Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Historical and Genealogical Society of Tomorrow

As a child, I grew up watching old school cartoons--especially those by Tex Avery. I remember sitting on the floor in my grandparent's second story apartment in rural Maryland, eating carrot sticks and watching the bizarre antics of politically incorrect animals. Among my favorites was the World of Tomorrow, the satirical look into the new century through the lens of the 1950s.

It's in that same tongue-in-cheek, yet curious spirit that I find myself asking what the historical and genealogical societies of tomorrow will look like. This question is largely inspired by my interactions with many different genealogical and historical societies over the past few months. I've had experiences both good and bad--both of which indicate where these societies will strive and struggle to find their place in the future.

With that, I present to you... The Historical and Genealogical Society of Tomorrow!


If a genealogical society is still spending money on sending paper newsletters through the mail, their organization is trapped in 1998. And if their website hasn't had any sort of major overhaul since then, I rest my case.

Social media, blogging, and email will take the place of paper newsletters in the genealogical society of the future. There are too many other important, meaningful ways their financial resources could be used than by sending out paper. Because paper newsletters are usually disseminated monthly or quarterly, to be heard from so infrequently is a losing battle for relevance. And as conserving natural resources grows in importance, unnecessary uses for paper will become increasingly unconscionable.

Throughout the years, many societies have tried to cut costs with low budget websites, and have avoided making real investments in their web presence. But it isn't enough to stick a Facebook badge on the old website and to call this the future. The HTML relics of yesteryear, complete with technicolor Comic Sans font and Clip Art bouquets, need to be given a proper burial. Today and tomorrow these websites need to be replaced by smarter solutions, especially for storage and security.

Because genealogical and historical societies of the future will take their place on the front lines of digitization, their websites need to become robust repositories of information. Becoming an online community trust means providing original records, transcribed indexes, photos, maps, better catalogs and directories for newspapers, books, periodicals, and vast collections of other records. Becoming the first providers for all legally available records is a market just waiting to be created.

If historical and genealogical societies want to participate in that market, they need to prepare themselves by stepping firmly into the future with their technology.


Preserving local history is a community affair. It requires interaction between organizations of all kinds, at every level. The historical and genealogical society of the future knows how to be the bridge between these organizations. Schools, colleges and universities, libraries and archives, courthouses and public offices, civic organizations, and businesses, and government offices of every kind, each play a role in this mission. Finding, protecting, digitizing, and sharing a community's history is a shared responsibility. Anyone can play a part, and successful societies recognize they can reach out to anyone.

Military participating in cemetery cleanup in Hawaii
Historical and genealogical societies of the future know how to create volunteer opportunities, both online and offline. They identify and exercise every resource at their disposal. If creating a new index means paying for scanning services, they're the ones to create and promote the GoFundMe campaign. Then they reach out online for volunteer indexers. When it finally comes time to build or expand the website for a new collection, they find the college students in web design who need an internship to graduate. These societies understand that when they unite diverse groups in a common love of family and history, they make their communities better places to live.

Collaboration in historical and genealogical societies of the future also means looking beyond immediate geography. Various historical records are no longer kept in the places that created them. Some of the most passionate historians do not live anywhere near the places they study. Societies will expand their reach to these places and people. Because these societies are looking to adapt, they will find ways to expand their membership offerings to those outside their communities, both online and offline.

Meetings are Old News

Gone will be days where the only way to attend meetings of these organizations is to actually live nearby. The genealogical societies of tomorrow will accept that the newest generation, in order to adapt to an ever-changing economy, has become one of the most transient in history. Their first cross country move is a rite of passage, their first experience living abroad a must-have. Especially for the minimalist urban living which defines the Millennial generation, the thought of a meeting that cannot be attended remotely is incomprehensible. Yes, including for genealogy, because hardly any of us live in the communities where our ancestors lived.

Webinars, Google Hangouts, and live YouTube events are the meetings of the future. It's what the new generation expects from any organization to which it gives its paying patronage. Attendance is not limited by geography, time zone, or day of the week. The most experienced researchers for a community may not actually live there, but they can be engaged and participating with the genealogical community who does. Because all that is required to create a YouTube channel is a computer, an internet connection, and a device that records video, anyone can do it. Google and YouTube have made all of the investment to make the software, the interface, and hosting the video available for free.

The only limitations for historical and genealogical society meetings of the future are a lack of imagination, and willingness to learn.

Generational Culture Clash

Historical and genealogical societies of the future understand that reaching my generation is crucial to their survival. Embracing new technology means bringing us into their organization by default. The environment the society creates by the activities they engage in will determine if we will choose to stay.

