearing who and where I was researching, had some great ideas and advice on where to search.