Special Report: Disappearing Act?

Special Report: Disappearing Act?

Local genealogical societies are reporting steadily shrinking membership. We explore what's behind the trend.

Genealogy has made it to the masses, thanks in part to Web sites such as Ellis Island <ellisisland.org>, FamilySearch <www.familysearch.org> and Ancestry.com <Ancestry.com >, as well as widespread media coverage of genetic genealogy developments. A 2005 online poll by Market Strategies and MyFamily.com (now the Generations Network) concluded 73 percent of Americans are interested in discovering their family history – up from 60 percent in 2000.

Despite the blossoming interest, the Internet buzzes with talk of shrinking genealogical societies: See CreativeGene <creativegene.blogspot.com/2006/08/decline-in-genealogical-society.html>, Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter <blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2006/07/expanding_the_r.html>, and Genea-musings <randysmusings.blogspot.com/2006/08/if-genealogy-interest-is-so-high-why.html>.

Genealogical societies are storehouses of local research specifics and sources of many a record transcription and indexing project. It would be a shame to lose this well of wisdom – but do shrinking numbers mean societies are obsolete?

Think locally

No one is keeping official count, but the listing membership trend is most noticeable in smaller, local societies. A March 2005 San Diego Genealogical Society newsletter refers to a “gradual but steady” loss; the French-Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan Web site <fchsm.habitant.org/InternetVesusSocieties.html> also reports a lack of new members. Once 200 members strong, the Vandalia Butler Historical Society in Ohio had dwindled to 87 in January. The North Carolina Genealogical Society peaked in the early 1990s’ but “we’ve lost about half of what we had,” says president Ann Clough Basnight.

National organizations appear to be faring better. The National Genealogical Society saw membership drop in the late 1990s, says president Jan Alpert, but “during the last two years, our membership and conference attendance has risen.” At the end of 2006, membership exceeded 10,500. Pauline Cusson, member services director for the New England Historic Genealogical Society, says her group’s membership has held steady around 20,000 for the past three years.

“Smaller groups have fewer resources, and it takes less of a drop-off for them to lose momentum,” says Jasia, a marketing expert who blogged at CreativeGene about societies after hers shrunk by half in three years. Not only do local groups diminish through attrition of aging members, but their audience erodes as today’s mobile population moves away from ancestral hometowns. Those researchers can’t benefit from their local societies’ resources, and they’re too far from their ancestors’ towns to attend society meetings there.

Behind the decline

Genealogical societies aren’t alone. Organizations from bowling leagues to the League of Women Voters have lost a quarter to half their numbers since mid-century, says Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam. Americans’ membership in church groups, for example, fell from 43 to 33 percent between 1974 and 1994. The PTA is down to 6 million members from 12 million in the 1960s.

Fueling this trend in part: today’s busy lives and innumerable options for spending leisure time – especially in solitary ways such as watching television, playing video games and surfing the Internet. “The reality of local genealogy societies is they’re mainly composed of retired people who have the time and interest to do genealogy research, and enjoy the social aspect,” says Chula Vista, Calif., society member Randy Seaver.

A perception that genealogy is for older folks who hang out in libraries looking for dead folks is an obstacle, Jasia says. “Genealogical societies don’t have an image that would be fun to participate in.” She suggests they market themselves as mystery-solvers. “That’s what genealogy is really about.”

One of Putnam’s leisure options, the Internet, often gets the most blame for membership loss. Societies’ forte has been sharing knowledge in printed resources and at meetings. But genealogy’s popularity and online growth has helped create a new breed of researcher who dabbles in the hobby, preferring the convenience and immediacy of researching and networking on the Internet.

But many don’t understand it’s not all online, says Seaver. “‘Pajamas research’ appeals to the generation of boomers (still working) who want everything now,” he blogged. “Unfortunately, many don’t want, or don’t realize the need, to take the next step and go to a library, join a society or attend a conference.”

Online answers

If the Internet is the source of the problem, it also may be the solution. Jasia encourages genealogical societies to use the Web to offer resources, promote themselves and tap into the pool of computer-say, time-crunched researchers who live far from their ancestral hometowns. Web sites, blogs, e-mail lists, skypecasts, podcasts and wikis are high-tech ways to share knowledge. “It’s only a matter of time before you see entirely online societies,” she says.