Reaching and retaining our generation is summarized in one word--inclusion. We want to feel included in every part of the society--decision making, leading projects, organizing events, spending funds, all of it. Our voices need to be heard, and have an impact. At the same time, we need to feel everyone else is included, too.

The most compelling way to attract our crowd in the future will be by preserving a more inclusive history. As the genealogical and historical societies of the future become the force behind creating new record collections, they need to include all types of people in these collections. Millennials are interested in minorities, the underdogs, the "forgotten" history not included in the history books. In many communities, the history of African Americans, Latinos, the LGBT community, and even women have received almost no attention by their local historical and genealogical societies. By collecting and preserving the records from these populations of their community, these societies choose to be inclusive. They become inviting places for my generation and our values.


The place where inclusiveness will fall apart most often for historical and genealogical societies of the future is the Paywall. Paywalls have made their way into the genealogical community, and their place has been unquestioningly embraced by many historical and genealogical societies already. 

But my generation hates paywalls. We hate them because they are not inclusive--they exclude someone from information, services, and a community based on their ability to pay. Because Millennials are the greatest consumers of digital media, we're the ones most affected by Paywalls. In staggering economies where we're also the ones most affected, we're the ones with the least disposable income. We resent paywalls both on principle, and out of self-preservation. 

But that doesn't mean our generation isn't willing to part with money. We prefer to donate and give based on the value of what we feel we have received. We embrace payment options that allow us to give according to what we have. Where we can't give money, we're often willing and able to work, trade, or barter. 

More than anything else, we delight in proving that you can accomplish more by being less concerned with money. In order to appeal to the Millennial generation, embracing this philosophy will be a necessary part of organizational growth and transition.

As a matter of demographic disclosure, I am 25 years old. I have been actively researching my genealogy for ten years. I consider myself an advanced non-professional. I am a paperless genealogist, and I do the vast majority of my research online. As part of the first generation to grow up in the Digital Revolution, there was never a time where I had to do genealogy without the Internet. To put it bluntly, I am incurably hard wired to share because to me, that is what genealogy has always been.

I have also never joined a historical or genealogical society. I have nothing against them. But I have also never come across one that was interested in the communities I research, who also has much to offer as I have to give.

My most recent experience with a genealogical society demonstrates how much adapting there is to do--both for these groups, and for me and the denizens of tomorrow. I contacted a genealogical society, in search of plot information for a cemetery which has not been well digitized. It will take years to identify all of the people, especially those of African descent, who are buried there without headstones. This society's is the most comprehensive database that exists online for that cemetery. However, it is also behind a paywall. 

I attempted to negotiate, offering to trade information with them. If they had no information about my family's exact location in this cemetery, that confirmation alone would be helpful. At which point, I would gladly give their names, death and burial dates, and my original sources--to add to the database. My instinct is to share.

The person I spoke to insisted at first that I buy a membership in order to access the cemetery collection on my own. The society only offers an annual membership, priced at $30. Their website has no other collections pertinent to my research. I live hundreds of miles away, and cannot attend any of their meetings. The bulk of that expense is to create and send a paper newsletter I don't want, and is not relevant to my research. But this is the way things have always been done. 

We spend all of this time trying to figure out how to tear down our brick walls, and now we're finding better ways to build them between each other. 

And maybe it was foolishness, maybe it was desperation, but I asked the person on the other side of the wall if perhaps there wasn't a better way.

I didn't get an answer right away. I didn't expect to get one at all. But the person--a woman, come to find out--took a brick out of the paywall, and passed me a name for a missing daughter I had never seen before. She even threw in some contact information for the caretakers of the cemetery and its records--a contact I never would have found on my own. And true to my word, I sent the names, dates, and sources for the rest of my family members buried in that cemetery.

I tried to be an example of the change and collaboration--the future--I believe in. Part of envisioning the future in genealogy is being part of the changes you hope to see. And my greatest hope is that this type of common sense cooperation becomes the rule of the future, not the exception.


