Tuesday, 25 October 2016

(My) Future in Genealogy – Part 2

In my last post I commented on the general direction of genealogical research and people involved in those pursuits, as well as on the state of family history societies, as I have observed and participated with them.

I often wonder how many “professional genealogists” actually earn a decent living doing such work. Are they like realtors, where 10% do most of the business and are successfully engaged in supporting themselves and their families, while the rest work sparingly and just make “pin money.” It might be useful for the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) to do a “salary” survey of its members in order to find out what their careers are actually worth. True professional organizations, of working engineers for example, do this annually which serves as a guide to both employees and employers.

What might also be of interest is learning how many people are actively engaged in genealogical work full time as professionals and how many do it as a hobby, for personal interest only.

With regard to family history societies, my experience has shown me that they tend to work well on a local basis and mainly as social groups. People can gather regularly to hear a speaker or discuss aspects of research among themselves or just use their involvement as an excuse to get out of the house and talk with others who have similar interests. Occasionally, much less so now that they use to do, members can take on projects to compile and publish information about their local areas that will be of use to current and future generations of family historians.

These types of volunteer-run organizations do not appear to work well on a more regional basis. Regular meetings of the entire membership are not feasible. For individual members, the needs and desires of the local groups still trump those of the larger, or “Mother” society, as these people tend to identify first with their own branches. Individuals tend to spend most of their time with local branch activities leaving many of the parent group’s functions and activities to founder or fail because of a lack of available help (volunteers).

Generally the only people from across the large organization who get to know each other are those involved as Directors who can and do meet regularly. Just as often as not, though, they bring to these meetings their own local concerns rather than paying attention to the needs of the regional group.

Every one of these local and regional groups I have come across, been a member of or talked with others about have problems with sustainability. Few are growing; most are declining – as reported by many people in recent blogs and articles. Membership is aging and younger people (pre-pensioners for the most part) are engaged in different forms of research mainly relating to the Internet. Projects, especially those of a large scale, are going wanting for people to oversee or work on them. Conferences are more difficult to organize for the same reason. Financial worries are commonplace, with the ever-increase in costs of maintaining an office and printing of journals combined with fewer dues-paying members.

More messages from society Presidents contain an entreaty for members to step up to take on leadership roles – or even just participate on a limited basis. Often when volunteers do step up with new ideas and plans, though, they are met with resistance from those who harken to the past with comments like, “We have always done it this way.” As the President of the Alberta Genealogical Society recently put it, “Unfortunately, those who pick up the gauntlet and agree to lead are quickly damned by those who are resistant to change and feel their comfort threatened, and are just as quickly cursed by those who feel their suggestions for the future are not being heeded.” 

At this point I cannot see myself volunteering in a group again. The workload for a journal Editor can be daunting, but without full acceptance and support of membership and an organization’s leaders it can quickly become a most frustrating experience. Perhaps due to the time commitment of individuals and costs of production, these types of publications, that contain serious articles on methodology and valuable case studies, may not have a future. I know I spent hundreds of hours getting each issue prepared for publication, time taken away from my own research and personal activities.

Many commercially-produced and professionally done magazines, as well as journals of large organizations are taking up quality submissions and being managed by committees of people who have the ability, time and competence to manage them. The local publications are mostly becoming just newsletters that highlight society activities but often do not contain much in the way of substantive material.

I have no interest in maintaining specific credentials in proficiency to stay as a member of the APG. I would be sorry to lose contacts in that organization and the valuable information contained in their journal, but I am not, at my age now, about to embark on a new career that entails living with stringent rules or spend a lot of money on courses or conventions just to keep a membership intact.

I will keep researching my own family, as a hobby and for personal interest. I will also keep writing about subjects and ideas I have come across that might entertain others or be of value to them. I won’t likely do any more consulting for fees but will continue to assist people with specific questions based on my knowledge and experience if the opportunities arise. I might even give the odd presentation about subjects I have direct expertise with.