She favors an online model. Seaver suggests adjusting the traditional paradigm “by offering services that will draw [researchers] to classes, meetings and seminars. Weekend or evening programs may attract people who work. ‘Family History Day’ or ‘Consult a Genealogist’ programs may attract those who have an interest but little time.”

They agree societies’ survival depends on appealing to those casual hobbyists – who may be unaware of resources societies can offer – and providing what people can’t get elsewhere. “Societies have to serve a niche market,” Jasia says. “They have to know what records are available and find a way to have the knowledge at their fingertips.”

It’s not the first time social change has affected organizations. In the late 19th century, Putnam says, “industrialization, urbanization and immigration caused people to move from the village to the city. They left behind one set of family and community institutions, like quilting bees and barn raisings.” But new groups arose within 10 or 20 years, including civic institutions such as the Boy Scouts, Red Cross and Rotary Club. Similarly, the Internet revolution and researchers’ time constraints may make changes in genealogical societies inevitable.

Success Strategies

Declining society membership isn’t universal, says Jana Sloan Broglin. She’s vice president of membership for the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) <www.fgs.org>, which represents 600 US societies. Broglin has seen both thriving and dwindling groups – the former, she says, do more of the following:

• Keep your society’s Web site updated with upcoming meetings and contact information. Broglin also suggests listing your group on FGS’ Society Hall <www.familyhistory.com/societyhall>.

• “Get out of the genealogy box” when planning programs, says Broglin, whose societies have appealed to history buffs with Civil War and other re-enactors. “Then you can relate the topic to their families and spark a genealogy interest.”

• Don’t just ask people to join – focus on what they get in return. “People are thinking, ‘I only have this much time and money. Why should I give it to you?’” Broglin says.

• Study best practices. FGS offers a strategy series of reports on topics such as society marketing, fundraising and member retention. Order papers from the FGS Web site for $2 each ($1.50 for FGS members) or $54 for a set.

• Exchange ideas with officers of nearby groups, and take advantage of the society management seminars and meetings at the start of FGS national conferences.

Alive and Well

The tiny Anderson Senior Center genealogy group (based in a Cincinnati suburb) doesn’t frequent the Internet, but it’s growing all the same. “We’ll have 30 people at a meeting. It was 18 or 20 a couple of years ago,” says the group’s director, Bill Warden. Members meet monthly at the center for a formal program with a speaker. On Fridays, they can drop in open-house style for research advice; a computer group also meets regularly. “There’s a lot of individual attention,” Warden says.

He attributes some of the growth to the built-in pool of potential members at the senior center Still, he tries to build awareness outside the group by posting meeting announcements in local newspaper print and online editions. (You can do the same – check your paper’s calendar section for submission instructions)

The Web hasn’t been the answer for this group, but then, that’s not what its members are looking for A laser focus on what they do want – personal interaction and research help – keeps them coming.

Striving for Growth

The North Carolina Genealogical Society (NCGS) <www.ncgenealogy.org> covers a challenging middle ground between national and local organizations. “With the economy, people can’t afford to join as many societies, and a state society probably gets dropped before a local one because of our broader focus,” says president Ann Clough Basnight A 2004 NCGS newsletter noted a 30 percent decline over several years, the group had 1,140 members in 2005 and 1,019 in 2006 Online genealogy’s popularity also has taken a toll, adds Basnight.

Her board of directors has been proactive in response “We’ve improved our Web presence by creating a members-only section of the site,” she says One of its resources is an in-progress pre-1790 deed index, which eases the search for North Carolina ancestors before federal censuses.

Opening lines of communication with North Carolina’s local societies is another goal “Our first vice president is a liaison with them, and we establish mutual memberships and swap journals,” Basnight says Local societies share in the planning – and profits – of an annual workshop that began in the mid-1990s. The concentrated effort seems to be paying off, if slowly: NCGS membership now stands at 1,100.

From the July 2007 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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