No doubt some genealogy society people will be offended by what I've got to say, but this has been on my mind for a long time. I've discussed my concerns with society members from around the country as well with some society board members. I'm just ready to take the conversation to a more public forum.
I have been a member of many genealogy and historical societies - local, state and in a variety of states. As with any type of structured organization, the experience varies with each one. Over the last couple years, I have not been renewing my membership to several of the societies I've been paying dues to for many years.
Why? Mainly, it's because the societies are not meeting my needs as a member. And why is that? Because, as I say tongue in cheek, "genealogists are stuck in the past." While that is where we need to be as genealogists, the past is not where societies need to be.
My list of frustrations with many/some societies today:
1. Hoarding money. I've been a member of societies that have between $14,000 and $80,000 in the bank and at annual meetings the board members seem to be proud of this. When I've asked what the funds are earmarked for, the response has been "saving for a rainy day" to "we don't know." I have some suggestions for how these societies could put the funds to good use for their members: adding books to the society's library, paying for the digitization and online availability of records for your geographic area, paying speakers for their services rather than expecting them to donate their time with no honorarium or travel expenses.
2. The journals and newsletters you send out are a waste of paper and usually a waste of my time. The content is of no value to me. Often, newsletter articles are reprints of something I read online months before. Journals and newsletters represent a bygone era. We are in an electronic age. Give me your news and updates via social media and your web site. And if you insist on continuing to publish your newsletters and journals, please give me the option of receiving it digitally. I don't want your paper.
3. Conferences are usually pretty good. But I've been to enough at this point that I'm hearing the same stuff over and over again. A lot of the content is geared toward the beginning genealogist, not those who have been doing this for a long time. And please don't think that you have to fill every minute of the conference day. You don't have to have entertainment at a luncheon, nor do you need an after dinner speaker. You know what genealogists like? We enjoy the opportunity to visit socially with fellow genealogists - to share our stories, our research successes and frustrations. Much of the time I learn more from these informal gatherings than I learn from the conference content. We need that time with each other. Build it into your conference structure. Make sure your conference rooms have tables. Some of us like to take notes - either on paper or electronically. It's extremely difficult to do this when juggling a notepad or laptop.
4. Web sites aren't updated, nor is content removed once an event has occurred. Hopefully, we are all Googlers and it's frustrating when we do a search on a topic, then land on a web page about an event that occurred five years ago. Keep fresh content on your web site. As a society member, I expect that I may have to pay for content that is behind the curtain. Those databases and indexes that are for "members only" is incentive for people to join your society. Make sure your web site indicates the city, town, county and state in which you are located. Your web site also needs to provide a method for contacting you.
5. You need fresh blood. Some of my societies have been recycling the same board members over and over for years. The societies operate from "we've always done it this way" rather than seeking new and innovative ideas.
6. Think outside the box. Learn about new technologies. I applaud the societies I belong to that offer webinars and podcasts. Not everyone is physically able to attend some of your in-person sessions. Remember that your out-of-town and out-of-state members are entitled to a level of membership services, too. I'm always hearing "we want to get younger members" but the societies are not using the social media strategies that attract that audience. And guess what, if you don't have a society member who has those skills, it's okay to use some of that money you are hoarding to pay someone to do it for you. I recently read a comment in a Facebook forum that a well-known member of the genealogy community was rejected as a conference speaker because he would only provide his syllabus in digital form.
7. While thinking outside the box, let go of the annual membership strategy. Whenever I join your society, I expect a full 12 month membership. When I join in June, don't tell me that I have to rejoin in July and pay another full year's membership fee. And let me be able to join online. I want immediate gratification. Don't make me have to write a check, put it in an envelope, find a stamp and go to the post office.
What I've described is not necessarily representative of all of the societies in which I've been a member. But I've heard the same or similar concerns expressed by fellow genealogists around the country. I want to support you, I want to be a member, but I expect some member services for my dues and I expect you to put a good portion of the money you collect back in to member services. I'll reiterate my earlier idea that you can put this money into your library collection and the digitization of records.
I'll continue to join and support some societies, but certainly not as many as I have in the past. As Bob Dylan sang more than 50 years ago, "the times they are a-changing."