I believe that family history societies will have to evolve in order to survive, whether their members like it or not. The successful groups today appear to be those that can focus on their own geographic areas and engage in projects close to home in terms of geography and data availability. Societies do play a role in expanding general knowledge but do so mostly through interpersonal communication at meetings and newsletters. Umbrella groups might profitably use funds from regional memberships to facilitate sourcing and providing speakers to attend branch meetings.

If a regionally-based society has value it will be to compile the projects taken on by their branches rather than to engage in wide-ranging studies or regular publishing of journals. Articles and case histories are readily available in publications of large, national and international groups as well as in commercial magazines. Having said that, though, independent, non-commercial journals that focus on large regions and serve many societies may be of value. The availability of such publications would save each local group from having to find volunteers to serve as Editors and not limit the exposure of important articles and stories that is a consequence of their inclusion only in local newsletters.

Perhaps I’ll get involved in another publication, although probably not one directly related to any particular organization. I’ll be giving more thought to this idea.

I will keep my Devon Family History Society membership for sure because a lot of my family research and volunteer activities as an Online Parish Clerk are associated with that region. I have done my part with local groups and don’t have the energy to go down those paths again, trying to convince people that change is good.

I do know one thing about this family history thing – there are still lots of people from the past I want to find out more about. I have a bit more time these days to do just that and I am finding out once more that it can be fun!

If you would not be forgotten
as soon as you are dead and rotten
either write things worthy of reading
or do things worthy of writing.
~ Benjamin Franklin, May 1738

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy in several family history society journals. He has also served as an editor of two such publications. Wayne provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

(My) Future in Genealogy – Part 1

I have lately being taking stock of what I have been doing with respect to family history research. When I got started many years ago I just really wanted to know more about my ancestors and where they came from. My mother’s sister had spent many decades looking for information – in courthouses, government archives, museums and libraries, and from corresponding with many relatives. By the 1970s she had compiled an impressive amount of information about her ancestral (my maternal) lines, much of which has stood the test of time and more detailed analyses.

I wanted to do something similar for my paternal side, starting with my grandfather and great-grandfather who had emigrated from England in the early 20th century. A great deal of data was just becoming available online which helped. Joining the Devon Family History Society gave me a boost in knowing where information was stored and who to talk with. I bought numerous publications about the areas where the family originated and dozens of microfiche of parish records that would allow me to actually see the BMD and other entries. That stuff was not online then and, with the help of several other people, we have transcribed thousands of BMD entries and hundreds of census pages. I volunteered as an Online Parish Clerk (OPC) for four Devon parishes. An OPC is someone who collects information about a parish and assists others by providing such information to help them in their family research. I still use the fiche and the transcriptions as part of that service.

I took several courses dealing with data sources and the how-tos of analyzing information. I thought about becoming a professional genealogist. I even set up a consulting business and helped a few people flesh out their family lines and answer some questions they had about their origins. But it has never become a serious, full-time occupation.

I started writing articles for publication in various journals, based on my own research, case histories, methodologies I had used and my experiences as an OPC. I have had the responsibility of editing two local genealogical society journals, in the process coming into contact with many others engaged in genealogical activities and learning even more about data gathering and evaluation. I have met many friendly and knowledgeable people, both locally and internationally, who are dedicated to research and assisting others.

Unfortunately I learned, too, about problems common to many volunteer societies:
·         declining enrollments due in part to the expansion of databases online and the lack of relevance of local societies to modern-day researchers;
·         management problems in the organizations resulting from people being in controlling positions for too long and not attracting new faces to join or replace them;
·         the usual cliques of people used to associating only within their small groups and unwilling to look at changes or improvements to their larger organizational structure; and
·         the slowdown of activities associated with an aging membership and a burnout from people taking on too many jobs.

Too many of the negative aspects, a resistance to new and progressive initiatives and a basic lack of overall support and acceptance of ideas resulted in me leaving my latest post as a journal Editor.

I have read a lot about the growth and development of activities and work associated with genealogical research. Many people have commented on the subject in numerous blogs and articles – highlighting the fact that two main groups seem to have developed:
·         those that wish to pursue their searches as a hobby but with a serious intent to uncover stories about their ancestors; and
·         those that see such activities in a more professional light, commenting on the need for rigorous rules concerning search methods, references and citations, and writing up results.