  1. I am a very digital and up to date person of an older generation than yours. I continue to belong to both local and distant genealogy societies. Even one in Scotland. I don't disagree with most of what you've said. However, if you have only experienced your genealogy research online, then you have missed a great deal. And, I would be hesitant to call you an advanced researcher. Yes, we are very fortunate to have millions of records online. However, going to a courthouse, historical society or library to look for records is a joyful part of searching for our ancestors. I hope you understand that most records are not online and millions will never be. Just like we shouldn't discount the newer ideas needed to attract younger members, you would be wise not to discount offline records. I embraced the internet back in 1986 and have kept up to date ever since. I keep all my genealogy records digitally except those originals I have received by mail. They are scanned, saved on my computer and then placed in a binder. I don't print anything. You have made some good points. Please visit my blog where I write about genealogy research, current methods, such as Facebook and Evernote. And, where I have written about why belonging to genealogy societies and attending seminars is useful to all researchers. www.michiganfamilytrails.com

    1. Just because I've had to do the bulk of my research online doesn't mean I haven't engaged in any online research. I never intended to give that impression. I've done hundreds of personal interviews with the older generation of my family, and scanning their documents and photos. I've visited and researched in libraries, archives, genealogical societies, and historic sites throughout the United States. I've visited dozens of cemeteries, dozens more if you count the ones I've visited to photograph and index. And yes, I've even done research in a courthouse before. I've used published genealogies, microfilm, books, newspapers, atlases, maps on occasions too numerous to count.

      However, these places, people, and materials have never been able to make up a significant percentage of what I do. The first reason being because of the massive amounts of digitization taking place. I will never need to spend as much time in repositories as the generations that came before me. And this is great news for me because--reason two--I have never lived within 300 miles of the places where my ancestors lived. Adapting my strategies and compensating for what I couldn't access by researching online wasn't a choice of laziness or convenience. It was of necessity because going to the places where my ancestors lived, or where the records were kept, just wasn't possible for me most of the time. That continues to be the case for me, when I lived 1000+ miles away from my communities of interest. But that does not make me any less of a genealogist. On the contrary, I believe I've accomplished more and become a better researcher for all the ways I've had to compensate for things I didn't have.

      But just as you question why someone would neglect using these resources, I question the reluctance I've observed in the present generation to adapt. In some cases, I've seen blatant refusals to embrace collaboration, technology, or innovation of any kind if it means changing "the way we do things." I think we both can agree that this is equally extreme.

      I agree that an important aspect of adapting to future changes and trends will be maintaining the bridge between the online and offline. Thank you for giving me the chance to expand upon this point :)

  2. Great article. I have to say, I agree with a lot of what you've said but also value the genealogical society. I just posted my recent blog post to the "young and savvy genealogists" facebook page (or here...http://thelucidcenter.com/thewebtreesgenealogist/?p=535).

    I too have experienced a sort of stubbornness when it comes to adapting to new technologies. My society just started recording sessions and it was like pulling teeth! Despite the fact that most members said they wanted this as a member benefit!

    I struggle with your comments about money. My local society has a membership wall which provides many benefits (like watching recorded presentations). I know what you're saying about paywalls - I hate them too. I think societies are worried about the future - as well they should be because societies are dropping dead left and right.

    No I don't think societies should treat people based on money. Our society is always willing to help out with little questions and if it gets to be more of an investment of time or resources we request financial incentive for our time. But what other ways are we to survive as a society? The majority of our funds are from annual memberships - rarely do people donate.

    I've considered some type of "Pay per file" situation where you can do a search for an ancestor and pay a very small fee for that file (say, $1.00). This is generally not a barrier to most people and it can be delivered instantly (something us Millennials love!).

    Lastly, as I wrote in my blog, there's something to be said about the community of experts in a society. In a way, when they're stuck in the past, it sounds like a very loud cry for help for some young and savvy genealogist to offer them a gentle nudge into the future.

  3. Excellent comments, Jeff. And I agree with many of your points about money. I certainly agree that there is room for charging for what you provide. I simply think that cost should be proportional to what is being provided. I'm coming across an increasing number of groups that want to charge on the upwards of $50 an hour for research, plus copies and printouts and all the rest. Yet these same organizations question why they have such a hard time attracting the younger generation--either as members or patrons. Because frankly, I can't afford/refuse to pay someone that kind of money for something I know I can do myself.

    Making money is good. But it should make sense, and be targeted at the right people.

    I love your suggestions on pay per file! I've had great experiences with this approach, usually in the ballpark between $5-$7, no more than $10. It allows me not only to afford what they're charging, but to donate as well--which I always do. I've learned from working for non-profits and a state park that didn't charge admission that people only donate according to the value of what they feel they have received. I've had enough people put $20 donations in my hand to believe how true this is.

    Something I have seen that I really like in terms of webinar access is to make your most recent one or two webinars free, and keep the rest as member only access. You allow people to see your most recent videos, and those who choose to follow you may see them all for free. You're rewarding your most loyal patrons by allowing them to see what you do for free, in the event that they can't pay you. When they can, they pay for the Netflix-esque binge experience. The casual observer or seasonal enthusiast pays you according to their level of interest--either per video or in subscriptions of varying lengths. Someone who doesn't want a year long subscription may be willing to buy a 3 month subscription, or a month long subscription. Do you take his money, even if it's less than you wish he'd give you? Or do you go without his money when he doesn't buy your annual membership?