The President of a local society, in his recent report, commented on the “science” of genealogy, a term that really surprised me because I am a scientist by training and practice and, while I have been able to put to use many of my analytical skills, learned over decades working as a geologist, genealogy is not comparable with chemistry or physics, and their rigorous elemental relationships and rules.

Doing family history research is more correctly aligned with social studies – reading, compiling and analyzing what some people have written about other people and events in the past. Only one tool – DNA – is related to scientific enquiry and even the use of that information must also fit with data gained from historical records to be of any value. I am sorry but all this family history stuff is interesting and sometimes complicated, but “it ain’t rocket science!”

Other comments that struck me as defining where genealogical activities might be going were those of Billie Stone Fogarty, the President of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG). In a column in the latest issue of Quarterly, she commented about the need for and movement toward implementing requirements for APG membership specifically concerning continuing education. Up until now I thought that taking courses, reading articles and attending conferences was something that people should or might do to learn more about how to get the most out of their own family history research.

As a member of the APG I found their information of use with respect to projects I worked on for others but, again, mainly for the contacts and viewpoints of members in analyzing and evaluating information from historical records. This is not, to me, a professional organization along the lines of our own government-mandated association of engineers and geoscientists that has a role in maintaining the professional standards of those that work in those positions. The APG President’s words seem to reinforce the dichotomy that is growing in genealogy between those that work at it as a career and those that are just curious about their past.

I suspect the majority of people are in the latter group. While we like to know our information is accurate and most of us record our sources so that we can find them again or tell others, we are not necessarily going to publish them in a peer-reviewed journal or charge others fees for research services. More likely we are going to enjoy our efforts and use our knowledge and experience just to help others do their own research.

All of this leads me back to the subject of this piece. Where am I going to go now that I have no current or formal involvement with a family history society?

In my next post I will offer some thoughts and ideas on where I think my future is with respect to genealogy.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Time Travel

Last April, in response to an invitation to a blog party by Elizabeth O’Neal, I wrote about a time travel trip to visit my 5th great-grandfather Nicholas Shepheard in Devon, England. Elizabeth has just announced another Blog Party with the theme of What is the Strangest thing you have found in your genealogy research? I’ll have to think about that one. She has had one each month but I am sorry to say I have not participated since the one about travelling with a Time Lord..

Time travel has always been a popular subject for TV programs and movies, with people travelling both forward – to see what the future might hold (I am a confessed Trekkie) – and backward – in vain attempts to change history. I still remember one of the first moves made, The Time Machine (MGM, 1960), based on H. G. Well’s classic novel.

Maybe we genealogists have a unique fascination with time travel that feeds our insatiable thirst to find stories from the past but that also inspires us “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Family history research has certainly been more that a five-year mission, though.

I wonder what people might answer to the question of, “If you had a choice, would you go backward or forward in time?” I considered this when I read part of an interview by Joseph Brean of the National Post newspaper with author James Gleick (most recent book: Time Travel: A history).

Gleick’s take on what choice people might make he says “is very much a matter of personal preference, and says something about one’s own character, tastes and sensibilities.” He did not expand on that statement in the interview but he does go on to say that, “[w]hat does seem to be disappearing at the moment is a sense that there’s a bright shiny future ahead of us and technology is going to solve all our problems.”

I suspect people who have a romantic bent might was to relive some exciting times of the past while those who are more pessimistic might see the future as dim, based on all the bad news we seem to get these days. The latter might go forward in time in hope that it will be better than they surmise right now.

I get a kick out of finding out information about my ancestors: who they were, where they lived, how they lived and what events might have overtaken them and pushed them to change their way of life and/or move. All of that is buried in records that we can uncover with a little or a lot of work.

So I guess I would like to travel to some point in the future – since I likely won’t be around to actually experience it first-hand. How will my descendants view our lives today? What will they think of how we lived or reacted to events? And especially: What did they do with all the family history stuff I collected?
My great-grandfather's packet watches - two of the family history things I have collected

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy in several family history society journals. He has also served as an editor of two such publications. Wayne provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.