    As I said, excellent points! I'll definitely check out your blog post. I'm

  4. One of the simple pleasures of blogging is seeing someone who has something nasty to say run face first into a character limit. It's like watching someone walk face first into a sliding glass door.

    Because I also pity the Keeper of the Society Newsletter whose rage with me could only have been exceeded by his carefully crafted retort disappearing into thin air, know this. I did see it. And out of the "selfishness" of which I stand accused, I will further gratify myself by giving a one-sided defense.

    You seem to be under the impression that the only way to accomplish anything in genealogy is with money from memberships. However, membership is only one possible way of making money, among many tools and avenues which I discussed in my post. If your only source of income is memberships, your organization will always be too small to reach its true potential. You can't expect your members to bear the full financial weight of your organization. To do so is to punish, not reward, the most loyal people within your reach. I don't have to point out that this makes no sense at all, and most people simply won't agree to it. Grants, sponsorship, fundraisers, online donation drives, are primarily the organization's responsibility--not mine as a patron or a member.

    You also clearly have no idea how much it costs to run a website. The most expensive part about it is paying someone to design and build it for you. Most websites can be maintained for what some historical societies charge for one membership. Maybe two or three. Which begs the question--if they aren't spending that money on a website, what on earth are they spending it on?

    You also have no reason to accuse me of not donating my time and talents to the genealogical community. I do so, frequently, without having ever received a dime in compensation. Even the observations I've shared in this post, to which you have clearly ascribed no value, historical and genealogical societies could easily pay hundreds of dollars in market research for the feedback I just gave away for free. I photograph and index cemeteries, index records, and participate in digitization projects without coercion or invitation from anyone. I couldn't lift up a standard I don't abide to myself, which is why I expect that same generosity. Generosity is never a mistake. It's what inspires people to become interested in genealogy. No membership or paid service can ever compensate for generosity.

    Many in my generation may not be on an official fixed income. But given that the retirement of many elderly--including my own aging relatives--is paid for out of my household income, you can't trivialize my economic realities and expect me to take you seriously. These assumptions and the disrespectful attitudes that attend them, are what really need to stop if you expect to keep my generation as part of your organization. If you want my money, respect what it costs me to earn it. If you want my support, respect what it costs me to just give it away. Otherwise, don't complain when I choose not to give my money to your organization. That doesn't make me selfish. In your own words, it's just me doing "business."

  5. Heather,

    I am sorry my response to your post was taken as reflecting rage with you. That was certainly never intended. In fact, I started by saying that I found your comments very interesting and highly informative and that I did not disagree with much of it. Obviously in my attempt to put forward my position regarding membership in societies, I did not do a great job and ended up insulting you.

    But we appear to be talking at cross-purposes as I think we both have similar opinions on many issues. Many of the things you point out in your latest message are things that every society I have been associated with do, in fact, especially regarding raising financial support. Membership dues will never cover the costs of all activities.

    Anyway, I do apologize if I offended you. That was never an objective. Unfortunately short online messages, like emails, never mange to portray what people may really be thinking. They are certainly never a replacement for more direct discussions where people can gage feelings more accurately from tones of voice or through eye-contact. But, there we are. . .

    I was actually hoping to invite you to contribute a piece to our journal, as a young member of the genealogical community, as someone with a different perspective and as part of the generation all societies would like to have participation from. That invitation is open if you care to take advantage. If that is of interest, you can contact me at rseditor at abgenealogy dot ca

    Again, I am sorry if the way I worded my comments was in any way discourteous.

  6. My lifestyle is that of a Millennial, albeit a 65-year-old. As a newly retired University Professor, I agree with your well supported (and clearly written) argument. My coins are best spent on the road to hike, research, and visit with locals in the communities where I find my ancestors. I've discovered that trading information, organizing a spontaneous day of community service, or engaging pre-teens in a discussion/re-enactment of why I'm there (videoed, of course) makes a difference. Keep up the good work!

  7. I have often found myself wishing that I could attend such meetings remotely. As a mother of three, I am tied to my kids' schedules and so am able to travel very little to research. We definitely need to think of ways to reinvigorate genealogical societies if they are to survive. Collaboration, yes. But the reality is that they must have some revenue stream and so cannot give everything away. Perhaps they could adopt a pay for piece of information approach rather than insisting on an annual membership?